Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Face of Another

Cross posted from Wonders in the Dark, part of their fantastic science fiction countdown.



Science Fiction can come in many forms. There are the big world building SF stories imagining whole worlds different from ours, however rigorously they might work out how they got to be different. Think Metropolis, Star Trek, Brazil, Children of Men. There are smaller world building exercises, where something alien or some invented technology is dropped into the world, and we see how the world reacts: think The Thing from Another World, or Under the Skin, or Midnight Special. But there is another type that isn’t, really, about world building at all. In these stories, something is changed – technology, usually, something that doesn’t exist in fact – and it is used to tell an intimate story, about a small group of people, with no direct implications for the world at large. (Though with indirect implications, maybe.) The Face of Another, a 1966 film by Hiroshi Teshigahara, from a novel by Kobo Abe, is this kind of story. It is science fiction because of one detail – the face itself – a detail used to justify what is mainly a psychological study, with horror overtones.

The story is this: a man (Okuyama) is burned in an accident, his face ruined, forcing him to wear bandages the rest of his life. He broods, alienated from his wife, his co-workers, everyone. He has a doctor, a psychiatrist who dabbles in science (making prosthetics) who says he will make him a face that will look exactly like a real face. He does so, all the time speculating on how this different face will change Okuyama’s psyche. Okuyama puts it on, and starts establishing a second life – but his ultimate intention is to try to seduce his wife with the new face. He tries it and it works all too well – he is horrified at her unfaithfulness. (He has made himself jealous.) When he confronts her, though, she says she knew all along, and thought he knew – thought this was a shared masquerade, to get past the complications of his bandages. She thought he was being considerate of her. (He is not considerate of anyone.) After that, whatever claims he had to sanity are gone – he attacks a woman in the street, and when the doctor bails him out, put him out of his misery – and then? Good question. This story is intercut with another story, a young woman with a terrible scar on her face, probably from Nagasaki, though half of her face is beautiful. She suffers and becomes increasingly anxious about the coming of another war, until she pulls her hair back and walks into the sea.





This is presented more as a psychological thriller, or horror, than as science fiction. It’s themes are mainly from horror – bodily integrity (and its loss); questions of identity itself; the sense of the darkness inside us being given an external form, that turns on us. The Self and The Other is one of the great themes of horror, and the main theme of this film. Its precedents are familiar horror situations – doppelgängers and Faust type stories – doubles, tempters and tempted, the chance to become someone else. The science fiction here essentially replaces the supernatural or psychological motivations of classic horror – Okuyama doesn’t go mad (as in Dostoevsky’s The Double) or make a dealt with the devil (as in Faust) – he gets a prosthetic face. This is, in fact, a rich tradition within science fiction itself, especially early science fiction. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr. Moreau all tell stories that feel closer to gothic horror than to science fiction, and explore themes associated with horror, while using technologies as the justification for their marvels. All involve doubles, secret identities, divided selves, tempting, corrupting figures, bodily monstrosity and so on – as does The Face of Another.



It has all of it in fact – with the Doctor serving both as Okuyama’s doppelgänger and his Mephistopheles. It’s a double function (of course it’s a double function) that recalls the plot of The Student of Prague, where the devil takes the student’s mirror image for his own purposes, and foreshadows works like Bad Influence and Fight Club (though Fight Club resolves the double/tempter back into one character), and especially Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Doppelganger. (A film definitely influenced by this one.) The doctor enables Okuyama to live a double life; he urges him to take advantage of it, though he imagines the freedom as corrupting. He pushes Okuyama to act, and begins to seem to urge him to act out his (the doctor’s) desires. The doctor come off even more sinister than Okuyama – he is a Dr. Jekyll who is not willing to swallow the potion himself; he pushes Okuyama to act out his own darker urges, while keeping himself out of it, trying to eschew responsibility for what he pushes Okuyama to do. Though as doubles it’s hard to say who is corrupting whom – the doctor allows Okuyama to follow his worst instincts while telling himself the doctor put him up to it – as much as the reverse. But that constantly switching perspective is what the film is about.



Teshigahara is a stylist, and the film’s themes are given rigorous formal treatment. It is a film about masks and doubles, about reflections and reversals, about unstable identities, and it is made up of all those things. Doubles: Okuyama and the doctor; Okuyama and the scarred girl. Repetitions: scenes – Okuyama arriving at the apartment, first with his bandages, then with his Face, encountering the super’s daughter, then her father, in just the same way, touring the rooms in just the same way; situations – arriving at his boss’ office, scenes with his wife; shots – Okuyama facing the camera with his wife behind him, then his wife facing the camera with Okuyama behind her. Scenes, shots, situations repeat, reverse, reflect one another. This is most consistent and extreme in the relationship between Okuyama and the doctor, of course. Every device appears: the two as doubles of one another, as parts of one another, overlapping, as mirror images of one another, either specially or in color (one in white, the other black, which happens repeatedly); scenes are repeated – they go to the beer hall twice, where they talk and drink – while reversing their positions (right and left) and their suits (Okuyama wears dark, the doctor light the first time, they reverse it the second time) between visits.



They are the strongest pairing in the film, but not the only one. Okuyama is linked to the scarred girl; all the women – Okuyama’s wife, the doctor’s wife, his nurse, the boss’s secretary – form a series of displacements of one another, visually, structurally. They haunt the film – recognizing Okuyama, not recognizing Okuyama, flitting around the edge of the frame (the doctor’s wife tucked off in the back of the frame as he and the nurse talk and flirt), erupting, now and then, into something fully uncanny. No one is quite who they seem – or quite who they are. (Though some are more aware and accepting of this than others.)



Finally, all this style does one more thing – it makes the film look like science fiction. This is especially so in the doctor’s office, with its glass shelves and windows and reflections, its floating body parts and instruments, its shifting perspectives, its pristine futuristic strangeness.



But it extends the look to the rest of the film as well. Okuyama’s apartment, his office, the airport where they buy his face, the streets of Tokyo, all have a similar alienating modernity. It’s a look common in films of the 1960s – as if filmmakers discovered the modern (and modernist) city, and found it as surprising and foreign as any science fiction city. The idea of the contemporary city as a kind of science fiction setting appears in many ’60s films – sometimes explicitly, as in Alphaville or the shots of Tokyo in Solaris – sometimes implicitly, as in Antonioni’s city scapes, or Playtime, or any of a host of stylish thrillers. They emphasize the alienating modernity of the glass and steel city, making it as sterile and alien as the future everytown in Things to Come. The sense, which is very strong in this film, especially in the doctor’s office, is that actual science fiction would be almost redundant. The world itself is already science fiction – they don’t need complex world building to create an alien world: they just need to show the streets and offices and people as they are. (Maybe with some extra floating ears…)

This was, of course, especially true in Japan, in Tokyo, a city wiped off the map twice in the first half to the 20th century (by the 1922 earthquake and World War II), and rebuilt twice, more modern and ambitious than before. And a population rebuilt as well – remade after the war, a country and culture largely reimagined after the war. That sense of alienation runs through so much of post-war Japanese films and literature, giving it tremendous power. The nation itself had to confront who it was, what its identity was, what was real and what not – and find ways to enact the new selves it was supposed to inhabit. That tension – the sense of human beings as aliens – it embodied (very literally) by Tatsuya Nakadai’s performance as well. In the bandages, he has to act with his body and his eyes; with the mask, he has to perform both the performance of normality and the fact that it is a performance, that his face is a mask. The way he moves – his control of his face – the way he sits, while he is being fitted for the mask, is one of the most alienating physical performances on screen. He’s an alien, as off, in everything he does, as a robot or space man – he is fantastic.



And so, to end, with one more note, about one more bit of doubling. There are two stories in the film – and the second story, of the scarred girl and her brother, looks quite different from the strange modernism of Okuyama’s story. She moves along older looking streets, through older parts of the city. The psychiatric ward where she works is old and shabby, with none of the modernism of the Doctor’s rooms. When she and her brother leave the city, they go to the sea – they walk on the beach, they explore caves, they stay in a conventional looking seaside resort. They are contrasted with the new Japan of the doctor and Okuyama – but they hardly fare any better. She carries the scars of the wars, dreading the next war, losing herself and coming apart as surely as Okuyama does. There is no comfort in the old, any more than the new; no sense that authenticity will save you any more than masquerading will.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Loss

This year has been a rough one for pop culture - more than that: for film culture, music, any kind of culture. This week is no exception, bringing two more deaths - Gene Wilder, for pop culture... And in my own little niche of online film nerds, the almost impossible to process news that Allan Fish, co-founder of Wonders in the Dark, has died.

This feels a lot like when I heard Edward Copeland had died. Another person I only knew through the internet, who holds an outsized place in my world. I mentioned then that Wonders in the Dark reminded me of Copeland's blog in its hey day - it's true: the sense of community, the importance of the conversation, and the devotion to the art forms being discussed were very much alike. Wonders in the Dark goes on, and Allan's influence will remain - but his voice will be missed.

I didn't have a lot of direct interaction with him - occasional random conversations in comment threads - my interactions with the blog have mostly been with Sam Juliano. (Not unusual: Sam is one of the world's great interacters.) I know Allan could be prickly when he was arguing about film, but I didn't have a lot of reason to disagree with him - his tastes seem to have run in the same vein as mine - and he'd seen so much more than me - or almost anyone - that there wasn't much profit to be had in disagreeing with him. There was, however (and still is, as long as the writing is online, or if it is published), great profit to be had in his writing. He shared the breadth of his knowledge, writing about films from everywhere, his essays clear, sharp - he tells you what the film is, what's in it, what it's worth - his reviews feel definitive.

He shaped the nature of the blog with those writings. He and Sam made a somewhat odd pairing - Sam is almost impossibly outgoing and enthusiastic - Allan could definitely be abrasive when he wanted - but they complimented each other. (You can get a good picture of it from Allan's tribute to Sam - Sam's personality, Allan's, and Allan's writing style - his clarity, his directness, his dry understated wit - I know both of them better from reading it.) I sometimes picture their blog as being like a playground, where an ongoing pick up ball game is going on: Sam's there telling everyone, of course you can play! everyone can play! - and Allan's always there as well, saying, But you better have game.... A lot of us have contributed there - and I don't think I'm alone in feeling like whatever you publish there better be up to the standards of the rest. You better have game...

And so... It is Friday, after all, and I have my traditions to uphold. So let's give the video portion of this post to Gene Wilder: with his most famous song....



And a bit of soft shoe from Young Frankenstein....



And a wild card - Soop! of the EEEveneing! from Alice in Wonderland...

Friday, August 26, 2016

Music SciFi Baseball

The dog days of summer roll along - we're getting down to the end. I don't have a lot to say - really feeling the humidity, and getting way too lazy because of it. Out in thew world - plenty of good stuff at Wonders in the Dark's science fiction countdown, still only in the 50s - long way to go, and all of it good. The Olympics are over, soccer is starting up in Europe, baseball is moving along, Red Sox in a dead heat with Toronto and (almost) Baltimore, with none of them looking likely to either run off with it or disappear. That's almost the only race out there this year - other than the Dodgers and Giants and some wild card drama, most of the leads are pretty safe. Still - September should be interesting.

I could write about politics, but other than the endless (and mostly fruitless) efforts to prove that Hillary Clinton is something more sinister than a successful career politician, or the endless proof that Donald Trump is playing a fascist as part of a scheme to sell merch, I don't see much point.

So it's music. Ten random songs, eh?

1. Gentle Giant - Raconteur Troubadour
2. Loren Connors - Moonyean No 7
3. The Germs - Throw it Away
4. The Heptones - Message from a Black Man
5. Sex Pistols - No Feelings
6. Beach Boys - I Just Wasn't Made for these Times
7. Theoretical Girls - Nato
8. Pere Ubu - Busman's Holiday
9. Woody Guthrie - Washington Talkin' Blues
10. Fairport Convention - Crazy Man Michael

Video? How about the Pistols, with a sweet little love song?



Or maybe Brian Wilson and company:



Or Fairport Convention doing Crazy Man Michael, 2010:

Friday, August 19, 2016

Are We Not Men?

Happy Friday. My band of the month post this month is pretty much pre-empted by the two long film posts - but the last one was half a music post anyway, so here's the other half.

The Criterion edition of Island of Lost Souls has a very nice interview with Gerry Casales and Mark Mothersbaugh, talking about the film and their experiences of it, and including a film, featuring Secret Agent Man and Jocko Homo. It's a feature worth getting the DVD for (though only part of what is on there.) It's not on the web - but I summarized it in the Island of Lost Souls post... It's good stuff.

Fortunately the Devo films are online: so here's Secret Agent Man (with some industrial ruin, masks and beast men):



And Jocko Homo - every man woman and mutant on this planet will know the truth about de-evolution!



And maybe a bit more. Here'sBruce Conner's film for Mongoloid:



And a live bonus version of Mongoloid:



As for Pere Ubu: here's a live cut of Heart of Darkness, with stories. Ascribing the lyrics all to Raymond Chandler - wherever they came from, the lyrics are dense with literary and film allusion, which really was how Thomas worked in the 70s. This sounds very great, though you can't get the lyrics exactly...



So here's audio only, the single version:



Folk music of the urban pioneer movement: two parts of an interview with Thomas, talking about the band - and Cleveland, in terms that get to the congruence with Island of Lost Souls - the decay and downfall of the rust belt: at what point did those Aztec and Mayan cities become ruins? "Witnessing the death of a city, moving to ruins" - "this is the unloved thing"...

Part 1:



Part 2: and Utopia - rock music as utopia lost - "too stubborn to change our ideas and too stupid to quit":

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Island of Lost Souls

Cross posted at Wonders in the Dark.



The Island of Lost Souls is another of those films that might be more horror and adventure yarn than science fiction, though it is certainly science fiction. The basic plot is SF - a mad scientist in his lair, short-cutting evolution with surgery and cellular manipulation, creating monsters to roam the world - though none of this is given a lot of weight. Dr. Moreau's fictional science is treated as the given of the story, and they move on from there. But the film is also science fiction at a more significant level. The horror themes (monsters, body horror, the slippages of identity and so on) run alongside themes more associated with science fiction: man vs. nature; science's attempts to control nature, with mixed results; the question of progress, whether progress is necessarily an improvement, whether it is reversible, and so on. These themes run all through the film, they are embedded in its style as much as its story; the story, the film, present a microcosm of dystopia, and a dystopia very much made by human attempts at science. Its science fiction is wrapped around its horror tropes and vice versa - working very well at both.

Criterion's edition of the film contains an interview with Gerry Casales and Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, taking about the film's influence on their ideas and music, its relevance to 1970s Akron, and so on. What did they see in it? They talk about Ghoulardi (who showed it on late night television); they talk about Kent State (where they were students at the time of the shootings); they talk about de-evolution, about the film and its look (its masks, shadows, monsters) and its themes, and what it meant to them. They mention a strange fact - how this film set on a lost jungle island in the south seas looks like what's outside their doors - 5 o'clock at the Goodyear plant, says Mothersbaugh. It's true - the film has a strong dose of German expressionism in its veins, and the beast men emerging from one of Moreau's stone doors and passing a wall where their shadows loom as they shuffle out of the shot, bent knees and backs, look like factory workers shuffling out after their shifts. The same image turns up in another 70s era rust belt song, Pere Ubu's "Heart of Darkness": "Image object illusion, go down to the corner, where none of the faces fit a human form, nothing I see there isn't deformed, maybe in a secret lab works Dr. Moreau" - it's less the images of deformity that catch you, than the beginning - go down to the corner - this is what it looks like, now, today, Cleveland in the 70s.



It's that congruence between the film and Akron and Cleveland in the 70s - the rust belt, as it started to come completely apart (those Ohio cities getting a head start on what would later wreck Detroit and places like that - Cleveland was a byword for post-industrial doom in the 70s, with its burning rivers and whatnot) - that really marks the science fiction elements and importance of Island of Lost Souls. Look at what those bands took from it: the notion of de-evolution, the decay and despair of their cities in the 70s, the dehumanization of factory work, especially as it started to go wrong. The film is about Dr. Moreau's efforts to mimic millions of years of evolution on the operating table, efforts that however successful, always come apart, as the "stubborn beast flesh" keeps coming back. But it's also about that atavism as a universal problem - and Devo and Pere Ubu (particularly, and rather specifically) saw how that story applies to more than Moreau's monsters, it applies to all of us, to civilization itself. This might be even more explicit in the book, which extends the ending quite some time - Moreau dies and the beast men (and the castaway, Prendick, ( as he's called in the book)) carry on, the beasts reverting to form, Prendick going a bit native himself. Both the book and film are about decay and degeneration - de-evolution; they are about the dark places in the world, and they make it clear enough that the dark places are everywhere, not just remote jungles. (David Thomas picking up on the connections between Wells' book and Conrad's Heart of Darkness, name dropping Moreau in a song named for Conrad's novel.) Both bands take this as a departure point, and make the links explicit - the story of Island of Lost Souls is taking place here and now, they say. We are all beast men.



The same themes are strong enough in the film. Obviously, Moreau's monsters revert to form when he doesn't subject them to constant torture, but it isn't just them that devolve. The same things happen in the outside world. Captain Davies, who rescues, then abandons Parker (the castaway's name in the film), is hardly better than an animal himself - he is certainly less civilized than M'Ling. He's a drunk and a bully, attacking weaker people, getting petty vengeance on Parker, then lying to Ruth, while trying to make a pass at her. But when he's called before the consul, he bows and scrapes and squirms like the beast men in their village cowering before Moreau. He cringes before the Law as much as they do - and is even quicker to abandon its discipline when he can't see the whip.

And within the story, on the island, the theme of nature swallowing man's attempts to control it is ubiquitous. The jungle swallows Moreau's compound - a big stone building being overgrown by monstrous plants. Everything is decaying - or, put another way, nature is thriving, and destroying human civilization. Though then again - it's not just nature: it's nature, warped by human intervention - it's Moreau's monstrous orchids and asparagus overgrowing his house. That's an important point - the film doesn't exactly show a battle between man and nature, nature overcoming man: it shows man (particularly man trying to master nature) and nature as completely tangled up with one another. The jungle (natural and unnatural) invades Moreau's compound and the beast men come and go, in spite of Moreau's security; and Moreau imposes his will on the beast men. He made them in the House of Pain - he forces the law on them, making them (in a sense) more ethical than actual men. (How many men refuse to eat meat? or shed blood?) He carries the law to the jungle, even as the jungle invades the house. And really - the house itself is a space that proves almost complete open to everything. Dr. Moreau does not have a secret lab in this film - the House of Pain is right there, down the hall from where Parker is supposed to stay, nothing stops him from running into it unbidden. Of course there is nothing hiding it - the screams from the House of Pain are audible everywhere on the island. And so it goes: the interior of the house is easily visible from outside; Ouran has no problem getting into the house; the beasts are able to chase Moreau into the house at the end - partly because the others left the doors open, so he could return if he needed to. But their attempts to give him an escape route gives the beasts an entry point. There are no real barriers here to anything.



The early thirties were a golden age for horror films - many of them drawn from literature, especially from the late Victorian period: Dracula, Wells' books (this and the Invisible Man, notably), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It's an interesting fact that those books, and the others being adapted about the same time, like Frankenstein, were themselves hybrids of horror and science fiction. Those genres weren't quite defined as genres when the books were written (more like, they were the books that defined the genres) - but it's a striking combination. Science fiction was grounds for horror in the late Victorian period: they went together easily. Even the one book that isn't really science fiction at all, Dracula, is packed with science and technology. It has wireless and blood transfusions and telegrams and modern travel - but it also treats its supernatural material in an almost scientific way. Its heroes are doctors, who treat the strange events they see scientifically, taking careful notes, monitoring the health of their patients and so on. The chief hero, Van Helsing, is more scientist than mystic himself, for all his willingness to believe in the supernatural. He treats Dracula like he would a natural phenomenon - study him, find his strengths and weaknesses - assume, always, that there are discoverable rules behind what he can do - and in the end, defeat him with, well, science.

In its adaptations, Universal tended to lean closer to the horror side of things. There is a pretty strong thematic unity to their films, at least the high end ones - the James Whale films, films like The Mummy. Those films are very much about the connections between the monsters and us. They are full of sympathetic monsters - monsters as victims - a not very strongly disguised sense that we are getting the whole story backwards. (That's where Frankenstein takes us - book and films; the creature is far more admirable than the creator, or most of the humans around them.) They are made in a way that rewards a kind of double perspective: the immediate thrill of the plot, the shocks, the horrors of the monster as something hideous and dangerous to be defeated - and the hidden (not always all that well hidden) sense of the monster as victim, monster as a projection of the heroes, or of us, or of some different kind of marginalized group. (Gay or foreign or artistic or disabled, or whatever it is.) This is extremely common in the Universal horror pictures.

Paramount's entries aren't quite the same. I suppose on the surface, they're close enough - they're really looking for all the sex and violence they can pack in, all the sensationalism and horror they can find. Which is there in spades. Beyond that, they are less consistent. (Thinking, here, mainly about the two great adaptations, this and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.) Jekyll and Hyde, of course, makes the divided allegiances of the Universal films explicit: the hero and villain are the same man. Duality is depicted directly - two sides of one character, rather than two ways of reading the characters. Island of Lost Souls is even more straightforward - Moreau is pure evil. Fascinating, strange, almost seductive evil, but still, unambiguous. And the monsters are monsters - though not quite so unambiguously evil. It's clear who is to blame - they were all made, and made to be the way they were. This is clear enough in the film: Parker calls the panther girl "tragic" - Lugosi's speeches are to the point. He is right: they are not men - not beasts - things! In this, it is a bit like Freaks - though the freaks are always the good guys (even when they get their vengeance). Here? well - Lota does nothing wrong, and is consistently wronged; M'Ling is loyal and decent; the Pig Man is always benign. And Lota and M'Ling go beyond this, beyond anything the humans do, both giving their lives for others.



What it comes to is that where Universal's best horror films put most of the ambiguity and thematic weight on the characters, Island of Lost Souls puts most of the weight into the story, and the situation. And that, I suppose might be the aspect of the film that most clearly distinguishes it as science fiction. It creates a world, self-contained and detailed, that starts with our world, and changes it. What if this was different? my god - what if you could do this? It creates a world where these wonders are true - gives them at least a hand-waving natural explanation - and then works through the consequences. The world it creates is one that mirrors our own - bringing in real issues from the world (vivisection, say), genetic and surgical experimentation (Dr. Mengele graduated med school about the time this came out - fiction coming to reality in the not too distant future); it creates a microcosm of real world society - class conflict, colonialism, the relationships between labor and the rest of society, a parody of the Law, of religion, and so on; and it sets it in motion and plays it out. It's a world, of course, that goes to ruin - it is hard to imagine science fiction in 1932 being anything except dystopian. If you were trying to show the tendency of the world at large in a film - it wasn't likely to get better.... And they did it all so well - too well, apparently, as the film bombed in 1932, outraged censors everywhere, and was banned or butchered for decades to come. But still out there, on late night TV in Ohio, influencing a new generation of dystopian utopians... (Sons of Ghoulardi? a joke I can't avoid - because the actual son of Ernie Anderson, Paul Thomas A, might well count as another son. Speaking of influence: how many of PT Anderson's characters could be read as beast men, of a sort? But especially, Freddy Quell in The Master - who's barely better than an animal when Lancaster Dodd gets him - is civilized - but then leaves, and starts to return to his original form.... why not?)

And so. I haven't said a lot about the film here, beyond alluding to its virtues. It has Charles Laughton almost supernaturally good; a fine supporting cast; it features gorgeous German style photography; the sets are fantastic - great looking, and thematically rich (shadows and dark doorways and windows, bars on the windows, giant tree limbs reaching into the house, vines twisting into the house, blending inside and outside); the direction, by the mostly anonymous Erle C. Kenton is worthy of it all - many cleverly composed and directed scenes, and the fine acting, and tight editing. A very great film, indeed.


Saturday, August 13, 2016

Things to Come

Cross posted from Wonders in the Dark.



Things to Come, released in 1936, a collaboration between H. G. Wells, Alexander Korda, William Cameron Menzies, and a host of illustrious others, is a bit of an odd duck. Gorgeous looking, with stunning imagery (pre-apocalyptic, apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and utopian), even more stunning montage sequences, fantastic music, and - well, a star-studded cast, doing what they can - and preachy, static, abstract, with characters designed to Make Points, all of it Deadly in Earnest and political - all at once. It's a case of too many cooks - creating a wild pot luck of - metaphors...

Try again:



The best way to look at it is to realize that it is an advertisement. Propaganda. An advertisement - for Wells' book (The Shape of Things to Come), though probably more for Wells' ideas, his political schemes. The concept of the book is that it is a transcription of a history book from 2105 or 6 that an otherwise very clever man attached to the League of Nations has dreamed of reading over the past few years, writing down as much as he remembers in the morning. He told HG Wells about it, then died, in 1930 - Wells got the notes together and made them into a book, and when the events of 1930-33, described in the dream book, all proved true, Wells decided to publish it (in 1933 or so). The film, then, is an adaptation of this book - given some cinematic touches (it is a book of history, dry, rather impersonal history at that), like characters and drama - but not a lot. The characters are types, put in typical situations, where they make speeches to one another....

But as an advertisement, for the book, and the ideas, the style is perfectly natural. Like ads and propaganda, it may have characters and stories, but they are distinctly abstract - types, there to state the ideas they are advertising, directly and explicitly. "15 minutes can save you 15% on car insurance;" "we don't approve of independent sovereign states." These people and stories, most of the time, are completely swallowed in the technical displays around them. The technical displays of Things to Come certainly swallow its characters. It is monumental and grand, and dominated by its montage sequences - spectacular montage sequences, brilliantly stitched together series' of beautifully staged and shot images, tightly edited to the music. They are dazzling: the opening Christmas/War montage - the sequence of the start of the war - the bombing of Everytown - a couple sequences showing the long progress of the war - and an orgy of machine porn (I mean, what else are you going to call it?) showing the building of the new, underground, utopian Everytown.



It's a style that shows up on TV every 10 minutes or so; you can watch a dozen 30 second examples while you wait for Michael Phelps to win another medal. In 1936 it was a bit more novel, but not unknown. It's approach - monumental imagery, dazzling montage, human beings as types, and treated as elements in the design, and, indeed, an overpowering sense of design to the whole endeavor - appears in many propaganda films of the day. Triumph of the Will has it; Eisenstein's films have it, especially in the 20s - as do many other films, experimental films, city symphony films, as well as straight up propaganda. Most of the techniques turn up in mainstream films as well (plenty of montage sequences anywhere you want to look in the 30s, some of them as abstract as anything here) - what sets it apart, and links it to propaganda then and advertisement since is both the reduction of humanity to Points to be Made, and that pervasive sense of design.

Because for all the clash of styles and egos going into the making of the film, it is a carefully, and completely, designed film. Look at it: the stunning sets, the careful arrangements of objects (including human beings) in front of the camera, the superb editing - but also look at the overall structure. The film is careful in its symmetries - repeating situations, images, etc, from one section to another. As an example - the symmetry between the bombing/gas attack on Everytown that marks the beginning of the end of the old world, and the "gas of peace" attack that issues in the era of the air dictatorship, the beginning of the new world. Repeated situations and reminiscent shots:




The parallelism is certainly helped by the fact that the same actors keep showing up in new roles, that embody the same types (Raymond Massey the hero, Edward Chapman as his cautious friend) - they get to repeat their conversations in new clothes and on different sets, with a different young friend as interlocutor:



Advertisement, then. And what is it advertising? The political idea of H. G. Wells, basically, in the form of a prediction of future history. Wells took them seriously, he had high hopes for the film as a way of spreading his ideas - it's worth giving them some attention, I think. What is Wells saying? He tells the story of the next 100-200 years to describe what he thinks will happen, and what he thinks should happen - this is prescription as much as prediction. He has some strong theories about how the world should work, spelled out in detail in the book, indicated int he film. What are they?

1. The World needs a single world government to allow humanity to develop into what they should be.
2. The history of the world is the history of smaller units of people forming larger units - individuals, to families, to tribes, to communities - to both larger political units, and other units, such as ethnic and linguistic groups, religions and so on.
3. At every step of this evolution, existing units resist the development of larger units - hanging on to their own privileges and powers.
4. To get to #1, you need an elite of scientists, technicians, intellectuals who share the values and goals of the World State, and who work not just to implement it but to educate the population in its precepts - humanity is what it teaches itself to be.

Those assumptions drive the story he tells. He believes that existing systems - the nation-state and capitalism, mainly, as well as religious and ethnic forces - have reached the limits of their ability to cope with the world and are starting to break down. (He wrote this in 1933 - this thesis is well supported.) He thinks - and this is going to cut right to the core of what he gets wrong in these predictions - that the existing Sovereign States will resist any attempt to replace them with a World State, and Capitalism will resist any attempt to change economic forms. Therefore, they need to be destroyed - though he is not a revolutionary, thinking they will be overthrown. He thinks they will destroy themselves. (Not a stretch, in 1933.) Once they collapse, the World State can rise to take their place. There will be a time of sorrow first - but science and technology will survive, and will recover, and implement a world based on - well, Wells' ideas. He doesn't think this will be easy - he shares with the Communists the belief that there must be a period of dictatorship, not of proletariat, but of intellectuals and technicians - the air dictatorship, Wings over the World in this story. This dictatorship will wither away - he's clearer than the Communists on the means: a complete education reform will turn everyone into a little superman. They will need no exceptional leaders because everyone will be exceptional. Utopia!

That's what he expects (and wants): how does he think it might happen? War will come - in the book he says it will come in Europe in 1939, between Germany and Poland over the Danzig corridor. A pretty safe bet in 1933, probably, but still, he got that right. It's interesting that the film changes this: the book is rather precise about who will invade who, who might gas who, which cities would be sterilized, what areas made uninhabitable, and so on. The film abandons this precision for a very English Everytown, that suffers all the misfortunes of the coming troubles. The war is just as vague: no cause is given for it, and there isn't a lot of detail about what happens afterwards - just those montage sequences. The book does not stint on such details. The war, in both film and book, quickly becomes dominated by air power and chemical weapons - the book offers plenty of detail about the type of gas used, its effects, who did what to whom, and so on. This war lasts decades - and is accompanied by economic collapse (the "Hoover Slump", they call it in the book, lasting 30 years.) Then comes disease - the "wandering sickness" - which is more obviously brought on by all the chemicals in the air in the book. All this - the collapse of the economy, plus the war, plus the disease that obliterates half the planet, leaves the world in a state of barbarism and ruin - nations shattered, reduced to half comic local warlords like The Chief, ripe for picking by heroic flyboys.



None of this happened, of course. The only thing he got right about the war was when it would start and where. And the aftermath, in a sense: Germany and Japan after WWII looked quite a bit like his post-apocalyptic world, for a while at least. But when they were rescued, it wasn't by Raymond Massey is a funny hat - it was by George Marshall and the good old US of A.

So what did he miss? One big thing is that he took his moment in history as the next-to-last moment in history, a mistake a lot of prognosticators make. He describes the evolution of larger and larger units of people, up to the modern state, and to ideas about transnational organizations like the League of Nation - but assumes those organizations and agreements will be completely opposed by existing States. But compare it to what happened. Start with World War II - he makes two big mistakes in predicting how it will go, militarily. One is that he discounts the importance of tanks in the war to come - that is, like many others, thinking the next war will be a repeat of the last. (He's clear about that; the film adopts it completely, showing its battle scenes as very much like WWI, even with tanks.)



But the other mistake is that he thinks the war will be fought primarily with chemical weapons. He was wrong, and wrong because the combatants followed a treaty, the Geneva Protocol against chemical warfare (and most of the world has to this day). It's almost shocking that they did - the participants in WWII didn't show a lot of restraint in their willingness and ability to kill people. It's hard to fault Wells for not seeing that coming. (It's also worth noting that the real WWII ended up killing more people in 6 years than Wells imagines it would kill directly in a decade. He didn't quite seem to realize the devastating power of high explosives and incendiaries; nor did he imagine anything like the Holocaust.) And in the aftermath of the war, we see again that States were able to adapt more effectively than Wells imagines. His imaginary war leads to decades of primitivism, poverty, disappearance of technology and culture; the real war led to a decade or so of acute suffering in the losing countries - then a miraculous recovery, in those countries, and technological innovation everywhere. Though these miracles weren't exactly miracles - they were driven by the American money, which was driven both by competition with the Soviet Union, and new forms of cooperation among other States. Wells didn't imagine intermediate forms between existing nations and the World State - but what developed in the Cold War was not far from two competing versions of World States.

What this adds up to is that Wells imagines a much more manichean future than the one we have had. He makes the same mistakes in economics - he doesn't think capitalist countries will go off the gold standard and spend money ti put people to work - but they did; not enough to end the Depression, but enough to mitigate it. He imagines it will be all or nothing - the world must unite, or it will be destroyed. Instead - nothing happened universally. States found ways to cooperate in some areas, not in others. They wouldn't avoid warfare, but they were able to avoid using chemical weapons (mostly) - and after Nagasaki, have managed to avoid using nukes as well. States have split into smaller units (all the countries invented out of nothing after WWI have reverted to smaller units), while creating new and different international units. Businesses operate globally, they compete with States; religion fades, or becomes more radical, or less radical, depending on where and who you are. It is a hodge podge. And really, that hodge podge is more predictable than the all or nothing systems Wells wrote about. He should have known better. He liked to think he was a historian - but the first principal of history is that everything is contingent; everything depends on everything else. His passion for science is also real - but it's clear his great love was for biology. His imagery and his systems are all organic ones, based on evolution - and he should know: evolution is messy. It does not move in a straight line, or along clearly marked choices. It's a tangle. And human beings are an incredibly successful species because they are incredibly adaptable.



Finally (I hope - this essay is turning interminable!), let's take a couple paragraphs to think about the technology of 2036. It's interesting that in this world, we have been to the moon, and in his, they are just preparing to get there. Maybe this is what you get for not having the Cold War, which certainly chased us to the moon. Or maybe it's because Wells' air dictatorship decided to rebuild earth before doing anything else. But in this world, the two didn't compete. The US made its biggest push to space in the 1960s - roughly the same time as it made its biggest push to solve its social problems. Both of which, space and social progress, were pretty well ended by the Vietnam war: you know - maybe Wells had a point about war....

Anyway - we don't have anything quite like that house building things up there - but we do have Apple watches - smaller and better than Raymond Massey's...



Which leads me to one last point about technology and culture. Wells makes some odd predictions in his book: he writes about the horrors of the wars, and the collapse after the war, and he says that they left very little record. Few photographs, few memoirs (compared specifically to the masses of prose generated by the first World War.) He writes about the disappearance of cinema, the near disappearance of radio - in general, he imagines humanity going silent over those years. Now - one of the big things he didn't think of was the explosion of information technology in the latter half of the 20th century and beyond. (Noted by David Kalat on the commentary track of Criterion's DVD.) The filmmakers imagine some of it - that watch; some fine flat screen TVs, including one covering an entire city square; live television broadcasts to the public square. But back to what people write about - even without computers and blogs, people documented WWII quite extensively, even the most horrible parts of it. Wells imagines that the world will be too horrible for anyone to bear to write about, and that basic communication technology will disappear; but nothing he imagined is as horrible as the Holocaust, and think of how documented that is. Think of the lengths people went to to document their experiences in other places, wars, gulags, genocides. It is odd to think of a writer underestimating the human need to record ourselves - but that obsession to remember, and to recall what has been hidden, is very fundamental to what we are.

And Wells clearly understood that. He just tended to segregate the intellectuals from the rest a bit too much. Though I suppose he knew better: think how proud Roxana is that she can read. Wells almost gets a real story on screen in this part of the film - or maybe, Ralph Richardson and Margaretta Scott get some story on screen, some human beings. Especially Scott, though, who gets a bit better material than Richardson to work with, and makes Roxana into the conscience of the film. She's what's at stake in the film - the one who could have chosen between the Chief's violence and the scientists and mechanics' hopes. If the Wings over the World guys hadn't just gassed everyone...



In the book, there is almost none of this - but there is the artist, Theotocopulos, who is a much more appealing character in the book. He gets his own chapter, drawn from his diary (this is from the mid-20th century, the hey day of the air dictatorship), devoted mostly to complaints about the dictator's monumentalist tastes in art and architecture, but also to some thoughts on art and love and humanity. He is presented as a critic of the regime, but one who makes sense - the film version is almost incoherent. Railing against progress - meaning what? (Passworthy comes up with much better arguments against the space gun than Theotocopulos does.) And then he leads an angry mob against the scientists' windmill - basically undermining the whole point of Wells' political hopes. These World State geniuses are supposed to educate the masses to the point where they are all truly free individuals - no more demagogues and angry mobs, no more revolutions or needs for revolutions. Instead - the film reverts to what was getting to be a hoary cliche even then: get out the pitchforks! It's a disappointment, and looks even worse if you've read the book, and seen how the air dictatorship is overthrown there. (Basically given a gold watch and sent off to write their memoirs.)

Of course the film really just drops the mob at the end, and gives us more of Massey's speeches. But in fairness, he does cut a fine figure, silhuoetted against the stars.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Musical Placeholder

I am distracted. I am working on a couple essays for the fantastic Science Fiction Countdown at wonders in the Dark; I'm poking at Dennis Cozzalio's latest Back to School Quiz. There is actual content coming here!

Meanwhile, though - let's just se what iTunes thinks today:

1. Pere Ubu - Over the Moon [it would think something like this, wouldn't it? take a look at this Believer interview with David Thomas, largely about films, etc.]
2. PJ Harvey - Man Sized
3. Ugly Casanova - Smoke Like Ribbons
4. Public Image Ltd - It Said That
5. Nina Simone - Don't Smoke in Bed
6. Dungen - Sjutton
7. Sun Ra - Space is the Place [science fiction is on the mind, I guess]
8. Zulus - Big D
9. Sleater Kinney - Step Aside
10. Ringo Starr - Oh My My

And some video: might as well start with Ringo:



PJ Harvey is always welcome:



And a Sun Ra memorial, from Berkelee and the Arkestra:

Friday, August 05, 2016

Dog Days and Some Music

Good heavens it is another Friday. Another wasted week, work, long days, too lazy to do anything at night - I am getting old.

In the world? The Olympics have started - soccer tournaments at least, but that's almost all I care about there. Almost time for the big Euro leagues to get started - next week for the EPL. Man. Meanwhile, the The Red Sox are wobbling along, running hot and cold, and staying with the pack - we'll see how that goes. No Chris Sale, alas - having two superstar pitchers to complain about would be a treat.

And politics: Donald Trump seems (again) to be self-destructing - attacking veterans and their parents, always a losing proposition. I doubt it will hurt him with his base, though he does seem to be reducing the base of voters to its natural 27%. Will Gary Johnson catch him before November? it is a good question. And though I would not vote for Gary Johnson, it would not hurt the country any to have his type become the mainstream Republican party.

enough of that: music.

1. Ramones - Bad Brain
2. The Byrds - You're Still on my Mind
3. Flipper - Way of the World
4. The Fall - Hey! Luciani
5. Interpol Success
6. The Cure - Pictures of You
7. The Pop Group - s.o.p.h.i.a.
8. Radiohead - Knives Out
9. Sleater-Kinney - Far Away
10. Last Exit - Dark Heart

Video this morning? some audio only live Ramones, maybe:



That's the way - of the world!



How about a Last Exit video? ending one piece, starting another...



Maybe two, since neither is the song that came up on iTunes, and no one should be able to get enough Sonny Sharrock:

Friday, July 29, 2016

Friday Music Post Return!

Off on my journeys last week, through the hills and woods of northern New England. Fun times, but no blogging, not even a Friday random ten.



I had a moment of sheer terror yesterday though. I could not find my iPod: I didn't think too much of it - I did a lot of packing and unpacking in the last week or so, so it could be anywhere - but then I remembered: I had it on the train - I put it in the slip on the back of the seat in front of me - what if I didn't take it out?

The thought was shocking enough I had to sit down. I tried to remember - I thought I remembered unpacking it when I got home, but I moved so much stuff around, I couldn't trust any memories like that. It was terrifying - it's a 160gb iPod - those things don't exist. There's a lot of music on there - losing it would be truly traumatic. So I scoured the place again when I got home - looking in every bag, ever drawer, under ay clothes or papers or anything that could be hiding it - I didn't find it. I started to despair.

And then found it - on the floor, behind the cat's scratching post. A moment of desperate relief, that one.

Music:

1. Public Image Limited - The Room I am In
2. The Beatles - Piggies
3. Gomez - These Three Sins
4. Pere Ubu - Cry, Cry, Cry
5. The Kills - Getting Down
6. Mogwai - Hexon Bogon
7. Will Butler - Witness
8. Richard Thompson - Stumble On
9. Cheap Trick - Surrender
10. Liars - The Overachievers

Video - here's Gomez:



And the Kills:



And finally, any reason to post some Cheap Trick is a good one:



Friday, July 15, 2016

Thinking about What a Friend Had Said

(I put this post off last week because of the shootings in Dallas; yesterday, someone drove a truck into a crowd in Nice, on Bastille day. How long, how long... Well, Neil Young started out in the middle of chaos, and has always addressed it directly, so he's going up. What can you do?)



For this month's band of the month, let us go north of the border, and Neil Young. I've mentioned this a couple other times, but when I started writing this, I was amazed to see how few of his records I actually have on the computer. It's one of the artifacts of FM radio in the late 70s and 80s: these classic rock bands who got played to death - 4 or 5 songs from their best 4, 5, 6 records - to the point that you forget what you have and don't have. I had to go on to iTunes to get Southern Man on the computer just now - I've never noticed I didn't have it...

That's all right. The broader point is that old Neil has been at it a very long time, all of it solid, great swatches of it magnificent - I have not kept up for most of that career, dipping in and out of the new releases, and picking off the old classics when I can. Like Dylan, like Bowie, like Prince even, I haven't done justice to his career. A bunch of records, some of which I have listened to obsessively at times (a friend in college had Live Rust, and we went through that a few times, beginning to end, as I have since) - a bunch of songs on the radio - but a vast catalogue I have barely touched. So - well, we're into that stage of this series, I am afraid...

It is all right. He does have an impressive body of work. It's interesting, of course - being split into a couple fairly distinct streams: the hard rockers - the country rock - with a handful of songs that slide around the edges, like After the Gold Rush - folk, I suppose, but, really - hymns, right? that is basically a hymn... though even the rockers sometimes are basically hymns - the Unplugged version of Like a Hurricane comes to mind - sounding as natural on a pump organ as Rock of Ages does. They are all fairly simple, straightforward songs - always lyrically compelling, of course - and always played and sung with conviction. He bites into his songs, singing or paying - milking everything he can get from his voice and guitar. He isn't exactly a great singer - but he knows exactly how to use his voice to serve the songs. And as a guitarist, he can get as much from as little as anyone. That droned guitar solo on Cinnamon Girl, the album version especially, is as simple and as powerful as it gets. And I can listen to his epics all day - Like a Hurricane, Cowgirl in the Sand - he's always rewarding.

And finally - I have to say, he writes songs that inspire people. He's been endlessly influential, and inspired some really outstanding covers, from all across the rock spectrum. He's one of the greats.

All right - songs: Top 10:

1. After the Gold Rush
2. Like a Hurricane
3. Cinnamon Girl
4. The Needle of the Damage Done
5. Cowgirl in the Sand
6. Sedan Delivery
7. Ohio
8. Hey Hey My My
9. Heart of Gold
10. Southern Man

Video? Start before the beginning - Buffalo Springfield, miming back in the 60s:



Audio only of Cinnamon Girl, live, 1970, featuring the magnificent Danny Whitten behind Young:



The Needle and the Damage Done, on the Johnny Cash show:



Like a Hurricane, Live Rust:



And Southern Man, with CSN, in 2000:



And 3 songs from last year - After the Gold Rush, Hey Hey My My, and Helpless:



Perhaps a cover or two - starting with the pride of New Jersey, juicing up Sedan Delivery:



And Built to Spill, a band that seems built on the ghosts of Neil Young guitar anthems, doing Cowgirl in the Sand:

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Plan 9 From Outer Space



Cross posted to Wonders in the Dark, as part of their Science Fiction Countdown.

Plan 9 From Outer Space is the poster child for a lot of things. Worst film of all time? So bad it's good? Or more positively, as a piece of 0 budget filmmaking, and all that can go into that. But today, I want to write a bit about it as the poster child for the Limits of Intention.

Sorry that sounds so pretentious. But this is the point: that it is a hugely entertaining film, and while a lot of the entertainment value comes from mocking it, it's not just ineptitude that makes it fun - there are some surprisingly clever ideas in there, though you can't always be sure if they are supposed to be there. The film, even in a so-bad-its-good sense, holds its entertainment value. It is strange - see it a few times, and it might occur to you (it certainly occurs to me) that if you took the film as being deliberately made the way it is, as a parody, or as camp, or even as a low budget, slyly raw art film, it wouldn't look much different than it does. Think about parodies, camp, art films - films like The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra or Sleeper, or Killer Klowns from Outer Space - or films by John Waters, Luc Moullet, Guy Maddin: what makes those good films in themselves, and Plan 9 not? Knowing what the filmmakers had in mind, basically. How different would Plan 9 look if it were intended as a deliberate parody? If you ignore the fact that Ed Wood was a real guy with a real career who made films as he did without that kind of explicit parodic intention - if you just accepted that he knew exactly what he was doing - would it be better? even that much different?



I don't think it would be all that different - and if you didn't know anything about Ed Wood, I'm not sure it would be too hard to make a case he meant it like that. It works perfectly well if you say he was Guy Maddin before the fact, instead of saying, he was trying to be Val Lewton (or some other low budget filmmaker, making the best of his material), and just wasn't good enough. I've seen this film in theaters, with people trying to make fun of it live - but what can you say to make it funnier? I used to be a fairly faithful MST3K fan - but I can't imagine they could make this more entertaining than it is. I have seen parodies of Z grade films - how many parodies come up with anything funnier than what is here? The continuity issues, the sets, the acting, the clunky dialogue, Criswell's speeches, Tor Johnson getting stuck coming out of his grave - can you improve on that? It's one of the reasons Ed Wood (the movie) works so well - Burton generally gives you Ed Wood's films themselves, pretty straight. There's some backstage comedy, but he doesn't have to change much of what's on screen. You can see the sets wobbling in the films - seeing them backstage is really just repeating the jokes.

Though of course, in the film itself, they aren't jokes, they're mistakes. But who cares? they are still funny. And sometimes - maybe more than mistakes. Maybe. Wood does try to write jokes - most of them don't come off, whether because they are badly written or the actors can't put them over - but some of them work. And sometimes - especially around the edges of the story - they work better than that. How much of the oddball details, or even the goofy action (cops scratching their heads with their guns, say) are intended as jokes? There's a lot of it - the body falling off its stretcher during the saucer flyby; the drunks reading about saucers over Hollywood; the weird little asides "let's ball it up in Albuquerque." It is full of strange little details that don't come off as just incompetent - they come off as absurd. Meanwhile, the dialogue sometimes slips into explicit metafiction, commenting directly on the action. It's sometimes innocuous, like people at a funeral asking why the wife is buried in the ground and the husband in a crypt - but at other times, it's more thematically relevant. Like all the talk about violence.



That's what makes the question of what is intentional and what isn't, and whether it matters, complicated - the fact that under all the nonsense, there is a pretty serious theme going on. The film certainly builds up to some directly anti-nuke speechifying by the aliens - but its woven into the story all along. "Are big guns the usual way of welcoming visitors?" the captain asks Colonel Edwards, during the big saucer attack early in the film. It keeps coming back: Colonel Edwards saying he has to believe "in what I saw and shot at." Jeff's reaction - "if I see any little green men, I'll shoot first and ask questions later." The aliens give it back, though: "how can any race be so stupid?" Eros asks on the tape; "all you of earth are idiots" - "your stupid minds! stupid! stupid! stupid!"

So Jeff slugs him.

The truth is, as science fiction - well, the plot is nonsense of the highest order, resurrecting the dead to march to the capitals of earth and do something - but it's nonsense with a surprising edge. It takes a big chunk of the plot from films like The Day the Earth Stood Still, with their benevolent (but arrogant and rather impractical) aliens coming to save or damn humanity - but gives it more of an edge. It's more cynical - humans are more instinctively self-destructively violent; the aliens are even preachier and ruder, and not exactly slow to reach for the decomposition rays themselves. All that stupidity and violence (and let's not forget misogyny - earthlings and spacemen alike are quick to put uppity women in their place, even if the women seem rather smarter than the rest of them in fact) is played out, and remarked on. People act like idiots, and someone else is sure to say so. And under it all - Eros is right - humans keep building bigger and better bombs, to the point they can wipe out themselves, and maybe more - and can't seem to do a thing to stop it, and won't listen to anyone telling them otherwise...



There is all that. But there is also this, which is also something that Burton's Ed Wood puts across: the sheer pleasure of filmmaking that comes across from Wood's films. That is true for all of his 50s output - the sense that at some level, he does not care if they are good films or not, because the product is not as important as the act of making the films. That is one of the clearest things they have in common with the camp and art films they half remind me of - the sense of the pleasure of making films that comes through in John Waters' or Luc Moullet's or Guy Maddin's films, or even lesser practitioners like Jared Hess. (A subject I keep coming back to.) These are films about making films: the act of making this film is what counts. There is art devoted to this idea - Michel Gondry's career seems to be built on it; obviously Ed Wood depicts it, and the complete abandonment to the material of filmmaking is certainly one of the things that separates directors like Maddin from Ed Wood. But Wood is the real thing, the way Moullet's films are, and Waters' - films where the film you see is almost a documentary about making a film (for no money at all.) Anything worth doing is worth doing badly - and really, the act of making these films is what really makes them exciting. In Plan 9, you can see the act of making the film through the film - the cheap sets, the one take acting, the accidents, the recycled footage. You can see how Wood wrote the story, dialogue, Criswell's narration around the stock footage he could find. You see it in some of his story telling - the stock footage, the stripped down sets for things like the airplane cockpit or the space ship, that indicate the location, without really trying to depict it. He's telling you the story with whatever he can find - and, whatever might be wrong with the story itself, he does it. The story moves along, it's quite compelling at times (however silly) - and once in a while, he really hits something square.



Tor Johnson rising from the grave is one of the most famous sequences in the film, with Johnson getting stuck halfway out of the grave. But the jokes about it hide the fact that it's a pretty cool sequence. It's edited cleanly and briskly with some decent footage of not-Lugosi and Vampira chasing poor Mrs. Trent, and the images of Clay's emergence are surprisingly spooky. Even when Johnson gets stuck, it comes off half comical, and half like a twist, a bit of pacing, drawing it all out a bit longer. Right up to the end, where the gravestone falls into the grave - a bit of absurdity again, since the stone that falls into the grave is nothing at all like the one looming behind Johnson as he emerges, but it's in moments like that, where the intentions of the scene, the meaning of the scene, clashes with the means of telling it that a lot of the humor, and maybe the joy of the film lives.

And that first shot of Inspector Clay's head coming out of the ground - it's a shot to savor.



It makes it a little harder to make fun of Ed Wood. He couldn't make films to live up to their best moments, and their best ideas, but there are enough moments and ideas to give you some honest pleasures along with the jokes.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Dallas Shootings

I have a band of the month post coming - but the news overtakes me this morning. A day after two awful stories about Black men murdered by the police (a depressingly common event), we hear of an ambush of the police at a protest in Dallas. 5 dead, I believe, at this point. I don't have much to say about this - any way you look at it, murdering cops in cold blood is a bad, bad thing. It is not easy to hold cops to a higher standard when they use violence, if they are targeted for violence themselves. For all the tension caused by controversy and protests about police violence, it's something we can, as a country, move forward on, and have - only to see the progress, and hope of progress, obliterated by terrorism against the police. It's depressing.

So - the regular music post is going to have to wait a bit. For now - this month's featured artist singing about another mass shooting. Back in 1970, it was the national guard shooting protesters; this week, someone shooting police. Different, I guess, but both feel like a hint of war coming to the streets.

Friday, July 01, 2016

First Day of the Somme

100 years ago today, the Battle of the Somme began. The results of that first day's attack are what we usually think of when we think of World War I: slaughter, quick and efficient on an unimaginable scale. 120,000 British soldiers attacked: something like 57,000 were killed or wounded, that day; 20,000 dead. Some gains were made, around the edges of the main battle, but nothing much was accomplished by the men who made the bulk of the attack. The Germans lost about 8000 men in the day's fighting. The battle then continued until November, with the Allies moving the lines forward a few miles, and losing another 700,000 or so casualties, to the German's 500,000.

Everything in WWI comes back to this (at least everything on the Western Front.) Individual battles all follow that form - a massive attack, usually unsuccessful, though sometimes with some progress - that always degenerates into a long brutal slog. You come across attempts to explain or justify some of the tactics and strategy of the war, but these all end up being explanations of how things went wrong in such a battle, and how maybe that didn't go wrong in quite the same way in the next one - though it always went wrong. The details are different in how Loos or Verdun or the Somme or the Aisne or Ypres went wrong, but they all went wrong, hundreds of thousands of casualties, minimal change in the fronts, and no change at all in the strategic situation of the war, except t convince the generals that they needed another battle to relieve the pressure of this battle. That's part of the story of the Somme - a massive British attack that was supposed to relieve the pressure from the massive German attack on Verdun. On and on, death breeding death.

So what happened at the Somme? The British blasted the hell out of the Germans for weeks (having learned, from Loos, that preliminary artillery bombardment was crucial) - but they still didn't actually break the German lines. Most of the German soldiers spent the bombardment hiding well below the surface, and popped back out in time to man their machine guns before the British soldiers arrived. The artillery didn't destroy the barbed wire, so the Brits were funneled directly into the field of fire of the machine guns. The bombardment didn't damage any of the German artillery, which responded quickly and to great effect. Etc, etc. And then - horrible as the first day was, the fact is - if the first day had gone differently, the rest of the battle would not have changed. Even had the British broken the German lines on July 1, they would not have been able to move past the battle zone fast enough: they wouldn't have run into more trenches and the rest of the battle would have gone just abut as it did. Until the tanks arrive, there was nothing anyone could do to end this warfare.

But they kept trying. There's not much more to say, besides to look in stunned horror at the stream of battles that look just like this - massive casualties, noting changed - that made up the bulk of the western front in the Great War. Only at the end, with tanks and a completely exhausted Germany, did it change. It's hard to say what anyone anywhere gained from all this death. It's hard to escape the conclusion that both sides could have sat in their trenches and waited for the British naval blockade to destroy the German economy and force more or less the armistice they signed. That might not have worked out so well for France (where all this fighting was taking place), but then again, France also bore unimaginable casualties in all this - it's hard to what they gained by trying to drive the Germans out. Millions dead. That's pretty much all you can say about the western front.

All right - let's move to some video - first, a 1916 Documentary about the battle:



And some music - Fairport Convention's version of The Battle of the Song, set to a painting of part of the British attack:

Friday, June 24, 2016

Anti Christmas Friday Music

Another Friday, another international crisis - the UK votes to leave the European Market. Panic ensues. Or something. I can't pretend to understand all the ramifications of this, but they do seem bad. Bad sign for British politics, as this seems driven by no small amount of racism and nationalism. Bad for the world economy, as it takes London out of the mainstream - a big deal. Probably bad for the United part of the United Kingdom, as Scotland is likely to revisit their own bid for independence, with a big incentive to leave. (Scotland was one of the strongest proponents of staying in the EU, and might look to get in on their own now.) Heck, I've seen some Northern Irish politicians are making noise about leaving the UK for Ireland - might not be a bad plan. Still - all this is what I can glean from stories and comments - may or may not be as bad as all that. But it is harder to be optimistic than usual.

Maybe this can cheer you up - who cares about economics and politics, when the world is starting to boil? Gizmodo tracks the hottest month on record, with May being the 13th month in a row to set a new record.

Maybe not. Okay music.

1. Prince & 3RDEYEGIRL - FUNKNROLL
2. CCR - Long as I Can See The Light
3. Deerhoof - Cast off Crown
4. Tom Verlaine - Rings
5. Jimmy Smith - God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman (who doesn't need some Christmas in June, at more or less the farthest point from Christmas you can get in a year?)
6. Body/Head - Aint
7. Throwing Muses - Say Goodbye
8. The Go! Team - Panther Dash
9. The Beatles - Something
10. Sleater Kinney - Entertain

Video? we do need some Christmas, right?



And we have to do all this in a world without Prince. Life is cruel:



At least I have this to look forward to Monday: don't fret now baby, don't be so tired!