Sunday, March 31, 2013

Who's Not a Robot

I love how the Doctor's obsession with Clara is slightly disturbing. This is, after all, only the third time he's run into her and he's already licking the maple leaf he finds in one of her books. Any Who theorists contemplating this as a reference to Canada?

Well, something significant that I think everyone noticed is the author of Clara's other book;

I'd also say there's something in the title--Summer Falls sounds like an inversion of Silence Falls.

It was a good episode. The plot about the evil Wi-Fi soul stealer people was decently engaging, more importantly, Smith and Coleman are fantastic together. It's the first time I really felt like a romance was developing between the Doctor and a character since Amy tried to seduce him. Since then, Rory's been in the way and the Doctor has been caught up in the unwieldy River Song romance. In spite of the small amount of time he's spent with Clara, this is the first time I've felt like something has been allowed to organically develop.

This article on io9 points out the similarities between Clara and River, noting how the significant difference is that Clara is apparently conscious of far less of the mystery than the Doctor while River seemed to know everything. Though the author of the article, Charlie Jane Anders, seems to feel this makes Clara less active in her appeal to the Doctor;

Unlike River Song, she can't taunt him by saying "spoilers," because she knows less than he does about what's going on. So the only way she can tease him, or turn that mystery into flirtation, is by being slightly (but only slightly) unobtainable. This feels like Moffat trying to make her attractive, rather than anything the character herself is deciding.

I'm not exactly sure what Anders is saying. The fact that River knew more about their relationship made her more attractive? Honestly, that was something I always thought of as a big flaw--I mean, it sort of felt like an arranged marriage. Like the Doctor was just supposed to be her lover because she said so.

I like the Doctor paired with a romantic interest with whom it feels like he's on essentially equal footing. I love watching both characters testing the waters between the two of them with dialogue and the Doctor's knowledge of her previous incarnations seem just to give him a whole extra set of questions rather than making him seem smug.

I'm still thinking about the possibility that Moffat's making Vertigo references, of course. I guess I still haven't seen anything conclusive, but the fact that he was painting her portrait seemed a bit Vertigo-ish to me.

Oh, happy Easter, by the way.

Twitter Sonnet #492

Arches of wine glass stems weigh the eyebrow
Over infinity obsolete coins
Smooshed like ancient ziti under the plough
Of the giant rubber Jon Hamm pant groins.
Derelict tin confines yielding blankets
Of crushed velvet TV lips like Debbie
Harry, in prohibited blue markets,
Where the white noise termites ply their hobby.
Nightless energy smears through black egg yolk
Faltering in the tangled mass of wrapped
Chocolate victims in vapour now broke
From the liquid bunnies in gold feet trapped.
Antennae of rodent ice picks crack dints
In the ragged wicker duckling splints.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Pot of Metals, Some of It Gold

It's beautifully shot, it's a unique collection of enormous talent, and it's, at times, painfully bad. 1968's Finian's Rainbow is Fred Astaire's last full length movie musical and one of the first movies directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It features remarkable contributions from Barbara Hancock and Petula Clark as well, but the movie seems like a prime example of the dangers in having too many cooks in a kitchen--too many artists of disparate vision who had to compromise so that their ideas are brought together into a discordant whole.

The creative forces most at odds were the attitudes of the screenwriters, E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy, and the sensibilities of 1968. Their screenplay was based on their own 1947 stage musical which had been kept from adaptation to film for twenty years due the story's playful criticisms of racism that the studio thought too subversive. By 1968, though, having a grumpy, racist white senator turned jolly and black by a Leprechaun's magic, joining a quartet of black singers, comes off as more painfully naive than a bold social commentary.

This plot takes up far too much of the two and a half hour film.

Much better is Fred Astaire as Finian McLonergan, who's recently arrived in the rural American community of Rainbow Valley from Ireland with his daughter Sharon (Petula Clark). Clark has a good singing voice, but one is far more drawn to Astaire who, at sixty nine years old had a vitality only slightly diminished.

Instead of being an impossibly great dancer, he's just a very good one. But he displays dexterity and the physical self-assurance required to do the pratfalls and comic stumblings he does throughout the film. The guy was in good shape, and I got genuinely sad watching him disappear over the hill at the end of the film.

A dancer named Barbara Hancock plays Susan the Silent, a mute young woman who communicates entirely through dance, a questionable idea that never comes off, but she is beautiful and one has to respect someone dancing ballet barefoot on hard soil and acting like she's having a good time.

Astaire was unhappy about dancing outside a soundstage, too, while Coppola was pushing for more realism. Though their creative differences never result in flaws as great as those inherent in the screenplay. The love story between Clark and a man in charge of the village is dull and unremarkable and there's an intensely annoying, broadly performed leprechaun named Og. But Astaire is still great and there's no denying the beauty of Coppola's compositions.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Gaming Conditions

I didn't get a full night's sleep last night but I feel like I got a lot less than I'm pretty sure I did. There are five "I"s in that sentence. I'm currently listening to "Look in My Eyes" by The Crystals.

I didn't stay up that late. Maybe just twenty minutes later than usual--I was trying to see if I could beat Dragonborn, the Skyrim add-on, as a werewolf. It was hard to kill the final boss, but I managed it on the second try. The main difficulty is in the fact that the only way to heal yourself in wolf form is to eat people and there's no-one to eat on top of the tower where the battle takes place. No animals, either, which, thanks to the new werewolf talent tree from the Dawnguard add-on, you gain the ability to eat after you've levelled up from eating enough people. The tree also gives you damage, stamina, and health bonuses, too, stuff that was sorely lacking in vanilla Skyrim, which rendered wolf form pointless by a certain level.

Oh, it was so satisfying beating that guy as a werewolf. The inability to heal sharpens the whole experience, I found myself paying keener attention to my timing and what the guy was doing. It's fun running around a Lovecraftian realm of tentacles, fish people and mollusc sorcerers as a werewolf, too. It's a bit Kiernanian.

I achieved this rather unlikely victory against a computer at chess while I was eating breakfast this morning. After accidentally throwing away a knight and rook, I sacrificed a bishop for the mate. It just goes to show . . . uh. Stick with what you're good at, I guess.

There's currently a week long chess "candidates tournament" to determine who qualifies for the 2013 World Chess Tournament, I've been following it with some people at my chess club. I was really excited to see Magnus Carlsen lose to Vassily Ivanchuk. I guess there's no rational reason for me not to like Carlsen--he just seems so smug.

This Ivanchuk, meanwhile, I can dig. The current World Chess Champion, Viswanathan Anand, is quoted on Wikipedia as describing Ivanchuk;

He's someone who is very intelligent ... but you never know which mood he is going to be in. Some days he will treat you like his long-lost brother. The next day he ignores you completely.

The players have a word for him. They say he lives on "Planet Ivanchuk". (Laughs) ... I have seen him totally drunk and singing Ukrainian poetry and then the next day I have seen him give an impressive talk.

His playing style is unpredictable and highly original, making him more dangerous but sometimes leading to quick losses as well.

Sounds like Drunk-Fu to me.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Lizards, Samurai, and Doctors

I saw this fellow on my way to the store to-day among many other busy lizards running to and fro. That's one of my favourite things about spring.

When I got to Wal-Mart, I saw that their Star Wars toy selection had been reduced to two columns of figure racks and all the figures looked to be Amidala's pilot from Episode I and specialised battle droids. Clear leftovers, basically. It looks like Disney's gotten serious in weeding out the prequel related things.

There's no question in my mind the first two prequels are vastly inferior to the original trilogy, but I can't help feeling a bit sad for the kids who grew up with them. The prequel stuff is popular enough that, I guess, as unlikely as it seems, there were lots of kids who imprinted on Anakin in Episode I.

I heard recently, too, that the final season of Clone Wars is being cut short without resolving storylines of important characters, which is sad as well as frustrating--I'm almost finished watching the second season and I've already seen episodes better than Episode I or II (that was an unexpectedly awkward sentence). Yesterday I watched the second season episode "Bounty Hunters", a kind of nice, kind of disappointing homage to Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.

Of course, I wouldn't expect the homage to be as good as the original movie, but there were a lot of puzzling decisions made. In attempting to cram a four hour story into less than twenty five minutes, it's natural one will run into some problems with pacing and focus. Why they decided to include a three or four minute introduction showing how Anakin, Ahsoka, and Obi-Wan crash landed on the planet where the village is located, I don't know. It's something that could have been easily dispensed with in dialogue, leaving more time for the audience to know the villagers and the four mercenaries who, with the Jedi, make up the seven defenders. Concepts from the movie are introduced and never developed, while others are shown without being introduced, meaning if you don't know the movie you might feel a little lost. There's business about the wisdom of training the villagers to fight, but we never see how this pays off. Obi-Wan goes over a map of the village in deciding where to defend it, then we see an energy shield turned on to protect the village without showing when or how they built it.

There's no Kikuchiyo character, his roles in the plot are divided between Anakin and one of the bounty hunters, a tiny insecure alien in big battle armour. The absence of a Kikuchiyo, who's volatile, vicious, and pathetic, demonstrates how important his character was to the whole thematic point of the movie. It would also have been nice to see Ahsoka have a romance with a brash village boy, too, since she seems to be the Katsushiro character.

They might have fixed a lot by stretching the story over several episodes, as they did with the lame Godzilla homage that follows the Seven Samurai episode.

A better Kurosawa homage actually came a few episodes earlier, a Drew Z. Greenberg written episode called "Lightsabre Lost", apparently a modelled on Kurosawa's noir Stray Dog. Instead of Toshiro Mifune losing his gun, Ahsoka loses her lightsabre. The story doesn't adhere so closely to Stray Dog, but the fundamental feeling of guilt the protagonist has from allowing her dangerous weapon to fall into criminal hands translates much better into the twenty two minute format.

Speaking of nostalgia, I really think Steven Moffat is trolling us at this point. At io9 to-day, I saw this quote from him about the upcoming Doctor Who 50th anniversary special;

You always want to make it special and huge and big. One of the things that I'm concerned about this year is that the show must be seen to be going forward. It's all about the next 50 years, not about the last 50 years. If you start thinking it's all about nostalgia then you're finished. It's about moving forward. The Doctor is moving forward, as he always does. He wants to solve the mystery of Clara. He's not thinking about all his previous incarnations and all his previous adventures. He's thinking about the future. That, for me, is important. The show must never feel old. It must always feel brand new, and a 50th anniversary can play against that.

Were you worried about nostalgia when you showed all the past Doctors' faces in "The 11th Hour"? When you introduced Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart's daughter? When you constantly had characters saying, "Doctor Who?" Unless I'm very much underestimating Moffat, I would take the statement "He's not thinking about all his previous incarnations and all his previous adventures" as basically being code for "All his previous incarnations are going to play a major role in this episode." The statement is just too ridiculous to take as anything but its exact opposite.

Twitter Sonnet #491

Grey noodle ears protrude from green gingham,
Signalling dreams to pink knobs on tilted
Red doors, ochre in eyelash shadow dam;
Serpents ascend the tree 'til exhausted.
Leftover bowlers lurk in gas lamp weights,
Pinning cobblestone scales to the big snake.
Whirlpools spread clues while Doctor Sax checkmates
Manfred with edible rooks the pies bake.
The ice sculpture radiator scratches
Vinyl ether, popping the free tulip,
Robbing cathedrals of grey grass patches
And the delicate dust plaza polyp.
Moving shards that shimmer blue green grow hot
As they invade red veins of eyes bloodshot.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

There's Room for 100 Trillion More

Listening to the Supreme Court hearing oral arguments about California's Proposition 8 on C-SPAN yesterday, I was amazed to hear Charles Cooper, representing the proponents of Proposition 8, which prohibits same sex marriage in California, explain to the court his justification with a straight face. Apparently he's hanging his hat on the idea that marriage exists in the United States as a legal institution to enable the government to regulate procreation. Justice Breyer finally breaks in at the 26 minute point and kind of humiliates Cooper with the pretty obvious counterargument, and Justice Kagan puts a cap on it to where the whole room is laughing at Cooper who dissolves into meaningless stuttering.

Everyone's focusing on Justice Kennedy as the swing judge and how he seemed sympathetic to the adopted children who would be happier if their same sex adopted parents could get married, which is certainly significant, but I think it's this exchange that marks the point where the logical end of this became clear. If a rational decision comes from the court, it now has to be to strike down Prop. 8, just based on the above exchange alone.

I guess the homophobe lobby had to come up with some kind of argument that sounded vaguely technical. Somehow the fact that Justice Breyer sounds like Jeffrey Tambor makes it all the more delicious.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Outside Like a Planet

I'm not against melodrama on principle. If big, unlikely circumstances strung together are entertaining and they help develop characters, I see no reason not to go for it. But melodrama can sink a story, which is I think the problem with Francis Ford Coppola's 1983 film The Outsiders, a movie with a lot of good, unexpectedly sweet qualities which is diminished by an effort to create moral balance with broad plot developments.

This movie has Patrick Swayze, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Matt Dillon, and Ralph Macchio, all before they were stars, but the story's centred on a fourteen year-old kid named Ponyboy played by C. Thomas Howell. Swayze and Lowe play his brothers, Darrel and Sodapop--they're his only family and they live together in the bad part of town. We never get to see what sort of cruel parents gave their kids names like "Ponyboy" and "Sodapop" because they were hit by a train some years before*. The three brothers, along with Cruise, Estevez, and Dillon, are all greasers belonging to a gang called, appropriately enough "The Greasers."

Their rivals are the Socs, wealthy kids from the nice part of town, among whom is Cherry, an adorable Diane Lane, who hits it off with Ponyboy and Johnny (Macchio) at a drive-in movie.

Ponyboy, Johnny, and Dallas form a central trio in the movie with the other gang members being more or less periphery. Broadly speaking, the scene of a girl from a rival gang growing grudgingly fond of the hoods is a standard enough pattern, but I love how Coppola executes it here. Dallas is just out of prison, and he comes on too strong with the girls, whispering in Cherry's ear while she's trying to watch the movie and making crude remarks. But we don't take him as a villain, in fact his overbearing quality seems clumsy and oddly vulnerable, even as he's quite confident, reminding me of Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.

Cherry warms up to Ponyboy and Johnny more, but only in a sort of big sister way. Later that night, Johnny stabs a Soc to death, but the two never stop seeming like vulnerable kids as they take it on the lam on advice from Dallas. You watch them nervously meeting with Dallas at a bar (run by Tom Waits in a cameo) where Johnny receives a pistol from the older boy and there's great tension as one watches the two who are unmistakably children and you worry about the questionable decisions they're making about a dangerous set of circumstances.

This first part of the movie works so well, and then Ponyboy, Johnny, and Dallas rescue a bunch of small children from a burning building. It's digested later a bit as it relates to feelings of self-worth among the boys, but mainly it seems to be in the movie to prove to the other characters and perhaps the audience that these boys are good in spite of everything. We, the audience, didn't need that, though. It shows perhaps the shallowness of those who accept and admire the boys afterwards who gave them only scorn before, but I don't feel like that was needed, either.

Macchio as Johnny is a weak link, too, his performance being a little two one-note for all has to carry, but there's enough really good character stuff in this movie to make me sorry it has to deviate into a sort of anthem.

*I wonder if Ponyboy is considered a sort of proto-brony.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Now They've had Half a Century to Grow Up

To those to-day examining their feelings regarding gay marriage as the supreme court prepares to rule on the Defence of Marriage Act, I offer this hypothetical couple--Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. In 1961, fifty two years ago and just a couple years after he made Ben-Hur, William Wyler made The Children's Hour, based on a 1934 Lillian Hellman play which was in turn inspired by an incident in Scotland, in 1810, when two women were ostracised when rumours spread that they were in love. This is an issue with history, obviously. Wyler first adapted Hellman's play in 1936 as These Three but censorship at the time prohibited him from alluding to homosexuality in any way. In the fluctuating environment for film and civil rights of the 60s, Wyler decided to try again and the result is a good, heartbreaking film with great performances.

I first saw the movie nine years ago and promptly bought the DVD. Since then, I've gone back and forth in my feelings for it. The "issue" movies of the 50s and 60s, especially Stanley Kramer's films, tend to come off as terribly self conscious now, and, by agendas borne of admirable sentiment, drained of organic character and story development. In the case of The Children's Hour, it may depend on the mood I'm in when I watch it.

But the movie is almost two stories--the story of Martha and Karen's (MacLaine and Hepburn's) relationship and the story of how easy it is for someone's reputation to be ruined, and how much a ruined reputation can affect a person's life.

Martha and Karen run a private school for girls, one of whom is this little asshole;

People sometimes react with consternation when I say I don't care for children. I think it's this kid, Mary, I mainly think of when I say that--and I've known kids like her, who have an insatiable urge to lie and claw their way through life for their own selfish reasons, totally lacking in empathy. Veronica Cartwright plays one of the other girls at the school, and I ask you to consider whether she looks more afraid of Mary or of the alien;

About the same, right?

It's worth noting that Mary's motivated to tell her grandmother that she thinks Martha and Karen are having an affair because she wants to go home and be spoiled rather than having to answer to the teachers less susceptible to her manipulations. It's the prejudices of the grandmother and the other parents she talks to, not the kid, that make life Hell for the two women.

As parents begin pulling kids out of the school without explanation, at first the mystery is maddening and they become indignant when it's explained as something they know has no basis in reality--Martha and Karen are just best friends. Except Martha is shown to be jealous of Karen's fiancé at the beginning and by the end, in a scene in which MacLaine gives a very raw performance, she tells Karen that the situation has made her realise that she has indeed always been in love with Karen.

One can see what Hellman and Wyler intended--first we show everyone what a monstrous situation it is, how unfair it is for these women to be treated this way, and then by revealing that Martha really is gay, audiences are forced to contemplate whether they're upset for the way Martha and Karen are treated because the accusation isn't true or because it's horrible to treat anyone that way for something as inoffensive and personal as sexual orientation.

Twitter Sonnet #490

Bull shaped callipers dip in the battle.
Symmetrical veins begin to drain black.
Storms of red brick dreams darken Seattle.
Mouse heads with beaks hide in the silver sack.
Horizontal Wonka grass grows to reach
Disembodied taste buds strapped to waffle
Cone water boards bared to the olive beach
Where the gin sky breaks the vermouth rustle.
The pipe cleaner cloud silhouette blushed shade
Pastel violet, undulating cement
Steals one's feet before the violet can fade
To occipital trains in paused moment.
Only dangerous cheap tables are made;
Magnet eight ball impressions short the suede.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Gold and Crimson Screen

I often think that if Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were making movies to-day, they'd look a lot like Bollywood movies. Not just because Bollywood movies tend to have a better instinct for when and where to use songs than most American musical films of the past forty years, but because of the attitude and environment that informs the stories in Bollywood films. In 2004's Hum Tum, censorship prohibits a main character from getting divorced, but it doesn't prohibit her from remarking ironically in one scene that it's "Good to be back in India" as she observes two impoverished children defecating on the curb. So we have Hays code-like content guidelines in films produced in a country where most people live in Great Depression era conditions. Like many musicals produced in the Great Depression, Hum Tum serves audiences a superficially entertaining romantic comedy plot with charismatic, talented leads living in a beautiful, middle to upper middle class fantasy version of reality.

Two things I've come to expect from seeing any Bollywood movie--a significant portion of the film will take place in Europe (Jodhaa Akbar has been the only exception so far) and there will be at least one lavish, traditional Hindu wedding sequence (Kahaani has been the only exception so far). The reasons are fairly clear--productions can expect to find beautiful locations for exteriors in Europe and the wedding sequences are shot almost entirely on sound stages.

Hum Tum has the most European footage I've seen in a Bollywood movie--most of the film takes place in Paris, but two main characters, Karan and Rhea (Saif Ali Khan and Rani Mukerji) first get to know each other in Amsterdam, where a musical number about the differences between men and women sets up the self-consciously When Harry Met Sally inspired chemistry between the two.

As in most Bollywood movies, a greater amount of bad behaviour seems to be expected and tolerated from men than from Billy Crystal in the Rob Reiner film as we see Karan, who meets Rhea when he's seated next to her on the plane to Amsterdam, sneezing into her food and rifling through her bag when she's not looking.

The content of their contentious duet is mostly made up of stereotypes, as her section tends to concentrate on how men leave wet towels on the floor and empty tooth paste tubes in the bathroom. His section is about how women persistently don't follow their hearts, with the implication, I guess, she's supposed to have fallen head over heels when she found his snot in her lunch.

In the latter half of the movie, Karan inexplicably turns into the sweetest guy in the world, buying her lunch while she's at work, helping her adjust after the loss of her husband without any expectation of remuneration of any kind. But of course, it's all mostly just a pretext for musical numbers.

Saif Ali Khan is all right, but Rani Mukerji is wonderful, displaying great comic timing and an expressive performance, though it's with some disappointment I read that neither actor actually did any of the singing--they were dubbed.

The cheaper digital photography of the twenty first century makes the film look slicker than 90s Bollywood movies, but, even though there's a satisfying amount of women actually criticising men (particularly a good number called "Chocolate Hero"), the increasing amount of Western influence in composition and editing is a little sad.

Karan is a cartoonist and segments of the film are broken up by short animation sequences--really cheap looking animation sequences, like bad 80s Disney knock offs. Weirdly, I find the idea that bad hand drawn animation is still going on in India almost as comforting as the fact that good hand drawn animation is coming out of Japan.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Right Sea, the Right Time

I saw this beauty when I was on my way back from the grocery store yesterday. All too often I see something great when my hands are full of groceries. This is the only macro shot I managed to get before he wriggled away;

Wish my aim had been better.

Groggy to-day. Stayed up too late reading Moby Dick, in which I hit the seventy five percent mark. I have to say, I didn't expect there to be so much sperm in this book. At the time Moby Dick was written, people thought a large quantity of white substance found in a sperm whale's head was in fact semen--thus the name "sperm whale". Melville spends so much time going into detail, revelling in the stuff, talking about men falling in it, getting oddly drunk from the fumes of it. Then one considers they're after a whale that's actually white, who physically reduced Captain Ahab, one could say the book is about the fundamental dick measuring contest of mythologised manhood.

For a more female perspective on seafaring life, yesterday I also read a short story published by Neil Gaiman in The Guardian called Down to a Sunless Sea. It bore an odd resemblance to Caitlin's story in her Sirenia Digest in that it was also about people loving the sea as a sort of being who cannot or will not love back. In this case, it's a simple story about a woman lamenting the loss of men in her life for their fatal drive to take to take to sea. Gaiman relates the folly to desires for fame and fortune, but the best part of the story is the way he uses a pretty filthy description of the Thames as a conduit to the story's themes.

Speaking of things related to Neil Gaiman, I rather loved the new Doctor Who mini-sode (which was written by Steven Moffat, not Neil Gaiman, but Gaiman wrote an episode appearing later in the season). I can't wait for the new season to start next week.

Friday, March 22, 2013

All in One Convenient Volume

I saw this magazine in the trash can in the parking lot of a Mormon church I walk through on my way to school. It's Asian Girls, in case you can't tell. It promises "Down and Dirty Fun with Squeaky Clean Bath Buds." I'm sure it was research.

Who goes to magazines for porn? How does any porn magazine that's not Play Boy still do business? How does Play Boy still do business, for that matter? I guess people probably really are reading them for the articles now.

Asian Girls, the magazine. It looks somehow like something a guy would look at after coming home from seeing Rambo II for the sixteenth time.

Here are some perhaps more innocent pictures I've taken lately;

To-day I read "SEA-DRIFT", the new story in the new Sirenia Digest while I ate a bunch of cabbage I boiled for lunch. It was a nice, poetical representation of an anthropomorphised ocean and the effect of its aesthetic translated into physical terms. The story, not the cabbage.

Spring break starts to-day and I've already got all my homework done so I have time to read stuff for the first time in a while. Maybe now I can finally finish Moby Dick.

Twitter Sonnet #489

Old avocado rain blurs in the cloud.
Screens now unsaved by toasters lose their souls.
The pale Mac sleeps under gummy worm shroud.
My poor crystal Yorick drinks vodka skulls.
Evacuated tonsils smuggle teeth.
Cocaine sculptures erode with energy.
Trinomial triceps factor the beef.
Algebra biceps have no agency.
Laminated lamentations will last
Longer than wet paper satchel news grief.
Lego men remember modular past.
Bandages hold red copper on the reef.
Duplicate ham waits in the maple tree.
Weird eyes harshly mumble what ears can't see.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Hyperglycaemic Vampire Cheese Women

It's rare for a film to make me fill like a huge Hostess snack cake, but 1971's Lust for a Vampire had precisely that effect on me. It's been criticised for excessive camp, which it certainly has, but that doesn't quite explain the effect. There's something peculiarly embarrassing about its sexploitation, its cynicism oddly earnest and innocent. It's like finding the porn stash of the fourth best science student at a backwater high school. It panders in the darnedest way. It's impossible to watch without grinning and wincing at the same time.

Lust for a Vampire is Hammer's vaguely, sort of sequel to the far superior The Vampire Lovers from the previous year. Based on Le Fanu's 1872 vampire novella Carmilla, The Vampire Lovers had camp, certainly, but Ingrid Pitt anchored the film with a genuinely effective portrayal of thwarted, deeply felt needs.

Pitt is replaced in Lust for a Vampire by Yutte Stensgaard as Mircalla, whose real name is Carmilla--whereas in the previous film, and in the novella, the character's real name was Mircalla and her alias was Carmilla. It's not really clear why they decided to change this, maybe they thought Carmilla was the better known name and they decided to get ahead of the Frankenstein's monster becoming just "Frankenstein"--except both names are used in the movie so . . . Fuck, I can't even speculate.

Stensgaard is no Ingrid Pitt, but she doesn't do so bad for her greatly reduced screen time. Most of The Vampire Lovers is shown through Mircalla's POV, while Lust for a Vampire has the POV from a male protagonist, a gothic writer named Richard Lestrange.

He's an Englishman visiting Styria for inspiration and finds himself in a small village in the shadow of Castle Karnstein, which the villagers warn him is haunted by vampire women. So he goes up there and is promptly cornered by some gorgeous young dames in cloaks, only to find they're merely students at the nearby girl's school. This scene is followed by a scene of the girls exercising in incredibly flimsy stolas and all doubt as to what sort of movie this is intended to be is quite removed.

Mircalla is brought to the school shortly afterward, to prey on the girls while pretending to study and Richard takes a job instructing in English literature. Hijinks ensue.

I'd be more disappointed by the shift from the previous film's tragic lesbian romance to superficial heterosexual fluff if it wasn't so pitiful. Here Mircalla is seduced by Lestrange because he says he loves her. As they commence to coitus, the soundtrack gives us an insecure, faux 70s beatnik song called "Strange Love" performed by someone credited as simply "Tracy", who in any case is tone deaf. Listen, if you dare;

Still better than Twilight.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

It's All in the Horses

One of the most cohesive fantasy epic films I've ever seen, 1959's Ben-Hur, is a beautiful spectacle with engaging character development. It's the combination of the vision of a talented director, William Wyler, with daring and budget. It's an enormously impressive film.

Ben-Hur was originally a novel, published in 1880, but the 1959 film is a remake of the 1925 film, based on the novel, carrying over several stylistic choices from the earlier film. The story follows Judah Ben-Hur, here played with wiry vulnerability by Charlton Heston. Ben-Hur is a wealthy Jewish prince in Roman occupied Jerusalem and as the film begins, Judah welcomes home Messala, a childhood friend who returns after years' absence that have transformed him into a tribune. The Roman culture that prizes conquest and social hierarchy has also made Messala into a man who considers the Jews to be an inferior race, meant for subjugation to Rome.

The first point in which Wyler's Ben-Hur improves on the 1925 film is in Judah's and Messala's relationship. It was broad and sort of perfunctorily established in the older film, the two meeting as friends before Messala turns into a snarling beast in Judah's home. Here, the pain both men experience as their love for each other conflicts with their principles as adults is credibly established in dialogue between the two actors and motivates the bitterness between the two throughout the film.

When Messala has the Ben-Hur family arrested on flimsy pretexts, it doesn't seem like quite the arbitrary shift it does in the 1925 film. Here we can see in Stephen Boyd's performance as Messala the painful internal conflict that forces such heavy action. As in the 1925 film, Judah is sent to the galleys while his mother and sister are placed deep in a subterranean dungeon.

Judah's sister Tirzah is played by Cathy O'Donnell, an actress who won my adoration for possessing a quality of intellectual raw nerve in They Live by Night, a noir from eleven years earlier. Sadly, her role in Ben-Hur came near the end of a rather short career. She married William Wyler's brother on my birthday, April 11, in 1948 and she also died on my birthday, in 1970, at the age of 46. I was really responding to her even before I found this out.

Anyway, her role is sadly tiny in Ben-Hur.

The sea battle sequence is one of the places where the 1925 film is superior. The sequence is great in the 1959 film, with some well shot, very realistic models and the grinding, day to day point of view of a galley slave is nicely established. But the 1925 film, in its greater use of actual ships on which were packed thousands of extras who then fought one another in a frenzy, is simply a more breathtaking vision of chaos on a grand scale.

The 1959 film also suffers by comparison from its lack of topless women in the parade scenes, but the scenes in Rome, where Judah buddies up with prominent Romans, are quite impressive.

In light of these scenes, I don't know if Judah's turning against Rome later is quite believable.

Of course, the most famous scene from both film versions of Ben-Hur is the chariot race.

Here I would have to say it's very difficult to compare the films. The scenes are actually very similar, though the older film relied entirely on enormous outdoor sets while the 1959 version expands a still impressively large set with matte paintings. Otherwise, the sets are remarkably similar. More importantly, the two versions of the scene have an extraordinary amount of palpable realism.

There's no rear projection--close-ups of the actors on the chariots appear to come from cameras mounted on the chariots while the actors actually drove the chariots.

The 1959 film features chariot drivers falling off their chariots and being trampled by the horses of their competitors. The Wikipedia entry says "lifelike dummies" were used, but if someone told me this was a cover story concocted by the studio to conceal that actual actors were trampled, I would not be surprised.

Even in good movies, dummies are usually pretty obvious. Here, I swear I saw these "dummies" moving--in any case, they had a remarkable ratio of rigidity and pliancy.

Certainly the 1925 film ought to have ended after the chariot race. The 1959 version does a slightly better job of making interesting the story of the Ben-Hur women as lepers and watching Christ getting crucified. But since at this point Judah's story about learning the value of not fighting for vengeance and status is pretty muddled by the fact that it was so great seeing him win the chariot race, it probably would've been as well to end it there. I would certainly dig a movie about how the nobler outlook on reality isn't one that sees it as a constant scrape for dominance, but it's not something I'd expect a Hollywood studio to invest millions of dollars in. Might as well enjoy the juvenile fantasy.