Tuesday, October 31, 2017

In Fear of Madness

The intricacy of plots people hatch to make you feel like you're going crazy can make you feel like you're going crazy. Hammer dials gaslighting up to a gas inferno with 1964's Nightmare. Obviously influenced by Hitchcock, the plot is too absurd to have satisfied Hitchcock's obsession with detail but it's a delightful entry to the genre of gothic films about women in nightgowns creeping around opulent mansions.

Janet (Jennie Linden) is having nightmares about her mother who was committed to an asylum after murdering Janet's father on Janet's birthday. She's afraid she's likely to go mad too, madness being in the family and all, something which puts her in a constant state of anxiety. So her teacher at the finishing school, Miss Lewis (Brenda Bruce), takes Janet back to her family home, a sprawling manor house where her guardian, a young man named Henry (David Knight), lives now. Though he's mysteriously absent. The film never explains how and why he became Janet's legal guardian.

Janet's not home for long before she starts seeing a woman with a scar on her cheek roaming the place in a white gown. Turns of plot involving murder and duplicity show things aren't at all what they seem, of course, and then a whole new plot involving Janet's nurse, Grace, takes off. Grace is played by Moira Redmond who gives a better performance than Jennie Linden so the second half of the film is a bit more absorbing. Shot from her point of view, we join her on the maddening journey arranged for her by another set of conspirators plotting her downfall.

But the whole movie's pretty good. Directed by Freddie Francis with cinematography by John Wilcox, the film's a banquet of shadows and expensive knick-knacks crowding in on fearful victims, wandering this nightmare in nightgowns.

Twitter Sonnet #1049

As ankles grow in graves the forests part.
Inside a room that wasn't there it runs.
The orchestras in apprehension start.
At night the cards foresee the pumpkin suns.
Presiding points of yellow eyes ignite.
A gleeful grin's aglow through sugar smoke.
In wav'ring voice the spirits now recite.
The rusted fence by toothsome vine is broke.
A mist reveals a castle made of webs.
The parting clouds display a bloody sphere.
The spirits can't delay the tide that ebbs.
A swinging hinge is laughing cross the mere.
A spirit shakes the bones below the sky.
Behind its stone a socket wants an eye.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Disco Inferno

So I guess disco does live on in the Federation imagination--this week's new Star Trek Discovery, "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad", featured "Stayin' Alive" by the Bee Gees in the form of a sample in a song by Funkmaster. So maybe they just don't know it used to belong to a genre called disco? Maybe they don't even know what they're hearing in the Funkmaster song is a sample. The future just gets more and more pessimistic by the second. In any case, this was an entertaining episode. Throwing aside logic for a feeling of lower stakes allowed writers Aron Eli Coleite and Jesse Alexander to concentrate on a story about romance without any sense of the urgency one might otherwise expect from a story set in a temporal crisis during a war.

Spoilers after the screenshot

It seems making himself part tardigrade has allowed Stamets (Anthony Rapp) to retain memories of alternate timelines. I liked how, even before interference from anyone who remembers the other timelines, each iteration was already slightly different--in one case it's Saru (Doug Jones) who notes the endangered status of the space whale immediately, in the first case Michael (Sonnequa Martin-Green) has to point it out when Lorca (Jason Isaacs) has decided to move on. Could it be Saru retains some subconscious memory of the previous timeline? In any case, it means that repeating the thirty minutes isn't like Groundhog Day--it's not actually the same thirty minutes over and over.

Stamets, we learn, has also been experiencing some emotional imbalances, which would explain why he prefers to indulge in Michael's romantic troubles with Voq (Shazad Latif) instead of hurrying to convey information and find solutions. But Michael, too, seems to feel fine dancing with Voq before springing into action. One can just accept this as the writers preferring to concentrate on the doomed romance between Michael and the Klingon leader than on the story at hand but if we wanted to rationalise it we could also say that at this point in Starfleet history officers had a lot of trouble trusting each other. That would explain why we don't see Stamets trying to explain things to Lorca. We see that the crew of a Federation ship is not necessarily a happy and well oiled machine, possibly this is reflected too in the frat house ambience of the party.

Poor Michael--she still thinks Voq is a Starfleet officer named Ash Tyler. It's not clear why she likes him, especially since he seems really douchy, though a big part of the episode's underlying idea was that people who act like they hate each other actually really love each other. Maybe she's attracted to him because on some unconscious level she finds him repulsive? Can we hope for some outright S&M in this series? Time will tell. Certainly Michael's love interest having eaten her beloved mentor is a start on that route if it's not wildly misogynistic.

It was nice how Mudd's (Rainn Wilson) reunion with his wife, Stella (Katherine Barrell), neatly punctuated the themes of the episode. Here's two people who act like they love each other but we know at least one of them feels nothing but contempt.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Good Artists and Masks

It would be sort of comforting to think that influential men in the entertainment industry who prey on women are also talentless. That's part of the fantasy presented in the 1962 Hammer version of Phantom of the Opera, and a big part of why the film never rises above moderately interesting. It does, though, have some really gorgeous cinematography by Arthur Grant, beautiful makeup and costumes, and is a surprisingly lush production next to the typically low budget movies released by Hammer.

Directed by Terence Fisher, the female lead is renamed Christine Charles from Christine Daae for the story's relocation from Paris to London. She's also reduced to the pretty sack of potatoes one usually sees in Fisher's films. Played by Heather Sears, her singing voice was dubbed by an opera singer named Pat Clark pretty seamlessly and there are some really nicely put together scenes featuring bits of an opera about Joan of Arc composed for the film.

Michael Gough plays Lord Ambrose D'Arcy, the film's real villain. He uses his position as the composer of a series of successful operas to abuse the women who appear in them and it looks like Christine is going to be his latest victim until the opera's producer, Harry--the dull Edward de Souza in a role supposedly written for Cary Grant--rescues her from dinner with D'Arcy. The Phantom, played with some elegance but little dimension by Herbert Lom, is mostly portrayed as a victim in this film, having no control over his Igor-like assistant (Ian Wilson) who perpetrates the murders the phantom is guilty of in the original story. He murders a rat-catcher played by Patrick Troughton in one of the film's more enjoyably macabre scenes.

The Phantom's interest in Christine is apparently entirely in her singing voice and at worst he comes off as a much too strict instructor. The film actually seems like its makers took the plagiarism subplot from the beginning of The Red Shoes and took out all the complications to create a simpler story of a downtrodden artist and a thoroughly villainous liar. Gough does play a good villain, though, and the sets are truly extraordinary. The Phantom's lair is fantastic, perfectly paired with the makeup and costume on Herbert Lom.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Flip on the Loch

Another week and I've listened to a good Sixth Doctor Doctor Who audio play featuring his companion, Flip; in this case the 2012 audio play Wirrn Isle. Featuring the menacing insectoid species from the television story The Ark in Space, this audio play has some great atmosphere, set on a frozen lake in Scotland, over a thousand years in the future.

As he's long been widely considered the weakest Doctor in the series history, I think Big Finish strove to compensate in Sixth Doctor audio stories by making his new audio companions exceptional. But whether it was intentional or not, the late Maggie Stables as Evelyn was one of the best companions of all time, from audio plays or television. Unfortunately Stables passed away in 2014 and apparently was unable to keep contributing the audio plays as early as 2012, requiring a new companion for Six.

Flip (Lisa Greenwood) is very different from Evelyn--where Evelyn broke the mould as a female companion who looked and sounded older than the Doctor and who could speak with a sense of earned authority, Flip is more the traditional young and pretty companion. But unlike Peri, who seemed like she was suffering from emotional abuse at all times, or Mel, whose voice would make a dog suffer from physical abuse, Flip has a sweet and really funny self confidence not paired with Evelyn's experience and wisdom. But there's something so casual about the way she hops on some vehicle she's never seen before to speed out over the frozen lake despite the Doctor's (Colin Baker) dire warnings. My favourite bit, though, was when the locals, a small family working to salvage something of this part of Earth, offered her something called "forage porridge." Flip is understandably incredulous but the punchline is when the Doctor reveals to everyone that it is in fact Wirrn mucus. Flip repeating the word "mucus" throughout the ensuing conversation was hilarious.

At the same time, she helps sell the Wirrn as truly scary, better than the costumes back in that great Fourth Doctor serial did, in fact. She may be confident but she's not insane and listening to her defiant but nervous dialogue with the creepy voice she encounters on the ice is really effective.

Twitter Sonnet #1048

Accounting topped abysmal forms to sum.
A losing sham in escrow echoes blub.
In keeping keys a keening fork'll hum.
A multi-house condemns the bubble tub.
In heartless grains a play averts the can.
Contained incursions clamped in sorted skirts.
Along the mall assorted coats were banned.
Infrequent seas could cast in megahertz.
In cruel constructions legos mock the world.
A spy dispatched McDonalds wings to fall.
As paper trees at fire edges curled.
A raking train of shadows burned the wall.
In flipping mills the frozen lake'd move.
To make the motion lining seals're proved.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Be Careful How You Love a Statue

A particularly entertaining new episode of The Orville last night, "Majority Rule", provided suspense, insight, and satire based on the idea of social media run amok. Like most episode concepts on The Orville so far, this one has plenty of precedent--I was reminded of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Justice", the Doctor Who serial Vengeance on Varos, and the Dave Eggers novel The Circle. But unlike those stories, the Orville leans more into the comedic half of its comedy/drama premise providing some of the best laughs on the series yet.

Spoilers after the screenshot

The concept of a world with parallel evolution, where the species and civilisation on an alien world resembles our own, is an old one, often used on Star Trek without any idea of convincing the audience that it's plausible (despite the TNG episode "The Chase" coming up with an explanation for it). The point was to provide a scenario where the futuristic crew could interact with a version of Earth's past where some aspect was exaggerated, whether it was the idea that the Nazis had won World War II or that the Roman Empire was still around in the 20th century. Hopefully audiences aren't too wise ass to accept the concept here, especially since the episode is lampooning wise asses.

I was also reminded of the Next Generation episodes "First Contact" and "Who Watches the Watchers" and, like the latter example, "Majority Rule" is about anthropologists on the planet who have gotten into trouble. The crew of the Orville are tasked with finding and saving them despite the fact that very little is known about the culture--presumably that's why the anthropologists were there. One could knitpick and say the Orville's level of technology should allow them to send down cloaked probes or something but then you'd be shifting the subject of drama and comedy in the episode into the realm of exposition so such knitpicks miss the point of this kind of fantasy.

In a funny conversation about the appropriate level of grinding one should expect in a dance partner, John (J. Lee) obnoxiously demonstrates his technique on a statue of a folk hero, netting him thousands of "down votes" when the locals of course catch him on camera. This turns out to be a real problem because ten thousand down votes mean he'll be lobotomised.

The episode in a way picks up where The Circle left off. You might be unaware of the fact that a film version of The Circle was released this year starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson. "What?" you say. "Did you just make that up?" No, no, it was a real movie--see, here's the Wikipedia entry. John Boyega and Karen Gillan were in it, too, and it was Bill Paxton's last film. How did you miss it? Probably because, if you were one of the few who saw an ad for it, it was too generic for your brain to register. But the studio sure didn't seem eager to promote it. It's an unremarkable film, curiously with a message in almost direct ideological opposition to its source novel which criticises the potential corrosive culture that might be created by social media run rampant. The novel and film end just as the kind of voting seen in "Majority Rule" are about to take over the world but the book spends a lot more time exploring the psychological impact on characters than "Majority Rule".

But the episode does have a few moments that explore what this environment is like for a variety of people. One woman can't even order a cup of tea because the cafe doesn't serve people with over 5,000 down votes. She's forced to explain to the barista that it's because of mistakes she made in her youth--in this world, even the barista is an arbiter on your life history. A nice scene on the Orville later has that barista, Lysella (Giorgia Whigham), discussing her culture with Ed (Seth MacFarlane), Bortus (Peter Macon), Isaac (Mark Jackson), and Alara (Halston Sage). It's a polite conversation that lets anyone watching in on the problem in what Ed calls "absolute democracy"--Lysella doesn't sound crazy when she asks what about all the voices that go unheard in a merely representative democracy. Bortus and Isaac offer the statements "Voices should be earned" and "I think you're confusing opinions with knowledge" politely enough but it would have been nice if they'd elaborated more. Anyone criticising the show for not being original here, though, ought to be reminded that some things definitely bear repeating.

In one of the funnier parts of the episode, a man angrily approaches Alara because she's inadvertently worn a hat belonging to a culture or belief system she doesn't know about. His level of anger at her innocent cultural appropriation is hilarious and, unsurprisingly, some reviewers have no sense of humour about it, including a reviewer from The A.V. Club who puts the blame on Alara for incident. So while the message of "Majority Rule" might not be new, it's certainly not obsolete.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

It wasn't the Year

Stories of murder can be horrific, gripping, or even funny. They probably shouldn't be dull and rote but 2017's 1922 took that route. Based on a presumably better Stephen King novella, the film's robotic, adequate compositions and cinematography combined with actors who never seem quite like they're in the same movie to give the impression of a rudderless production helmed by a person or persons without anything resembling passion or artistic impulse.

I saw Stephen King tweet about this new movie on NetFlix a few days ago, based on his novella and starring Thomas Jane. I really missed Thomas Jane on The Expanse and I have a NetFlix account so I thought I'd check it out. I wish I hadn't. Jane is, indeed, the most interesting part of the production, playing the stoic but desperate farmer with a tight jaw and a really broad accent--an accent no-one else in the film has, not his son, Henry (Dylan Schmid) or his wife, Arlette (Molly Parker), or anyone else. For all the exposition from Wilfred about how things were in 1922, as compared to what I guess was 1930 or so, the film never really establishes a sense of that time and place. People talk and act mostly like they're from 2017.

Wilfred narrates the film which portrays the events we see him writing about in a notebook in a little hotel room. He explains how, in 1922, a man's pride was his land and his son and he further explains how a man's wife was considered his to do with as he pleased. It would have been nice if we'd seen this illustrated in the behaviour of the sheriff who comes to investigate after Wilfred kills her, or some support for the idea that Wilfred grew up in a culture that supported notions of men possessing women. Or at least teased the possibility but Wilfred with his broad accent seems isolated in his world of adequate, hacky compositions that probably got someone a good grade in a film class but do nothing to enhance or establish mood or emotion in the story.

There are ghosts and rats and cg, all with less impact than the haunted house put on by your local elementary school, and a whole lot less fun.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Real Made Up Madness

You have to figure insane asylums are filled with stories. Robert Bloch wrote five featured in the 1972 Amicus anthology film Asylum. Solidly directed by Roy Ward Baker and featuring a great cast that includes Patrick Magee, Charlotte Rampling, Peter Cushing, Herbert Lom, and Britt Ekland, it's a morbid pleasure with plenty of nice, lurid atmosphere. It also contains some rumination on identity and the validity of sanity as a concept.

The framing story involves a young, confident doctor named Martin (Dr. Martin) interviewing for a job at an asylum now being run by Dr. Rutherford, played by Patrick Magee, who was forced to take over the place recently after the previous head of the asylum went mad and joined the inmates. As a test to see if Martin is worthy of a post at the asylum, he's tasked with interviewing each patient and figuring out which one is the previous head of the asylum--he or she has invented a whole different name and past. I enjoyed this device a lot--it adds another spur for the viewer's attention as one is forced to contemplate not only if the subject is the one Martin's looking for but if the story they're telling has any truth to it. And, of course, it's always possible Rutherford is an inmate who's taken over, it wouldn't be surprising given that Rutherford is Patrick Magee with his idiosyncratic twitchy performance.

The first interview is with a woman named Bonnie (Barbara Parkins) whose story is mostly about her lover, Walter (Richard Todd), who murders his wife for her. This was the least effective story of the group, its tension derived from dismembered body parts coming back to life in a not entirely convincing manner.

The second story is very nice, featuring Peter Cushing as a mysterious Mr. Smith who comes to the subject of the interview, a tailor named Bruno (Barry Morse), to hire him to make a suit out of strange glowing fabric. Bruno is only too eager to accept the job because he's behind on his rent. The story is filled with wonderful gloom from the darkness of Bruno's shabby store to the rain-slicked exteriors and it plays nicely on economic tension as Bruno, faced with the loss of his livelihood, is dependent on the bizarre, weird, fanciful, and what turns out to be ghoulish, needs of the bourgeois Mr. Smith.

The third story is good mainly for Charlotte Rampling's performance. She plays the subject of the interview, Barbara, and she recounts a story of her life being upended by her relationship with a woman named Lucy played by Britt Ekland. Ekland and Rampling are a very strange pair, Rampling giving a complex performance of a woman sinking in feelings of addiction, dependence, and abandonment and Ekland not managing much more than a pretty flutter of her eyelashes. But it makes sense for the story which partly seems to draw on anxieties related to the stigma of homosexual relationships at the time and it's another way the movie subtly pushes against prevalent notions of what constitute insanity.

Herbert Lom plays the last subject, Dr. Byron, who makes weird little mannequins in his room. Inevitably, he brings one to life in order to exact revenge, this story not quite as effectively creepy as the Doctor Who serial Terror of the Autons from the year before, ironically because the inferior special effects on Doctor Who were in this case much creepier.

Twitter Sonnet #1047

We wake as breezes stop in subtle light.
As coats in thinning fog conduct a song.
The silent push attends to guide the sight.
A rippling grass remains and moves along.
The sun returns on reddish days to watch.
Behind a fork of jelly beans it burns.
The distant tops of fossil trees are notched.
What leaves'll dream the highest flower learns.
In plain developed film a dress appeared.
A turning hail could not sustain its wrath.
In iris shot a motor car's a tear.
In silver steps the snow aligned a path.
Imposed beyond the furnace flames array.
Withdrawing shreds of cloud concede the day.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Bring Me the Disco King

I think Captain Lorca is my favourite character on Star Trek: Discovery now. In Sunday's new episode, "Lethe", he was the most solidly written character and damn if that Jason Isaacs doesn't have charisma.

Spoilers after the screenshot

I'm not sure about the thoroughness of his background check on Tyler (Shazad Latif), though. Seriously, is there anyone out there fooled by this, anyone thinking, "That poor Starfleet officer, captured by the Klingons, lucky he met Lorca! I wonder what's in store for him on board the Discovery!" CBS has gone to a lot of trouble to make things even more obvious by giving a completely made up name for the actor playing the albino Klingon, Voq. If you go to the imdb entry for "Javid Iqbal" you'll see that Star Trek: Discovery is his one and only screen credit and he has even less biography on record than Tyler. Did no-one ask Tyler what it was like reconnecting with family and friends who thought he was dead?

Actually I think there's a clue in Michael (Sonequa Martin-Green) being surprised that Lorca would "practically adopt" anyone, let alone Tyler. I suspect this is a case of Lorca wanting treat the obvious spy as an intel asset. But poor guileless Tilly (Mary Wiseman) buys the whole story and even thinks Tyler is "hot".

She's just so eager to be a captain and get the good grades and do everything right. It's like watching Wile E Coyote walk off a cliff. But who knows, maybe I'm wrong.

It seems Holodeck technology in the Discovery timeline is as advanced as it is in The Next Generation, which makes sense since all communications are by hologram in this universe. Maybe the reference to the Enterprise by Michael is meant to make us believe there's a Starfleet ship out there using viewscreens and everyone wears pastel coloured pullovers. Michael's so comfortable in her blue jacket she's even wearing it in her mind connect with Sarek when in the waking world she's wearing one of the snazzy Disco exercise shirts.

I guess no-one in the future remembers the term "Disco" having other connotations? I guess no-one remembers ABBA or the Bee-Gees? Maybe it's one of those things people just don't talk about, like the Vulcan "Hello".

How come they never do the "Peace and Long Life" part of the salute on Discovery? I checked Memory Alpha and saw that there are other instances of people just using the "Live Long and Prosper" part of the exchange so this isn't exactly a break with canon. Still, I feel bad for the people at Memory Alpha saddled with the headache of somehow trying to jam Disco in among everything else. I would advise them not to try. Why do we have to cross our eyes and pretend all this makes sense? Because Alex Kurtzmen says so? Context is for kings, suckers!

I still like Martin-Green as Michael but her character really has short shrift in this episode. Sarek (James Frain) lying about Michael failing the test is more about him than her. Did this push Michael to try harder? Did this set up a rivalry between her and Spock? What is her relationship like with Spock? I would like to know. I wonder if Michael's seeming erasure from history is going to be an allegory for how minorities and women have had their contributions erased throughout history. Which I suppose would be another nail in the coffin of Star Trek as hopeful vision of the future. I wouldn't say that the "logic extremist" idea of the Vulcan suicide bomber in this episode makes no sense--many of the most damaging ideas about race came from the 18th and early 19th century when supposed men of reason came up with a pseudo-scientific rationales for the inferiority of certain races. This would fit in with an overarching theme that it's sometimes better to throw out the rules and go with your gut.

Cornwell (Jayne Brook) is apparently a psychiatrist as well as an Admiral but judging from the way she attacks and threatens Lorca's career before finally getting around to mentioning his possible PTSD suggests to me she hasn't the best technique. Still, kudos to her for being the only one to acknowledge there's something suspicious about Tyler, though one would think she's in a better position to investigate Tyler on her own than Lorca is. Lorca drawing his phaser on her certainly suggests he is reacting based on trauma, which I think might be something interesting to play off Saru. His whole culture is based on the idea of reacting to perceived threat. But I wish there were more scenes between Lorca and Michael, I do like their chemistry. Certainly better than Michael's with Tyler. He seems to win her over by just describing her behaviour as "human". I don't know if he could be more obvious if he said, "Sounds like something one of you--I mean, we--humans would do. Yes, it's very humanitoid, as they say. Us humanly human humans, humaning all over the place, that's definitely us, oh yeah . . ."

Hey, I wonder why Voq wasn't in this episode.

Monday, October 23, 2017

For Hobbits and Elves

Lord of the Rings is really an underrated book and it seems to be getting more underrated as time goes by. I've finished reading it again last night and maybe I'm just in the afterglow of that beautiful, perfect ending but I think it deserves a place among the greatest works of literature. Not just for the power of the writing itself, which is both beautiful and intelligent, but for the place it occupies in the chronology of English literature. What Tolkien sought to do, and succeeded in doing, was to create an inspiring myth for a post World War I world.

I've read it through three times now--first in high school, then again just before Peter Jackson's film adaptations came out, and then over this past year. Between 1999 and now I've read The Silmarillion, Children of Hurin, and I've reread The Hobbit a couple times. In that time I've also read a lot more and now I find myself fascinated by the implications in the story Tolkien chose to tell when placed alongside the shifting attitudes in literature over the course of his lifetime. When I took British Literature II in college, the narrative I heard was of how the innocent idealisation of valorous warfare in works by Alfred, Lord Tennyson was made obsolete by the vividly portrayed reality of dehumanising warfare by Wilfred Owen. But what Tolkien gives us in Lord of the Rings are both perspectives in a single work. You have the glorious, doomed ride of the Rohan cavalry not unlike "Charge of the Light Brigade" and you have the horrific, day to day reality of Sam and Frodo's grim trek through Mordor in which it is difficult not to see something like No Man's Land in trench warfare.

It is especially inappropriate to look for allegory or precise ratio interpretations in Tolkien's work because he specifically rebuked such attempts throughout his life. "As for any inner meaning or 'message'," Tolkien wrote in a forward to the second edition, "it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical." I tend often to quote Tolkien's disdain for allegory because I think he's right, not just in referring to his own art but any other. Lord of the Rings is great because it can be interpreted as being about addiction, or a specific war, or a specific political conflict, or none at all. Its power is in its ability to have different personal meanings for different people--and yet, at the same time, because it is the same work, it unites people as a reflection of common human experience in infinite manifestations. So although Tolkien was himself anti-Communist, it's no wonder he so vigorously insisted there was no ant-Communist allegory in "The Scouring of the Shire"--not because he had no wish to insult Communists but because he didn't want to codify any one interpretation.

It is striking, though, how like the miseries of Communist countries are those depicted in that penultimate chapter in the Shire. The ubiquitous, ugly, crudely constructed brick houses, the "ruffians" who take everyone's food for "redistribution" that ends up just fattening the bosses. But one could as easily say that the normal state of affairs in the Shire, without any real central authority, and with generous gift giving and feast providing traditions, represent an idealised Communist society. Tolkien doesn't present any logical arguments about how feasible any specific form of government is, his writing mostly focuses on the sensory and on specific characters.

As we're in an era where political interpretations are vigorously enforced on works whether the authors like it or not, The Lord of the Rings presents several contradictions that must be maddening to interpreters unable to keep their vision sufficiently narrow. Tolkien spends a great deal of time describing the beauty of a divinely ordained inherited rulership yet also talks about the virtues of freedom and arguably his most human character is Sam. One could say Lord of the Rings presents an affectionate praise of the working class in an intricate ode to fascism. Tolkien disliked his friend C.S. Lewis putting clear references to Christianity in the Narnia books--and one could argue Tolkien is vindicated in the much wider appreciation garnered by Lord of the Rings--though it seems likely Tolkien's Catholicism, specifically in contrast to anti-Catholic attitudes he encountered through much of his life, made him a natural booster for divinely ordained figures of authority and for the ability of such figures, like Aragorn or Theoden, to unite a populace by inspiring them. A modern reader might scoff at Eomer and Gimli arguing over whether Arwen or Galadriel is the more beautiful but this is isn't two guys rating babes on a scale of 1 to 10, it's two people discussing figures whose beauty and grace have inspired them and motivated them through bitter experiences.

So if there is any argument being made by Tolkien in the book, it's in the value of beauty. The despoiling of nature by Sauron and Saruman, the reckless destruction of forest and works of art, like the beheaded statue Sam and Frodo come across, aren't merely the signs of evil but the purest manifestation of it. By contrast, the light of Galadriel, the beauty of Rivendell, inspire and therefore are the sources of peace.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Restraint versus the Vampire

As much as I love Christopher Lee, one of the reasons Dracula is my least favourite of his famous roles is that he generally doesn't do or say very much in the part. He's given a bit more than usual in 1970's Scars of Dracula, a film that also has some of the best examples of the Hammer aesthetic and one of the goriest openings in any film from the studio in the 1960s. The film's themes simplify Bram Stoker's commentary on sexuality to a condemnation of lust, particularly male lust. Directed by Roy Ward Baker, the film's a lot of fun with a lot of very effective tension, among other things.

Several shots like this are clearly intended for the sole purpose of showing how effective the crucifix is in warding off Dracula. Clearly. Yet the film's opening sequence, which is a lot like the ending sequence of many Dracula films, features all the women in the little village slaughtered in the chapel where they've taken shelter while the men storm Dracula's castle.

It's a nicely horrible moment of disorientation. If Dracula can do this on hallowed ground while the townsmen, led by the innkeeper (Michael Ripper as usual) and the priest (Michael Gwynn) are burning his home, how can Dracula be defeated? It's no wonder the townspeople seem sullenly resigned to life under the shadow of Dracula after this.

How did he manage it, anyway? Well, vampire bats play an especially crucial role in this film as Dracula's ally--one even revives him at the beginning of the film to explain why he's not still obliterated from the previous entry in the series. So it's vaguely implied that a swarm of bats managed to slaughter all these people, something improbably enough that's probably for the best it was left off screen. It's a shame vampire bat effects never really became convincing until cgi advancements in the 90s. Even in Dario Argento's classic Suspiria made a few years later the vampire bat is the same rubber toy flopping on wires.

The action shifts to a nearby city and we're introduced to the first of the film's protagonists, Paul Carlson (Christopher Matthews), who happens to be an absolute cad. He wakes up in bed with a young woman (Delia Lindsay), quickly leaving her with flippant language, obliging her to chase him naked down the stairs. Released the same year as The Vampire Lovers, also directed by Roy Ward Baker, Scars of Dracula isn't aiming for the almost softcore porn quality of the other film and contents itself with showing only Lindsay's bare buttocks. In addition to titillation, this brings a comedic tone to a scene that winds up having very serious consequences, a lesson to any young fellow who would take such things lightly. She turns out to be the burgomaster's daughter and when he blunders in to spot her, covered by only a sheet clutched to her bosom while chasing Paul, she's obliged to accuse Paul of rape. Thus the chase begins that eventually sees Paul lost in distant woods to become a guest of Dracula.

But before that we meet his brother, Simon (Dennis Waterman) and Simon's fiancée, Sarah (Jenny Hanley), who, like all the other women in the film, is in love with Paul, much to Simon's barely restrained vexation. But it is restrained and one senses this is why Simon is less vulnerable to the vampire. Though even Dracula seems jealous when one of his brides (Anouska Hempel) wants to take a bite out of Paul.

The film also features Patrick Troughton as Klove, a Renfield-like thrall of Dracula's. This was the year after Troughton left Doctor Who and I was kind of hoping he would play a Van Helsing-ish role in this film but I should have expected something much different. Troughton's main reason for leaving Who was his hope not to be type cast. He is effectively disgusting with false teeth and a massive unibrow. His character is given a little complexity when his loyalty is divided after he falls in love with a portrait of Sarah in Paul's possession--close-ups on Troughton give him a nice opportunity to convey internal conflict. Once again, of course, lust is the thorn in a character's side.

Twitter Sonnet #1046

To represent the real the hair is small.
In climbing up adult the verb is pale.
In swaddling shades conceptions birth the wall.
Computing forth, the voyage shaped the whale.
In rambles winding out the digit seeks.
As fortune's wind allows umbrellas through.
The dust of rain illumes the greying peaks.
The fields between were where the branches grew.
On placid jade the glasses found an eye.
In hands unasked beneath a thorny bridge.
To cross a starving pit the dust'll try.
In solemn rows the feathered keep the ridge.
In chapels red the bat has found ingress.
The castle draws who wear translucent dress.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Playing with Fictional Fire

The Doctor was once again pitted against the absurdities of his own show in the 2012 Sixth Doctor audio play The Fourth Wall. The audios have done this a few times with stories like The One Doctor--also a Sixth Doctor audio--though The Fourth Wall ostensibly sets its sights a little wider, satirising space opera serials in general. It's funny, has some surprisingly effective drama, and is the third to feature Six's companion Flip who continues to be an enormous delight.

A whole artificial planet called Transmission has been made for the purposes of creating a television series called Laser about a hero named Jack Laser (Hywel Morgan) and his companion, Jancey (Tilly Gaunt), who battle the evil Lord Krarn (Martin Hutson). Due to some kind of mix up while the Doctor (Colin Baker) tries watching a cricket match on a special television on the TARDIS, Flip (Lisa Greenwood) is transported onto the planet into the fictional scenario. The actors apparently perform scenes and in a place in time slightly out of phase with the present the characters become real and "improvise". And that's where Flip finds herself.

The stuff with Laser is pretty much the standard superhero parody you might see on The Tick--the big, dumb, improbably lucky hero armed with corny quips--though Jancey's tendency to scream when there's trouble clearly seems aimed at Doctor Who. My favourite part, though, is Lord Krarn who perfectly satirises everything I hated about the Master in 1980s Doctor Who. He says he wants to take over the universe and he's going to wipe out the human race and Flip finally asks the questions no-one ever thinks to ask the Master in the 80s--why the hell would you want to control the universe and how does destroying the human race help you accomplish that? To which Lord Krarn becomes flustered and can't answer. One of the reasons Missy is my favourite incarnation of the Master is that Steven Moffat actually does a pretty good job explaining the Master's behaviour as a repressed affection for the Doctor--something that's set up in the Third Doctor era with a few lines about how he and the Doctor used to be friends but the idea wasn't really explored until recently.

The Fourth Wall, written by John Dorney, also has some nice stuff about how one shouldn't underestimate the affection fans have for even poorly written fantasies. Krarn encountering his creator almost recalls Roy encountering Tyrell in Blade Runner--Krarn is understandably angry that his wife was killed off just to give him a motive to be evil. It must be quite a shock to discover one day that one has been badly written, I don't really blame him for wanting revenge.