Saturday, March 31, 2018

Another Hazardous Seed

The Sixth Doctor and his companion Mel encounter the violent aftereffects of an abruptly halted war in the 2013 audio play The Seeds of War. Not to be confused with the television stories The Seeds of Doom or The Seeds of Death. There are no literal seeds involved this time but some kind of telepathic entity called The Eminence inciting people to violence. It's not a bad audio, not remarkable, but pretty solid.

Once again the Doctor (Colin Baker) has ended up at the place he intended but 80 years after the date he intended. The nice outing he'd planned for himself and Mel (Bonnie Langford) instead turns into a confrontation in a war zone where incredulous military personnel have trouble believing the Doctor and Mel know nothing of the factions involved.

Mel is pretty inconspicuous in this one except for an amusing reference in the climax to her fondness for carrot juice. But there's not a lot of levity in this one, in fact it's fairly grim. In one moment I liked, Mel tells someone whose father is dying, "If anyone help, it's the Doctor," and the Doctor irritably interrupts with, "Stop making promises on my behalf!" abruptly breaking up the almost deification of the Doctor that sometimes happens in these stories. This one certainly gives an impression of stakes which makes the ending a great deal more satisfying. Six is kind of known for being involved in some particularly grim stories in his television run but this older audio Six is portrayed as more sombre, subtly altering the tone of the story, in this case for the better.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Detoxifying Dr. Jekyll

Can the quest for moral perfection lead to the creation of a perfect monster? Or is the idea of such a quest indicative of a monstrous nature from the outset? One way in which Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is discussed is in how truly either persona reflects the central character's essential nature. It's a story that both pays tribute to and counters the ideas of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Both stories warn of the dangers of man imitating God through scientific experiment but where Mary Shelley clearly has a lot of sympathy for her monster, Hyde is presented as more thoroughly repulsive. And yet it's not quite so simple as that.

Jekyll at first describes the temptation of the Hyde persona as a kind of "slavery" but in the very next paragraph he uses the word "liberty":

Men have before hired bravos to transact their crimes, while their own person and reputation sat under shelter. I was the first that ever did so for his pleasures. I was the first that could thus plod in the public eye with a load of genial respectability, and in a moment, like a schoolboy, strip off these lendings and spring headlong into the sea of liberty. But for me, in my impenetrable mantle, the safety was complete. Think of it—I did not even exist! Let me but escape into my laboratory door, give me but a second or two to mix and swallow the draught that I had always standing ready; and whatever he had done, Edward Hyde would pass away like the stain of breath upon a mirror; and there in his stead, quietly at home, trimming the midnight lamp in his study, a man who could afford to laugh at suspicion, would be Henry Jekyll.

It almost sounds like the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory and the sort of freedom Jekyll describes would be familiar to the average Internet troll. But is "liberty" an altogether accurate term here? John Milton once wrote, ". . . none can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but licence." Like Elster in Vertigo, the freedom that Jekyll describes is dependent on his licence or, to use the preferred term of to-day, privilege. Hyde knocks over a child in the street or even murders a man because he disregards the right of his victims to walk safely in the city. Meanwhile, Hyde himself greedily clutches at protection, hiding behind the wealth and facade of Jekyll.

Of course, Mary Shelley saw Milton from a very different perspective. Her monster is obsessed with Milton's Paradise Lost, identifying with the figure of Satan in it. No surprise given Mary Shelley was influenced by the general love the Romantics had for Paradise Lost, leading to the creation of the "Byronic Hero". Figures like Lord Byron's Manfred who threw off the influence of good and evil to assert their own minds and powers. The idea holds an undeniable appeal but between the publication of Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde the concept of asserting personal passions without regard to others was criticised in a diversity of great works from Moby Dick to The Masque of the Red Death to Madame Bovary to Crime and Punishment. But the effectiveness of these works is in their complexity; the fascination we feel for Ahab, the horror we feel of the Red Death, the sympathy we feel for Emma, and the stimulation we feel from Raskolnikov's argument. The revelation isn't that these seemingly good ideas turned out to be bad after all but that the consequences of true insight into human nature are tragic and horrifying.

We don't see much of Hyde in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, what we learn about him is mostly from characters discussing their impressions of him. We learn more about Jekyll's internal life and his feverish efforts to not be Hyde. Most of the story is told from the perspective of Jekyll's friend and lawyer, Utterson, who until the end believes Hyde and Jekyll are separate entities. Utterson worries about Jekyll's association with the infamous Hyde and after the murder Jekyll says to Utterson, "I cannot say that I care what becomes of Hyde; I am quite done with him. I was thinking of my own character, which this hateful business has rather exposed." No real thought to the victim of the crime anymore than he had real sympathy for the other victims, only a horror at what damage there might be to his reputation. When one considers Jekyll's original motive when he created Hyde, to separate and therefore somehow purge all his negative impulses, it seems all of Jekyll's supposed goodness is but vanity. His interest is more in crafting his purity than in any action that might do effective good. This is a product of the idea of good and evil as abstractions--where they are two concrete states that one can be, then one can focus on them instead of evaluating individual actions based on their real merits. It's the ultimate indictment of Puritan psychology. Of people who can't look directly at their own preoccupations with self-image because fundamental to the drive for salvation is to be worthy rather than to attain worthiness through achievements that can be measured empirically. And this cuts both ways. Jekyll describes the aftermath of his decision never to be Hyde again:

I resolved in my future conduct to redeem the past; and I can say with honesty that my resolve was fruitful of some good. You know yourself how earnestly in the last months of last year, I laboured to relieve suffering; you know that much was done for others, and that the days passed quietly, almost happily for myself. Nor can I truly say that I wearied of this beneficent and innocent life; I think instead that I daily enjoyed it more completely; but I was still cursed with my duality of purpose; and as the first edge of my penitence wore off, the lower side of me, so long indulged, so recently chained down, began to growl for licence.

Not only do the good acts seem worthless to Hyde who doesn't attempt them, they seem worthless to Jekyll after he's done them. The good acts Jekyll refers to are never sufficiently satisfying because he's always aware he's motivated not by the actions themselves but for how those actions might reflect on him, in terms of his reputation and his self-image. When he defines his goodness in terms of an abstraction made concrete by two physical states then no number of positive acts will ever be sufficient. Hyde is naturally a more satisfying persona because Hyde casts off this moral preoccupation entirely. The phoniness of Jekyll's motives make Hyde's base motives seem more legitimate. As a system designed to regulate indulgent, destructive behaviour, the moral sphere to which Jekyll belongs begins with a crack that widens to complete destruction when put into practise.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Too Much Gold

One thing Westerns tend to have that other genres usually don't are scenes of characters ruminating in the wilderness, seemingly shooting the breeze with topics not directly related to the plot but which can have fascinating thematic resonance. In 1954's Garden of Evil, two of the male characters spend so much time pontificating about their one female travelling companion it inevitably reveals more about them than it does about her. Sometimes the dialogue just feels odd and overwrought and I'm not sure some of the strange results were intended. But Henry Hathaway directs some wonderful vistas in Cinemascope and every line seems more significant when delivered the film's three great stars; Gary Cooper, Susan Hayward, and Richard Widmark.

Cooper and Widmark play a couple of would-be prospectors named Hooker and Fiske. They end up stranded in a small Mexican town in a bar where a gorgeous young Rita Moreno is serenading the patrons.

Then Susan Hayward walks in as Leah Fuller, offering two thousand dollars for any man who'll come help her rescue her husband who's trapped in a collapsed mine shaft. Her husband's played by Hugh Marlowe in one of his many roles as the reasonably credible rival to the main male love interest, as he does in Night and the City and Way of a Gaucho. But there's some ambiguity in this film as to just who the main male love interest is.

Hooker and Fiske are both immediately suspicious of the high price Leah is willing the pay but she won't explain, saying something about how no price is too high for a human life. Finally the two men agree to accompany her along with two other men--Luke (Cameron Mitchell) and Vicente (Victor Manuel Mendoza). Kudos to the film for actually employing Hispanic actors as Mexicans and for the extensive use of Spanish--Cooper and Hayward both come off as fluent.

Luke is kind of a hothead and he's the first one to show intentions towards Leah. He tries to assault her one night when the group is camped out and Leah sneaks away to wreck the latest marker Vicente has left so he can find his way back to the mine at a future date. Luke corners her by a river and abruptly starts talking about how he's not doing this for the money, exuding nervous energy before grabbing her.

She gets away from him and goes back to the camp where the film's central scene occurs. It's not the climax of the plot but it seems to be the thematic nexus where the issues the story had been building to come the closest to crystallising and afterwards are digested by the context of future events and decisions. It's clear to Hooker what had happened from the look on Luke's face and the scream he heard from Leah. A fight ensues with a slightly mysterious conclusion. Hooker simultaneously attributes Luke's actions to being a killer and of being only a foolish young man. It's a very grey area that Cooper's gravitas compels the viewer to ponder--Luke is a dangerous guy but they do need all the help they can get. It's also unclear how much Luke's actions are due to a truly malicious nature or are due to him being a foolish young man who's been forced by circumstance to lead a life of violence.

Less clear is why Hooker tells Leah that she bears some blame. It's hard to see the logic even through the lens of 1950s patriarchy and her reply, "What do you think you're saying?" given in an indignant tone, delivered in a way by Hayward that's every bit equal to Cooper's gravitas, is far easier to identify with as a viewer than Hooker's unexplained logic. But it fits in with all the time Hooker and Fiske have spent talking about Leah instead of talking to her while they travelled.

Fiske seems an oddly superfluous character a lot of the time. I almost felt like there was some kind of contractual obligation for Richard Widmark to be included in the film. Mainly he seemed like he was functioning as a motivation for the otherwise taciturn Hooker to speak up--though Hooker never reveals much about himself. But the persistence of Fiske in offering opinions about women, with chestnuts like, "Don't believe anything a woman says but believe everything she sings," starts to feel strange, especially since Leah really doesn't do anything for much of the film except lead the men to her trapped husband.

Then, after things settle down following the fight with Luke, Fiske and Hooker have a really obtuse exchange that I can't for the life of me interpret as anything but Fiske coming on to Hooker.

FISKE: You see how it is? Now she's got you fighting for her honour. She's got you going unarmed against a gun in the hand of a man she turned into an idiot.

HOOKER: A boy.

FISKE: It was very heroic. I admired you enormously. I'm sure she did too. Some day, like Salome, she'll have you bringing her the head of that Vicente in a frying pan.

HOOKER: Or yours.

FISKE: No, no, not mine, Hooker. Mine belongs to you. And you know what they say.

HOOKER: What do they say?

FISKE: Two heads are better than one.

Did I hear that right? Did Fiske just offer to give head to Hooker? That might explain also why Fiske talks about women so much if his homosexuality is repressed.

But all the characters spend some time trashing each other--except Leah who continues to be blamed far more than she deserves. The title of the film, Garden of Evil, evokes the Garden of Eden so maybe Leah leading them to the gold mine is meant to be like Eve leading Adam to the apple. In the latter half of the film, she takes some pretty harsh accusations of manipulation out of greed but she acquits herself pretty well. For all the recriminations and self-interest that seems to be in the dialogue, though, it becomes a story about self-sacrifice and the anti-social behaviour on display seems to be the flip side of deep guilt. Susan Hayward's tenacious performance is crucial as she becomes a kind of wall against which the illusions of bitterness from the men crash and fall back from.

The movie has some great location shots and some of the best matte shots I've ever seen. And it has a good score from Bernard Herrmann.

Twitter Sonnet #1098

A rainy cab invades the desert bait.
Pervasive dust a boon it seemed for shells.
The heated oil poured decides to wait.
Suspended doom arrests attendant bells.
A glowing claw abides in nicer homes.
A chosen hoof deserts the horseless shoe.
Recursive glimmers flatten arching bones.
With liquors late the beef was eaten true.
The acid fades for lack of air or flame.
Contortions cease ennobling facial miens.
A shorter step presaged the height of fame.
A passive bot secures aggressive means.
The red between the blues of ancient eyes
Recalls the crossing cats of nightly skies.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Old Machine in the New Production Line

A young man finds himself caught between the complacency of the old and the impersonal machinery of the new in 1960's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Albert Finney stars in this particularly good kitchen sink drama, the harsh realism in its locations paired with dark, expressionist cinematography by Freddie Francis.

Arthur (Finney) works in a machine factory, a beefy young man who constantly seems about to boil over with his squandered energy and passions. He lives in a dilapidated terraced house with his parents, his dad (Frank Pettitt), listlessly caught up in the television, is barely aware of his son's attempts to engage with him. Meanwhile, Arthur's sleeping with Brenda (Rachel Roberts), the wife of his elder coworker, Jack (Bryan Pringle), who blissfully suspects nothing.

Arthur and Brenda have even gotten comfortable in a sort of domestic pantomime where she cooks him breakfast before work at her home while Jack and the kids are away. Arthur and Brenda both seem genuinely happy with this arrangement and Arthur seems to get something of the validation and comfort of a traditional home life with her. Then Brenda gets pregnant by Arthur.

Around the same time, Arthur meets Doreen (Shirley Anne Field), their initial flirtation a wonderful piece of dialogue, seeming like both rough naturalism and cleverly stylised. He offers her a drink and a cigarette before abruptly asking her to meet for a movie on Wednesday.

ARTHUR: Well don't be late then.

DOREEN: I won't be. But if I am you'll just have to wait, won't you?

Brenda accuses Arthur of not knowing right from wrong but it's clear he does have a moral compass, one he adheres to in defiance of a world that seems to him unprincipled. He insists he wants to help Brenda with the child and when she says she wants an abortion he offers to pay for it. He brings her to meet with his aunt who apparently has a reputation for making pregnancies go away. It's a strange and fascinating scene where the three sit down to an awkward tea.

Arthur leaves to walk with his cousin, to prevent the other young man from learning Brenda is there, and the two of them come across a drunk old man whom they witness breaking a funeral parlour window with his mug. Arthur and his cousin join in with a crowd rebuking the old man but Arthur takes more offence when two women insist on taking the matter to the police. It's clear the cops form no part of legitimate justice in Arthur's eyes. When he sees one of the women gossiping about it later he shoots her from a window with an air rifle, apparently causing her no harm.

When she brings a cop to complain, not only Doreen and Arthur's cousin instinctively cooperate to protect him but his dad does, too, providing an alibi for his son without a second thought. But the scene ends rather amusingly with each party thinking they'd gotten something over on the other.

There's a sort of communal justice that depends a lot on point of view, something that works both for and against Arthur as the film goes on. Much as it must seem to Arthur, the exact border between what he's rebelling against and what he's embracing isn't exactly clear, an ambiguity that makes his discontent all the more credible. Like a lot of stories about young misfits, it ends with the impression that Arthur might be slipping into the conformity he feared, leaving us to wonder with him if there was ever something real outside his box that he was instinctively reaching for.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

A Possibly Deadly Possible Trap Involving what May be Murder

Like dim, scattered memories of a luscious gothic romance, 1948's Corridor of Mirrors spends its time trying to decide what it's about before trying to neatly tie things up with a totally insufficient twist. Director Terence Young's first film, it borrows imagery pretty heavily from Cocteau but has enough of its own creativity to provide some nice atmosphere. The screenplay co-written by its star, Edana Romney, seems more like there was a screenplay by someone else that she insisted be changed throughout production based on a series of different whims. The result partly feels like a cheap, and oddly chaste, romance novel and partly like a four year old's rambling synopsis of the movie she saw yesterday.

Romney plays Mifanwy, a young housewife with rambunctious children who steals away one day to see her secret lover in London, who turns out to be a wax sculpture of Eric Portman at Madame Tussauds. He's now memorialised as a famous killer but Mifonwy flashes back to when he was a man obsessed with 16th century Italy and her.

This is also Christopher Lee's first film; he appears briefly among Mifonwy's friends at the club where they first see Portman's character, Paul Mangin. After a lingering close-up on Mifonwy as he helps her get something out of her eye, he succeeds in convincing her to ride in his hansom cab home to his lavish, lonely manor.

He talks about wanting to charm her and she tells us in voice over narration that he became strange and angry whenever someone laughed at him. Soon he has her dressing in 16th century costumes and dialogue from her and a kitchen maid starts trying to convince us that he has her trapped in some kind of malevolent web of mind control, vaguely implying that she doesn't want to dress up like it's the 16th century until she says, yes, after all, she did.

Portman gives a decent if not terribly animated performance. The film introduces the concept of reincarnation and then a motive to murder which is completely forgotten when a separate, false motive is introduced to exonerate one of the potential murderers at the end of the film. Somehow. Don't look for logic or consistency here unless its consistent admiration for Edana Romney's personality and beauty. Well, she is beautiful.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Pearls Too Rare for Circulation

1962's Amphibian Man (Человек-амфибия) is the story of tragic love between an intensely pretty fish man and an intensely pretty human girl. This Soviet fantasy film pushes Communism a little bit but it thankfully never gets in the way of this really sweet, beautiful story.

Set in Argentina but filmed in Azerbaijan, the story begins with a girl named Guttiere (Anastasiya Vertinskaya) being menaced by sharks while swimming near her father's pearling craft. Fortunately she's rescued by a mysterious silvery being called the Sea Devil. Later, after the two meet again on land, she knows him by his own really cool name, Ichthyander (Vladimir Korenev), though she doesn't learn for some time he was the one who saved her from the sea floor.

She faces another shark in her personal life, the wealthy Pedro Zurita (Mikhail Kozakov), who is basically buying Guttiere as a wife through the debts her father (Anatoli Smiranin) owes him. Obviously there's a dig at Capitalism here, especially since Ichthyander's father, Professor Salvator (Nikolay Simonov), dreams of creating an underwater Republic where everyone is equal. He considers Ichthyander the first citizen--the boy had bad lungs when he was born so Salvator replaced them with shark gills, enabling him to breathe underwater. When Salvator's friend, a reporter named Olsen (Vladien Davydov), complimented his skill in surgery I thought it was quite an understatement.

But Ichthyander isn't interested in any high minded governing philosophies. He's young and in love--he escapes from his father's compound and wanders the streets for the first time, drawn by the siren call of jazz and folk music.

Everyone seems to be singing about calling men back from the sea, too. It's a nice effect. He braves the city traffic and angry street vendors to find love.

I love how the colour in old Soviet fantasy films looks like birthday cake. I also miss the days when filmmakers, whatever their nationality, tried to think of creative ways to show a character transitioning into a dream sequence or memory. There's a really lovely bit where Ichthyander's musing face dissolves into stars as he fantasises about swimming with Guttiere.

One could even find a faint critique of the Soviet Union in the film's presentation of the impossibility of a patently unreal Communist ideal ultimately unable to connect with the real world. There's an elegiac quality to the film's preoccupation with a nice but impossible dream.

Twitter Sonnet #1097

A whale of tea reports a heavy drop.
A starry band contains the second lake.
Around the bend the beaches must be cropped.
Like points of wings the ripples brightly bake.
A tilted lamp acknowledged torchless swords.
Impatience stops a piled dust to light.
As countless feet were walking to the boards.
The silhouette returned to set it right.
In dreams of weirder pipes the trees were free.
A lasting gum completes the trailer set.
Completed ants obliged a subbing bee.
A silver suit emerged a trifle wet.
The mem'ry grew in dreamy velvet stars.
The ocean floor would glow for distant Mars.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

A Low Bar for a Fox

I've never seen an American adventure film from the 40s feature more wonderful locations than 1949's Prince of Foxes. Set at the beginning of the 16th century, the filmmakers made extensive use of many structures that had endured for centuries. It's a shame the screenplay is one of the most vapid pieces of dreck I've come across, its blunt morality making it seem like it was entirely a product of the Hays code. But gods, the visuals in this film almost make up for it. The locations are matched by intricate costumes and interiors. The film also has some talented actors and a few untalented but attractive actors.

The film stars Tyrone Power as a man named Orsini, an agent of political machinations for Cesare Borgia who's played by Orson Welles. Welles elevates the whole film whenever he's on screen, managing to make his insipid, stock villain dialogue sound almost genuinely devious. Power, though, has nothing to compensate for his thoroughly unimpressive character.

Basil Rathbone said Tyrone Power was a better swordsman than Errol Flynn, and Prince of Foxes has one decent sword fight, but Power has nothing on Flynn's charisma. He's interesting in a few films--Nightmare Alley actually kind of makes use of his typewriter guilelessness. But he's no prince of foxes, he's scarcely a page. As the scheming courtier Orsini he's about as convincing as Natalie Portman would be playing Stalin.

Things are made worse when he's turned from the dark side apparently because somehow people are only mentioning to him for the first time that it's wrong to do wrong. He stops in for a clandestine visit to his peasant mother who right in front of him prays to the Madonna for him to be punished for associating with Borgia. Orsini looks terrified and flees before his mother's righteousness.

Later, he's sent on a mission to murder an old count (Felix Aylmer) and marry his young wife, Camilla (Wanda Hendrix), who already seems to be falling for Orsini.

But through the power of their virtue alone the two of them have Orsini figured and constantly preach to him, telling him he'll be nothing unless he turns from his evil ways. The dumb oaf evidently finds this persuasive. Some fox.

Then there's this dopey Carnival scene where Orsini and his cohort are transported with delight by confetti and puppets. Watching the crafty fox giggling like a baby I had to wonder just what the hell the filmmakers thought they were doing.

Everett Sloane--Bernstein from Citizen Kane--has a big role as an assassin who becomes Orsini's assistant. Orsini and others gratuitously comment on how his facial features exemplify evil. Sloane must have been a hell of a good sport. Anyway, he gives a decent performance, he and Orson Welles make this film go down a lot easier. But gods, the locations. I don't think there were any matte paintings used. The smoke coming from this castle is there just as a backdrop for Camilla's melancholy wanderings in the garden.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Mars versus the Moon

No Doctor had greater capacity for panic than the Second Doctor. Sometimes Five came kind of close but Two uniquely gives me that sense of someone about to melt down completely in utter terror. Here he nearly succumbs to the horror of deadly soap suds from the good 1969 serial The Seeds of Death--not to be confused with the Fourth Doctor serial, The Seeds of Doom.

These seeds come courtesy of the Ice Warriors, most of this serial having been written by Brian Hayles, who wrote the first Ice Warrior serial. This is the second and features the lumbering saddle-bagged menace exploiting Earth's dependence on T-Mat and the technology's relay system on the moon. This was the first story to feature Doctor Who's answer to Star Trek's transporter beam, the Transmat or T-Mat, a device still commonly mentioned by name in Doctor Who media to-day.

The Seeds of Death begins with the TARDIS appearing in a private museum to rocket technology owned by Earth's pre-eminent rocket engineer, Professor Eldred (Philip Ray), who's grown bitter about his life's work having been rendered irrelevant by the T-Mat. In fact, he's so bitter that the Doctor (Patrick Troughton) has to pitch in on coaxing Eldred to go back to work when a sudden disruption of the T-Mat creates a need for a rocket.

The first episode spends so much time on Eldred (not to be confused with Eldrad from The Hand of Fear) it's a little odd he's shuffled into an inconspicuous support role for most of the remaining five episodes. More important is the pretty know-it-all named Gia Kelly (Louise Pajo) who seems to hold in her head the sum total of Earth's expertise in Transmat. A scene where she and Zoe (Wendy Padbury) rig up a trap for the Ice Warriors made me contemplate a series starring the two where they go about solving problems and losing patience because no-one can keep up with them.

This serial was also the first appearance of one of the Ice Warrior commanders (Alan Bennion). This one doesn't have the cape seen on the commanders in the two Peladon serials, making his head look a bit oversized and, in comparison to the foot soldier variety, his body exceptionally slender.

I like how often actors are placed in front of this pulsating background, there's a sort of groovy 60s concert quality to it.

I also like that it didn't take much convincing for Earth's authorities to assign Jamie (Frazer Hines) to the rocket team. No-one questions the wisdom of going into space in a kilt. Zoe was sensible enough not to wear a skirt.

Aside from the fourth episode in which Patrick Troughton is conspicuously absent (he was on holiday) it's a solid serial in which the Doctor plays a nice, active role in the end.