Monday, August 31, 2020

Those Pretty Flowers Just Waiting to be Plucked

For some people, the greatest sexual fantasy is of a completely passive and compliant partner, someone with no interior life and who is utterly dependent on their lover for satisfying physical and emotional needs. Ryan Gosling plays such a character in 2007's Lars and the Real Girl, a romantic film designed to please viewers who fantasise about relationships between dominant women and passive men. If you're a submissive man or a woman inclined to domination, this might be the movie for you.

The ironic thing, of course, is that it's about a man who falls under the delusion that he's in a relationship with a sex doll, which you might expect to lead to just the opposite sort of story. We meet Lars (Gosling) before he acquires the doll and he's living alone in a garage, part of a large midwestern estate. His brother, Gus (Paul Schneider), and pregnant sister-in-law, Karin (Emily Mortimer), live in the enormous main house. Karin is constantly pestering Lars to come over for dinner but Lars prefers to be alone. At one point, she jumps in front of Lars' car and tackles him when he gets out, just to insist that he come to dinner.

Can you imagine if the genders were swapped in this scene? Of course, it's not too hard because stories of infinitely wise men fixing emotionally broken women are easy to find in cinema of the 40s and 50s, movies like The Snake Pit or my least favourite Hitchcock film, Marnie. I don't tend to enjoy such films but, as with Lars and the Real Girl, I'm sure there are plenty of people who find them immensely satisfying. What right have I to judge?

For a while I thought Lars and the Real Girl was going in a different direction. When Lars introduces his new plastic lover, at first I thought it was a rather clever way to finally get Karin to leave him alone. In a way similar to a Vodun bocio, the often deliberately frightening dolls of bone, feathers, and and various other ingredients meant to frighten away people or repel magic. I thought maybe his strategy was to make himself such an unappealing dinner guest that Karin would never invite him again.

There are some signs that make me think this was the intent in an earlier draft of the screenplay. When they sit down to dinner, Lars politely asks about Gus and Karin's lives and Gus pointedly changes the subject when asked if anything is wrong. There's another scene where Gus is asked why he's not going to work and he says he's not feeling well in a defensive tone. It starts to look like maybe the real psychological dysfunction belongs to Gus--possibly that he's been laid off from work and he's carrying on under the delusion that he's still employed. But then later we see him at work and all of these hints at the beginning of the film never lead anywhere.

All of the women in the film are presented as sensitive and wise and all the men are presented as small minded children except for the local pastor who only appears in two scenes. Gus is unreasonably irritated by the idea of playing along with Lars' delusion while his wife instinctively accepts Bianca, the doll, as do all the other women in the community. Soon Bianca is volunteering at the hospital and has a part time job in a clothing store. Amusingly, Lars and the doll have their first argument when she has a hospital dinner scheduled on a night when he wants to be alone with her. He comes upon Karin and another woman doing Bianca's hair and dressing her--Bianca, an object designed to complement Lars' preferred life of solitude, has become a tool to socialise him. This comes to a head when Lars and Karin have an argument in which he accuses her of being selfish and she throws back at him how much work she and the other women have put into making Bianca part of the community. Which might have been a point for Lars to point out this is exactly the kind of emotional debt he'd tried to avoid by taking a doll for a girlfriend but the film is firmly on Karin's side.

It's a bit of an extrovert's fantasy, the idea that introverts don't really want to be alone, they're just waiting for extroverts to rescue them. We know Lars likes to be alone but we never actually see what he does with his time except look out the window wistfully. One bleak shot shows him sitting quietly on his bed in the darkness. It's not clear what his job is, only that it's in an office and there's no sense that Lars does anything of value. He doesn't seem to have any opinions. Naturally, too, he's much too pure to actually have sex with Bianca who sleeps separately from him in his deceased mother's bedroom. All of these things would be complications, of course, in the project of bringing this attractive man out of his shell to eventually accept his wise and benevolent lady with blushing humility, grateful to her for at last giving his life meaning.

Ryan Gosling gives an excellent performance, as always, showing an internal conflict clearly and subtly. Emily Mortimer is also very good though she doesn't quite pull off an American accent.

Twitter Sonnet #1389

The waiting bid was lost for being late.
A pitted clock could ape a metal hat.
It's nearly time we struck the timeless pate.
For something took the tiny purple cat.
A fitting mask completes the stocking line.
As pencils make the river run with grey.
The heavy tinsel droops the elder pine.
And all the bridges crowd the massive bay.
A curling green would fade to blue in rain.
Another green contained a greater grass.
The ectoplasm left a citrus stain.
Sufficient grades create a muscle pass.
A handy lump of plastic changed the year.
A diff'rent kind of liquid changed the beer.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Alice, as Always

Once more down the rabbit hole, friends. My survey of Disney's animated canon brings me now to their 1951 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, a film I've written about numerous times, most recently just two years ago. My love for the movie can be seen in one of the few kitchen items I brought in my luggage to Japan, this coffee cup:

This was a gift my parents brought back from Disneyland some years ago. I was happy to see plenty of Alice in Wonderland merchandise here in Japan, too. Not long after arriving I compulsively purchased a pad of pop-up notes at Daiso, the 100 yen store.

Teaching at junior high, I've been delighted to see how many girls have Alice in Wonderland pencil cases and notebook dividers. Here, at least, the Tim Burton live action film has not supplanted the 1951 adaptation in the public imagination. When I was a kid in the 80s, my friends and I would watch Disney cartoons from the 40s and 50s without any awareness of how old they were. Here in Japan, it's the same, and children are equally as familiar with Cinderella as they are with Frozen. Live action Disney movies don't seem to be quite as well known. All of this was a pleasant surprise because I'd recently had an experience that led me to expect otherwise.

I had a series of tutoring jobs before coming to Japan. One of my students was a fifteen year old Chinese boy whom I tutored in his very large new home in one of the more affluent areas of San Diego. One of the reasons gentrification is--or was--getting so out of hand in California is an influx of investors from China and other countries suddenly buying a lot of real estate. I drove to this kid's house every night, his whole neighbourhood was so new it wasn't even on satellite view on Google maps yet. He was a good kid and I always felt bad for how little free time he had, his parents kept him under a pretty strict regimen. He was learning English but he'd also somehow gotten himself into an advanced English literature class at an elite private high school. My job was not only to tutor him in English as a second language but also to assist in his comprehension of recent, snooty postmodernist novels (one being a novel called We are All Completely Beside Ourselves, the title of which was alone a nightmarish layering of references for the poor guy), Macbeth, and his history homework, which consisted of watching a smug YouTuber called John Green whose "Crash Course" videos are a perfect storm of inscrutability for the English language learner featuring complex English in rapidfire delivery riddled with ironic asides and jokes based on politically oriented presumptions spoken in the same tone as facts. Green's videos are bad enough to confuse a native speaking high school student. In the same breathe he talks about ancient currency, condemns ancient leaders for often being male, and makes a crack about his luck getting dates as a teenager.

I felt like I did a pretty good job tutoring him on Macbeth though when he heard initially that it was going to be about a man murdering his king I think he hoped it was going to be a different kind of story. It was about this time I started thinking about tutoring him with Lewis Carroll's original Alice in Wonderland books.

When I brought up the idea he didn't seem enthusiastic and told me that he'd already seen the movie, meaning the Tim Burton one. Speaking recently with other young people I've discovered the Burton film has solidified for one reason or another in the minds of people under 25 as the story. And many are understandably underwhelmed. Burton's movie, more of an action film about a young woman fighting the forces of darkness, has little actual relevance to the lives of school children. I assured him the book was very different and we started reading. Very quickly I could see, and in spite of himself, it was connecting with him. When we came to this part of chapter three he was provoked to genuine laughter:

“In that case,” said the Dodo solemnly, rising to its feet, “I move that the meeting adjourn, for the immediate adoption of more energetic remedies—”

“Speak English!” said the Eaglet. “I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and, what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!” And the Eaglet bent down its head to hide a smile: some of the other birds tittered audibly.

It was one of the most rewarding moments so far in my brief career as a teacher. I knew the job I had with him was practically impossible but I decided to focus on showing him that literature, and English, could be something more than a chore or a grade to be earned or even money. It could be a friend.

The thing adaptations almost never understand about the books, including the 1951 film, is that the books present the senselessness of an adult world from a child's perspective. Even good children's fiction is often more about the challenges of an adult than a child. Sometimes a child can enjoy such fiction because, after all, kids are instinctively looking for models of how to behave as an adult. But Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is one of those rare works that capture a child's experience. Among many other things.

Another facet of Carroll's genius is that the books can be many different things to different people. Alice's existential questioning in the beginning of the book is deeply evocative for anyone of any age. The commentary on cliques in "The Garden of Live Flowers" in Through the Looking Glass is an amusing sociological satire and the Queen of Hearts' every line is a potent critique of tyrannical mindsets. Another reason the books endure in the mind so much is their curious scarcity of sentimentality. The opening and closing poems are really the only time you get anything like the infamous Victorian sentimentalizing of children. But Carroll knew the wistful remembrance of expired childhood had little to do with a child's point of view, by definition. The Alice books are also two of the few 19th century novels to feature a female protagonist who never falls in love. The absence of these things has the result of making them more conspicuous in the mind of the reader, which is one reason I think people obsess with discussing Carroll's possible attraction to Alice Liddell.

The 1951 film stays away from romance but it does indulge in some sentimentality, and very successfully, when it comes to the beautifully animated daisies in the opening sequence and the title song. That song, of course, has become a jazz standard and it's hard not to be wooed by the gentle melancholy of Bill Evans' interpretation:

Or the brisk affection in Oscar Peterson's:

The film also features great visual design by Mary Blair and some of the best executed comedy moments of any Disney film.

1951's Alice in Wonderland is available on Disney+.

My ranking of Alice in Wonderland film adaptations can be found here.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Two Doctors Finding the Time to Fight Daleks

What's Ten and Four, wears a scarf and pinstripes? The two Doctor's featured in Out of Time, a new Doctor Who audio play released this month starring Tom Baker and David Tennant. Since the Fourth and Tenth Doctors tend to rank at the top of Doctor rankings, this is a pretty momentous match up. Expectations were therefore bound to exceed the results and, while Out of Time is good, the story falls well short of the best of Big Finish audio plays. Still, listening to Baker and Tennant interacting is definitely a treat.

How much interaction there was isn't entirely clear. In the interviews included with the release, the staff and performers talk a little about the challenge of recording this audio play in lockdown. Everyone recorded from their homes and each performer was responsible for creating or finding an environment for good sound quality. Everyone seems to have done a good job on this front--it's technically flawless. Tennant, as always, is a master at bringing life to dialogue. Baker seems a little subdued and perhaps he suffered from not being in the same studio to play off the other actors--improvisation is a big part of what makes his Doctor great.

Set during the era of final specials when Ten was travelling alone, it feels very much like a Tenth Doctor story in which the Fourth guest stars rather than vice versa. Still evading his inevitable regeneration, Ten shows up at a special Celestial Temple outside of normal time and space where people from everywhere and -when go for rest and contemplation. Mechanisms are in place to prevent time streams from crossing but restraint encourages Ten to rebel even more and, using his sonic screwdriver to bypass the safety measures, he soon stumbles on Four working away on a replica of the Sistine Chapel.

Trouble arises when the Daleks invade and the two Doctors are forced to work together to stop them. A lot of the story deals with the Doctor's penchant for breaking rules for necessity and whim and this connects to Ten's current "I don't want to go" state of mind. Four is curiously critical of Ten's attitude about mortality, surprised at his successor's reluctance to regenerate, something that feels both like a Classic fan's criticism of New and like a very credible conversation for the two to have. According to the bonus interviews included with the release, Four initially had even more dialogue critical of Ten but it was toned down at Tom Baker's request. It goes to show what a sweet guy Baker is.

I don't have anything against the idea of the Doctor being reluctant to regenerate per se but Ten dragged it on so long that it really became a low point for his tenure. So it was kind of nice hearing Four give him some gentle rebuke. It also leads to an amusing moment at the end where Four essentially invites Ten to be his companion for a while.

Out of Time is available at Big Finish.

Friday, August 28, 2020

The Glorious Triumph of the Meek!

As acts of humility go, a man putting himself on a pedestal for 39 years seems a little counterintuitive. Yet the contradiction doesn't seem to occur to characters involved in Luis Bunuel's 1965 film Simon of the Desert (Simón del desierto), a key component of the film's effective, understated comedy.

We join Simon, the 5th century Syrian saint (Claudio Brook), as a wealthy local is presenting him with an even higher column. As a crowd eagerly follows him in his stroll from one column to another, his mother pleads with him to stay with her. Of course, he tells her, his work is more important, and he ascends.

People pray for miracles--Simon astonishingly restores a man's severed hands. The man seems momentarily pleased but then immediately starts arguing with his wife and kids about housework that needs doing. A couple guys who'd come to see a miracle that day lose interest and start talking about lunch. Of course, this is all part of the standard reason offered as to why Jesus didn't dispense miracles like candy; it's counterproductive to faith. Or "there's no pleasing some people," as the slightly better joke in Life of Brian on the same topic goes.

Simon's experience really starts to look like Christ's temptation in the desert when Satan shows up played by a delightfully mischievous Silvia Pinal, a far cry from the pious, wouldbe nun she played in Bunuel's Viridiana. She skips around in an anachronistic school girl uniform and flashes Simon her goods. She's pretty great.

Originally intended to be part of an anthology film, Pinal was unable to secure cooperation from other directors of Bunuel's stature. As she explains in an interview included in the Criterion edition, she went to Frederico Fellini and Jules Dassin, both of whom wanted to cast their wives in roles intended for Pinal. It's too bad, I would have liked to have seen the full film. I wonder if it would've been Pinal's Satan in Job and maybe Genesis. Simon of the Desert, at 45 minutes, is pretty good as it is, though.

Simon of the Desert is available on The Criterion Channel.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

A Yakuza's Land

How much trouble can a young man be in just after getting out of prison? Jiro finds his troubles began even before he got out in 1968's Retaliation (縄張はもらった, "Territory Received"). Stylish and featuring an absorbingly complicated plot, this isn't one of the best yakuza movies I've seen but it is well above average. With decent cinematography and locations, the action scenes sometimes lack focus. But there are plenty of good qualities in the film before even mentioning its best quality, which is its stars--Akira Kobayashi and Jo Shishido.

Kobayashi plays Jiro and Shishido plays Hino, Jiro's first problem. Hino meets Jiro right outside prison and after a deceptively casual stroll reveals he's there to take revenge for his little brother who was killed by Jiro's gang. They start fighting but are interrupted when Hino's girlfriend shows up.

Jiro doesn't want to fight so Hino's vendetta is left unresolved. Meanwhile, Jiro finds his old boss recovering in hospital, the medical bills having been paid by Hino's gang. So Jiro owes them a favour and gets involved in their complicated plot related to a rival gang's land zoning scheme. Jiro and Hino are forced to work together and team up with a group of particularly nasty thugs as they pose as members of the rival gang. They watch as one of the thugs, Naruse (Tamio Kawaji), and his chums kidnap a pretty young woman off the street and molest her in their car. This woman turns out to be none other than a young Meiko Kaji, credited as Masako Ota.

She's the daughter of a local farmer. The plan is this: one gang harasses the family and the other gang sweeps in as their miraculous protectors. Then they buy the land themselves for "factories". It's much more sophisticated than the heists in a lot of yakuza movies and feels pretty credible. Director Yasuharu Hasebe is well known for making a series of rape fantasy films in the 70s but all of the sexual assault feels organic to the story in Retaliation. One of my favourite moments in the film is near the end when Jiro, tired, smoking a cigarette, and covered in blood says he can't believe his former comrades were such bastards. To which Hino replies, "What did you expect? All yakuza are."

Shishido is deployed sparingly and it's always great when he reluctantly slouches into a scene. Kobayashi has centre stage most of the film, world weary, rough voiced, and oddly benevolent but quite ready to slaughter a dozen guys when necessary. After all the double crosses and heartbreaks he suffers in this story, it turns out to be plenty necessary.

Retaliation is available on Amazon Prime.

Twitter Sonnet #1388

Eclipses crowd the only entrance lane.
The secret dreams revealed a skull of glass.
The precious pate comports for certain brain.
Relentless heat converts the mind to gas.
Imported straw was crushed beneath the moon.
Repeated breaks defeat the fragile door.
Our frozen pants became the season's boon.
Another cork demands another pour.
Beside the frozen hand a cup appeared.
Belated choc'late warmed the microwave.
Inverted clothes in space was never weird.
Nor em'rald rings adorning any knave.
A loaf of mind arose with mental yeast.
A stack of twos became a double beast.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

This Monster's Rage is a Party!

There never was a Kaiju like Guilala. Japanese and German astronauts bring him back to Earth and, boy, is he agitated to be here in 1967's The X from Outer Space (宇宙大怪獣ギララ "Giant Space Monster Guilala"). This film is vigorously silly and filled with admirable energy.

The first half of the film concerns a mission to Mars in a rocket crewed by Japanese men and one beautiful blonde German woman referred to only as "Lisa" (Peggy Neal) or "Dr. Lisa". Wikipedia gives her last name as Schneider but if it's used during the film I didn't hear it. Instead, the use of her first name became particularly noticeable when she seemed to become the only scientist in the world capable of stopping Guilala. I should note that, in Japanese, "Mr/Dr/Miss" equivalents like "-san/-sensei" can be applied to first as well as last names.

Will it be Lisa or Michiko (Itoko Harada) who wins the love of handsome Captain Sano (Toshiya Wazaki)? The tension between the two women is kept simmering below the surface even when they shower together on the moon with artificial water.

After some rest, another German, Dr. Stein (Mike Daneen), joins the crew but our adventurers are waylaid by flying radioactive dots. From one of these, Lisa harvests the glowing orb that will erupt with fury to become Guilala back on Earth.

Kaiju knock down buildings and generally rampage, it's what they do, and yet there seems something extraordinary about Guilala's anger. He moves really fast and his reflexes are pretty good when he swats missiles or pukes a fireball at a passing jet. This late into the genre, it's interesting to get a kaiju with no apparent motivation.

Meanwhile, Lisa is trapped beneath rumble and is forced to scream orgasmically as a team of men try to lever the debris off of her. Her leg is caught but she has no trouble running on it a few minutes later. Maybe it was psychosomatic.

The X from Outer Space is available on The Criterion Channel.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Whatever You Wish For You Keep

Be good to the little birds and mice and in time you may be Queen. Such is the wisdom one may glean from Disney's 1950 animated feature, Cinderella, the studio's first feature length animated story since 1942's Bambi. Beautifully designed and brilliantly animated, the ancient folk tale is reworked to be a commentary on managerial philosophy, a curious tack for Disney to take considering the film follows the aftermath of the 1941 animator's strike which was in part responsible for the studio's sole reliance on an anthology format for its features between 1942 and 1950. The film also marks the introduction of the second of the Disney Princesses, a full thirteen years after the first one was introduced in Snow White. The wise, strong willed authority represented by Cinderella is also a marked shift from the guileless maiden from the 30s.

Like both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, a lot more time is spent on the antics of the princess' supporters than on the activities of the princess herself. In this case, a series of brilliant segments involve that classic scenario of the cat versus mice. The cat is given the name of Lucifer, a rather potent predictor of his lot in life, and his nemeses are the mice Jaq and Gus (both voiced by Jimmy MacDonald). Whether trying to gather corn seeds or attempting to rob Cinderella's stepsisters, the mice contrive strategies to stay one step ahead of feline jaws. But the actions of the mice are dictated by their love for Cinderella (Ilene Woods). One of the first things we see her do is induct a new member into her community of followers, Gus, by rescuing him from a trap, giving him a name, and putting clothes on him.

He's terrified of her at first, of course, but Cinderella has Jaq "explain" things to him. She doesn't ask if he wants a name and clothes and he seems to accept them out of purely good nature or perhaps gratitude for his rescue. Or perhaps he's a little in awe of her. Cinderella is clearly comfortable in her role as a leader. We also, in a marked departure from the affable Snow White, see her actually complain about the treatment she receives from her stepmother (Eleanor Audley).

I love that evil wallpaper.

This is also a departure from Cinderella's character as portrayed in the 17th century Charles Perrault rendition of the tale upon which the film is nominally based. In that story, Cinderella quietly endures her suffering and is unfailingly kind and considerate to her stepsisters, however badly they treat her. This seems to be a conscious change on the part of the filmmakers who sought to portray Cinderella as more "rebellious" than Snow White. At one stage in story development, Wikipedia quotes screenwriter Maurice Rapf as saying;

"My thinking was you can't have somebody who comes in and changes everything for you. You can't be delivered it on a platter. You've got to earn it. So in my version, the Fairy Godmother said, 'It's okay till midnight but from then on it's up to you.' I made her earn it, and what she had to do to achieve it was to rebel against her stepmother and stepsisters, to stop being a slave in her own home. So I had a scene where they're ordering her around and she throws the stuff back at them. She revolts, so they lock her up in the attic. I don't think anyone took (my idea) very seriously."

I would say Rapf is being modest. Incidentally, the quote is strikingly reminiscent of one ascribed to Walt Disney on the page about the animators' strike:

"In the 20 years I've spent in this business I've weathered many storms. It's been far from easy sailing. It required a great deal of work, struggle, determination, competence, faith, and above all unselfishness. Some people think we have a class distinction in the place. They wonder why some people get better seats in the theatre than others. They wonder why some men get spaces in the parking lot and others don't. I have always felt, and always will feel that the men that contribute most to the organization should, out of respect alone, enjoy some privileges. My first recommendation to the lot of you is this; put your own house in order, you can't accomplish a damn thing by sitting around and waiting to be told everything. If you're not progressing as you should, instead of grumbling and growling, do something about it."

One might argue that the Fairy Godmother (Verma Felton) does indeed deliver Cinderella's good fortune on a silver platter since the film doesn't have any dramatic scenes of the girl rebuking her stepmother. But maybe the absence of any such scene isn't a sign of Cinderella being weaker, just smarter.

One quote often attributed to Machiavelli is that, as a leader, it's better to be feared than to be loved. This is a paraphrase of something he wrote in The Prince. My Milton professor at university, Peter Herman, was fond of pointing out that Machiavelli goes on to essentially say it's better to be feared than loved but the worst thing of all is to be hated.

Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women.

We're told at the beginning of the film that the stepmother and stepsisters squander the wealth of Cinderella's deceased father and we know they spend most of their time sleeping, eating, or squabbling. Cinderella may complain when she's alone with her animal subjects but when the stepmother tells her to clean the rug and the tapestries she politely says "Yes" and gets to work.

"A Dream is a Wish the Heart Makes" is one of the film's memorable songs and it subsequently became one of the studio's signature songs. Cinderella doesn't rebel in act but she rebels in mind. The dream is represented by her animal fiefdom--this is how she'd run things if she were in charge; she defines herself as a leader in contrast to her stepmother. She rules with grace and compassion. And we can see from her confident manner at the beginning of the film that she's been at it a long time. She really is ready to be Queen and the old king (Luis van Rooten) is rewarded for his strategy in staging a ball for his son (William Phipps/Mike Douglas) to choose a bride. Incidentally, Prince Charming has a remarkably minimal presence in he film, having only a couple lines of dialogue. He isn't even present for the shoe fitting scene in the climax. But that doesn't matter because this isn't really a story about two people falling in love--he's a pawn in Cinderella's rise to power.

Another product of Cinderella's dream is her Fairy Godmother, the cosmos delivering a helping hand as a reward for Cinderella's good behaviour. Of course, when talking about dreams as a prelude to positive change, one can't help thinking, "What happens to a dream deferred?" the line from Langston Hughes' famous poem:


What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Is Cinderella's strategy really applicable for everyone? Charles Perrault presents two morals for his version of the story, a poem praising beauty as "to the sex a treasure" and another commending the wisdom of abiding by the advice of godmothers and sires. Cinderella may be disadvantaged at the beginning of the story but she has two things going for her--beauty and a Fairy Godmother. But really, that's just one thing; she has the blessing of Heaven or nature, if you prefer. Not everyone is so lucky. At the same time, not everyone's who's lucky is successful so let's give the girl some credit.

You may not always be able to attain your dreams but you certainly won't attain them if you don't have them to begin with--the Fairy Godmother tells Cinderella she's only able to appear because, even in her moment of deepest despair, Cinderella still has "faith" in her dreams.

Cinderella is available on Disney+.

Monday, August 24, 2020

The Mild Nightmare

Some movies have better cinematography than they deserve. I can think of no better example than 1974's Nightmare Circus (aka The Barn of the Naked Dead and Terror Circus). A simple, Grindhouse-ish premise of a crazy man kidnapping women and training them like circus animals is developed into a film surprisingly light on shock value and sex and heavier on professional grade composition. Unfortunately, the screenplay makes a lot less sense than the average Grindhouse film and it's a whole lot less creative.

The first shot that really grabbed my attention was of one of the three young female protagonists, Corine (Gyl Roland), emerging from a gas station bathroom. The tracking shot follows her in closup as she steps out of the shadow of the building and then the wind and sun catch her hair.

The cinematographer, credited only as "E. Lynn", is really good at controlling daylight to achieve good shots. Nightmare Circus is the second film of Alan Rudolph who went on to direct more mainstream but critically and popularly unsuccessful films like 1991's Mortal Thoughts starring Demi Moore and Bruce Willis. His 1984 film Songwriter starring Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson received an Academy award nomination for songs. Before directing feature films, he was a second unit director on The Brady Bunch, among other TV shows. So unlike most Grindhouse directors, he was definitely inside the respectable Hollywood cliques, which is probably why Nightmare Circus feels like some rich film students went slumming one night, maybe saw Women in Cages, and said, "We could do this! Only not so dashedly vulgar!"

On their way to a new singing career in Las Vegas, Corine, Sheri (Sherry Alberoni), and Simone (Manuela Thiess) find themselves stranded in the desert after their car breaks down. A handsome young man with crazy eyes called Andre (Andrew Pine) shows up and offers to give them a lift. Unfortunately, he takes them straight to his barn near a nuclear testing site and chains them up with half a dozen other kidnapped women.

This was the first time I found myself longing for the narrative integrity of Caged Heat or They Call Her One Eye. The three women wander into the barn, discover the chained women. At the same moment, Andre suddenly appears behind them. There's a jump cut and the three women are chained up with the others. How did this happen? Andre certainly looks stronger than any one of them but how did he manage to capture all three without one of them getting away? I would think the three of them would even have the odds on their side if they tried to overpower him. It's one of those movies where the underlying logic seems to be, "He can do it because he's evil!"

But okay, it's a fantasy. Let's get to the kinky stuff. Unfortunately, this amounts to little more than Andre forcing the women to walk in circles while he's dressed as a ringmaster. At one point he puts a boa constrictor on Corine.

Later in the film, his father shows up, turned into a slobbering monster by nuclear testing. Which feels much more like it was done to be vaguely in the spirit of this kind of movie than because Rudolph had anything to say about nuclear power.

Nightmare Circus is available on Amazon Prime under the title of Terror Circus.

Twitter Sonnet #1387

A crawling net could catch a nothing fish.
A slowly flowing stream became a pond.
We swiftly gather pools in ev'ry dish.
We hid our eyes behind the verdant frond.
A wand'ring cup deposits flour tufts.
The beak absorbs a lightly feathered punch.
The sketches start with messy crumpled roughs.
A breakfast fell before the might of lunch.
The perfect notes surround a desert blank.
A silent lock foretells the place's key.
A billion fish could break the toughest tank.
A pot of leaves can make delicious tea.
The juxtapose of posies pits the plants.
The switch of leggy garments robs the pants.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

When Even the Heretic Had Faith

Still making my way through the fourth season of The Simpsons. I was struck by how dated "Homer the Heretic" feels. Would an episode of any television show to-day think there's any sufficient drama in the premise of a man choosing not to go to church on Sunday? It remains a very funny episode, though.

Writer George Meyer comes up with a pretty ingenious series of gags to contrast Homer's bliss at home with the misery of Marge and the kids at church. While Homer's experimenting with the waffle iron, everyone in the church is shivering due to a broken heater. Maggie's milk has frozen solid.

Homer has dream conversations with God a few times in the episode I remember being mildly controversial. I know many people in the U.S. still go to church but it seems like shows and movies that actually reflect that have become specialty fare, like Tyler Perry movies. That The Simpsons, a show with a reputation for irreverent satire, took it as a given that Homer would still believe in God feels very strange.

But then, I don't watch network television sitcoms anymore. Maybe this is also part of the increasingly fractured audience.

The following episode, "Lisa the Beauty Queen", is noted in the Wikipedia entry as feeling dated for its innocence related to child beauty pageants but it didn't actually feel that dated to me. It's not like the beauty pageant is shown as a very positive thing. "Homer the Heretic" is much funnier but I liked Barney in "Lisa the Beauty Queen" having 250 dollars cash on hand because he's been offering his body to scientists to experiment on. It's also notable the episode begins with a group of lawyers from Disney threatening Principal Skinner with a law suit for calling his school carnival "The Happiest Place on Earth". I do have to hand it to Disney for evidently having something like a sense of humour about this stuff.

The Simpsons is available on Disney+.

Invasion of the Future Vampires from the Past

The Curse of Fenric is so dense it could be analysed like a religious text. The 1989 Doctor Who serial, like its immediate predecessor, Ghost Light, is filled with so many plot elements it feels a bit like a hopeless tangle. Every time I watch it I notice something I completely forgot or didn't notice the previous time. Can it even be looked at as a cohesive whole? I put in some extra effort this time because, unlike other things this complicated, it never feels muddled or dull.

Ghost Light was originally a four part serial condensed to three which explains why it feels a bit overstuffed at times. But The Curse of Fenric was never intended by writer Ian Briggs to be longer than four parts and, according to the Wikipedia entry, he even shot down the suggestion that it be expanded to include a fifth episode. Personally, I think this story needs at least twelve episodes, if only to allow room for atmosphere to accumulate. In one scene in the church, Ace (Sophie Aldred) spots some water on the floor and Reverend Wainwright explains it always happens when there's an east wind when it rains. The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) quickly points out it's not raining and the wind is coming from the wrong direction. This exchange happens so quickly that I'm just figuring out what water Ace is talking about by the time the sea monster vampires burst into the room. It should have built up much more slowly, maybe with the camera slowly panning along the moisture on the ground before revealing the three quickly poring over the records Wainwright's father kept. Then maybe Ace glances over, says something, and it takes a moment for Wainwright to stir himself out of his focus in order to explain something he instinctively takes as trivial, and so on.

Some shots of Ace gloomily folding her arms and trudging along Maiden's Point would've been nice build-up too. Wainwright points out in a quick aside that this is the same location where Dracula came ashore in Bram Stoker's novel (which presumably makes the location Whitby). Appropriate, given that it's a vampire story. Though maybe it has more in common with The Shadow Over Innsmouth.

The vampires have fish and tentacle parts, exemplified by the Ancient One revealed in Part IV, one of the best examples of makeup work in the classic series. I love how his gills move.

Most of the "Haemovores" wear mouldering outfits from different historical eras, implying that they've been transforming underwater for centuries. But the Ancient One is actually from the future. I had to watch the Doctor's confrontation with Ancient One a couple times before what the Doctor was saying really sunk in:

DOCTOR: "Another of Fenric's games . . . He carries you back in a Time Storm to pollute the Earth's water with chemicals. To destroy your future."

At first I thought, that doesn't make sense because it's the chemicals that create the Haemovores in the future. Then I realised, the Doctor's saying Fenric's meddling leads to humanity evolving into the Haemovores prematurely, thus destroying the Ancient One's reality as he knows it.

Fenric is a menace from the past, the Haemovores are a menace from the future. This is important thematically for the story's political components. I haven't even mentioned the thing is set during World War II at a British base being infiltrated by Soviets. But wait, as Ace continually points out, weren't the Soviets allies of the British during World War II?

The Soviets are there to steal the Ultima machine, a translator being developed by Doctor Judson (Dinsdale Landen), a character based on Alan Turing. According Wikipedia, Briggs originally intended Judson to be struggling with concealing his homosexuality but shows weren't permitted to do this directly. So Briggs made Judson disabled, forced to use a wheelchair and be attended by a nurse. I'm not sure that's a sensible substitution but I like it better as it is because then you have the scene later where Judson, possessed by Fenric, gets revenge on the nurse for treating him like "a child". I'm not sure what the nurse would've been doing if the wheelchair was turned into homosexuality.

The child thing is important, it comes up again and again. Reverend Wainwright preaches the "When I was a child I spake as a child" lines from Corinthians, later revealing that he's been mulling on the faith he had as a child when his father was vicar. Ace tells the Doctor, "I'm not a child," before using her feminine wiles to seduce a British guard into walking away from his Soviet prisoner. Then, later, when the Doctor and Ace are about to be executed, he pleads with the gunmen that she's still just "a child".

And Ace meets her mother as a baby, directly inverting their relationship and it's seeing her mother as a child she instinctively adores that causes Ace to question her hatred for her mother (yep, that's another subplot). The past is the future is he past, just like the Haemovores. We learn Fenric arranged Ace's meeting with the Doctor, leading to Ace saving her mother in this story--thus Fenric uses Ace to create Ace as he's using the Haemovores to transform humanity. All of this spells instability, a hard situation for anyone to have faith in.

Wainwright is having a crisis of faith, that's why he's thinking back to his childhood, when his faith was solid. Faith is connected to childhood as a period when it's easier to have faith because a child makes fewer of their own moral judgements, instinctively deferring them to adults. Twice in this serial, Ace accidentally helps the enemy when she solves puzzles the Doctor deliberately avoided solving (not unlike the Doctor did in Tomb of the Cybermen, incidentally). Ace is a misfit, rebelling against her mother and school, but she's also instinctively looking for leaders she can trust. The Wikipedia entry erroneously mentions her irrational fear of water--whoever wrote the synopsis evidently forgot the Doctor told her not to go into the water when she accompanies two local girls who plead with her to join them for a swim (leading to one of my favourite Ace lines; "Swimming is stupid!"). The girls were told not to go swimming by a harsh authority figure; the girls rebel and become Haemovores. So authority may take the wrong tack but that doesn't mean authority is wrong.

This is an interesting serial to watch after "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances". People criticise the 13th Doctor era for being political but in some ways it's far less political now. Does no-one remember the Ninth Doctor praising Marxism in "The Empty Child"? I used to think Curse of Fenric was pro-Marxist, too, but now I'm not so sure. I think it might be philosophically the opposite of "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances". Where the Ninth Doctor story follows suit with several other Russell T. Davies era stories in a slightly odd, fervent patriotism, The Curse of Fenric directly questions British moral superiority. The Fourth Doctor had done that in Robot in a funny exchange with the Brigadier but Fenric goes so far as to blur the distinction between the actions of the British and the Nazis.

The commander of the base, Millington (Alfred Lynch) has a whole office dressed up to look like Nazi HQ in order to learn how to think like the enemy. Seems an awfully big effort for such a vague goal and pairs suspiciously with his veneration for Norse mythology (maybe this story really needed to be 20 parts).

There's a hint that there's romantic chemistry between Ace and the Soviet Captain Sorin (Tomek Bork). He notices she's got a Soviet pin on her jacket--of course, in the 80s, rebelling against the culture of Margaret Thatcher, Ace would be drawn like many teens to a superficial Communism. But is this just another sign that she's a child, looking for an alternative authority to have faith in? Sorin's faith in the Revolution saves him from the Haemovores while Wainwright's faith in Christianity proves too weak.

No-one mentions how this stacks up with the Soviet view on religion but everything does look pretty pro-Communist--except, in the climax of the episode, Ace blunders because of her faith in Sorin and then the Doctor has to trick Ace into thinking he doesn't care about her in order to break down her faith.

Wainwright's faith is shaken because he's contemplating British bombs hurting Germans just as we see German bombs hurting British civilians in "The Empty Child". His lack of faith eventually costs him his life while Sorin's strong faith leads him to being completely dominated by Fenric (Briggs might've thrown in a line or two about how faith in Communism might have allowed Stalin to commit heinous crimes but I suppose it's not like there's a lot of space to fill in this serial). Ace's faith misleads her but the Doctor uses his faith in his companions to shield himself.

So what is Briggs trying to say? Faith is good except when it isn't? By its nature, faith isn't something you can shut on and off for strategic purposes. Then there's the contradiction between the usefulness of collaborative efforts and the usefulness of doing things alone. The British officer and the Soviet soldier learn it's better to work together but usually when Ace trusts someone it backfires. Meanwhile, nothing would've gotten sorted out if the Doctor hadn't been working entirely on his own secret agenda. One could look at the meddling between the future and the past as a metaphor for propaganda which seeks to rewrite the past to use it as a weapon in the present.

Maybe the point is that the utility and nature of faith represent part of the murky waters of adulthood, thus leading to the end of the serial where the Doctor encourages Ace to go swimming. Or maybe I'll notice something else the next time I watch this serial.