Friday, 18 May 2018

Homeward Bound

"There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same."
J.R.R. Tolkien - The Return of the King.

I watched Peter Jackson's concluding part of the The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King again last weekend, and it set me thinking about the book, and what Tolkien was really driving at. I have always liked but never really loved Lord of the Rings, even when I first read it as a teenager. To me it had a strange, bloodless, rarified quality; oddly stilted, like a pre-Raphaelite painting brought to life, full of Solemn Councils and Chaste Maidens. The descriptions of scenery seemed to go on forever, and what was it with all of the bloody songs and poems? Get on with it already! I skimmed a lot of that.

Yes, I know, I know - it's supposed to be A Mythology for England, Anglo-Saxon epic mixed with Arthurian Romance, and all that, but it always felt to me more like the last dying gasp of English Romanticism, and I freely confess that I'm constitutionally more at home with the dirtier, lustier worlds of Swords & Sorcery - Robert E Howard and Fritz Lieber, and that High Fantasy has always somehow alienated me - it never felt like it was about real people with real drives and emotions. Nevertheless, I did very much enjoy Peter Jackson's films (at least, the LOTR trilogy, not the Hobbit films, which are, let's face it, the Star Wars Prequels of the piece) - incredibly long as they were - because they managed to avoid most of the problems I had had with the original books. Jackson did this by compressing and focusing the narrative; instead of the three page descriptions of mountains, now the sweeping vistas of scenery spoke for themselves, and the songs and poems were wisely mostly chopped away - especially Tom Bombadil, who I know some people think of with kindness, but who only ever irritated me. The ending of the final film could have benefitted from some judicious editing, but generally they were as a good a version as we're likely to see. With one exception.

Everyone has their pet gripe with the films, I know, but for me there was one area where I felt they had seriously mis-stepped, and that was by cutting out one of my favourite bits of the books; The Scouring of the Shire. This final reckoning with Saruman and Wormtongue was presumably cut from the films to allow them to kill Saruman at the end of the second film in order to provide an artificial kind of ending/closure there that it would otherwise lack, and perhaps because it would have been too anti-climactic a scene to end with after the struggle at Mount Doom, but I personally missed it being where it should be. It's the completion of the Hero's Journey; the return of the four hobbits to the Shire that they left at the start, and the realisation that they are not the same people that they were when they left, and that they can no longer simply just slot back into the roles they once filled. It's almost like the Trilogy's 'Deer Hunter' moment. It shows that they have been forged in a crucible of war, and now are unafraid to tackle the petty tyrants and bullies that Saruman's pint-sized police state represents. But it also brings home to the four how out of kilter they are with what was once their homeland - it is only via corruption and collusion within elements of the existing hobbit power structure that Saruman has come to power, after all.

This downbeat, melancholy ending was excised from the films because it is quite at odds with the epic quest that has gone beforehand, but to me it feels like the mask slipping from the upright world of elves and High Magic, and instead giving us a glimpse into the soul of Lieutenant John Tolkien of the Lancashire Fusiliers, a veteran of the Somme, and the feelings he had when he came back from Flanders. If The Shire is a bucolic fantasy of rural England, and the blasted, lifeless, ash-strewn wastes of Mordor are the horror of the trenches (yes yes, Tolkien's dislike of the Industrial Revolution, but come on...), then the Scouring of the Shire is what it feels like to come back to that rural idyll after four years of slaughter, and find that nothing is quite as you remembered it. Although the final book of The Lord of the Rings was not completed until 1949, Tolkien always strenuously denied that it was anything to do with World War II, that Sauron was not Hitler, and that the Ring was not the Atomic Bomb, and I believe him. Rather, I think it was very much to do with WWI and his experiences of it - with the passing of the Victorian/Edwardian world of his youth, diminshing and passing into the West, where the new rising power of the USA lay, and the birth of the new world of the 20th Century, and I think that leaving out that final chapter diminishes the whole.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Routine retirement of a replicant

"The report would be: 'Routine Retirement of a Replicant', which didn't make me feel any better about shooting a woman in the back."
Blade Runner - original voice-over

This is a kind of follow-on to the previous post about directors not being able to source the music they want for films and having to improvise instead. This time, rather than Blue Velvet, the film in question is Blade Runner. There's a scene where, after 'retiring' the replicant Zora - the source of the quote above - Deckard heads to a one-eyed street vendor and buys himself a bottle of whiskey, intending to head home and drown his sorrows. In the background, a radio is playing an old-fashioned sounding tune. It is, in fact, 'One More Kiss, Dear', co-written by Vangelis (music) and Peter Skellern (lyrics), and performed by Don Percival.

Now, while the incidental music of the film is all high tech synthesised twiddling by Vangelis, this song is an oddity on the Blade Runner soundtrack. It is clearly intended to evoke something of the 30s and 40s Noir that the film takes as its visual inspiration (so much so that Ridley Scott even re-used the Bradbury Apartments in Los Angeles for the climax of the film, first glimpsed in 1949 noir classic D.O.A.). Indeed, it sounds particularly like 1930s black harmony group The Ink Spots (that name, yeah... well, it was the 30s I guess), and especially their 1939 hit 'If I Didn't Care', with its spoken part (about 2:02 onwards). It turns out this is far from accidental, as Scott originally had in mind to use If I Didn't Care for that scene, and indeed, the original theatrical trailer actually uses the Ink Spots' song (from 2:12 onwards). However, it seems that, as with David Lynch and This Mortal Coil, Ridley Scott either wasn't able to secure the rights to If I Didn't Care, or else found them too expensive, and he came up with the same solution: get your soundtrack composer to write something that sounds similar enough that it will work, but different enough that you won't get sued.

Vangelis in turn seems to have looked to Noel Coward-esque singer songwriter Peter Skellern to help out, and the two of them have clearly taken another 1930s crooner, Jessie Matthews as their starting point, as there are uncanny similarities to her 1932 song 'One More Kiss, Then Goodnight'. But the thing that really left me blinking in surprise was the discovery that Demis Roussos was originally down to sing 'One More Kiss', until Ridley heard the demo version, which had been voiced as an interim measure by music impressario Don Percival, and decided that he liked it so much that it could stay as it is.

By such happy accidents are great things made, and even trends begun - in this case using the carefree 30s sound of the Ink Spots as a soundtrack for dystopian fiction, as this rather wonderful blog post notes, including video games Fallout and Bioshock, and the TV series The Walking Dead. Blade Runner was an incredibly influential film, and sometimes its influences are subtle but far reaching.

"Drink some for me, huh, pal?"

Thursday, 13 July 2017

A nightingale

I'm not quite sure where to begin with this one. But basically it revolves around David Lynch. I've been watching his new, third season of Twin Peaks, and just caught up with episode 9. It was a return to normal, in a way, after the astonishing piece of avant garde art that was episode 8 - one of the strangest and most disturbing hours of television you are ever likely to see. But at the end it played out with one of Lynch's ethereal, synth and female voice kind of bands. They turned out to be Au Revoir Simone, with something called A Violent Yet Flammable World, which was nice, but it set me wondering about Julee Cruise, who was their floaty angelic precursor throughout the whole Twin Peaks season 1 and 2 era. And I discovered something which I found interesting enough to drive me to write this.

Back in 1986, Lynch was writing and directing Blue Velvet, which was, let's face it, the spiritual predecessor of Twin Peaks. It had mobsters and kinky sex behind the facade of a really 'nice' northwestern small town - and Kyle MacLachlan as well. Twin Peaks bears the same relationship to Blue Velvet that Fargo the TV series does to Fargo the movie. Anyway, Lynch had decided that for incidental music he wanted to use Song to the Siren by This Mortal Coil. Or rather, originally by Tim Buckley, but covered in the 80s by This Mortal Coil. I discovered This Mortal Coil in 1984, when I lived next door to a Scots music student at York University. In addition to the Gregorian chant and fucking awful accordion music he subjected me to through the wall between our rooms, he played their first album, It'll End In Tears over and over and over again, and my God, listening to Elizabeth Fraser's haunting voice still sends shivers down my spine, just like it did back then. For the uninitiated, This Mortal Coil were a kind of Scots Indie supergroup, made up of people I'd only ever heard of in passing when occasionally listening to John Peel - Xmal Deutschland, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, Metal Box, and of course most famously The Cocteau Twins. I'd vaguely noticed The Cocteau Twins, but never been convinced, but Fraser's songs on It'll End In Tears - especially Another Day and Song To The Siren, were like something from another planet, and I was instantly hooked.

Well, clearly David Lynch thought so too, as he wanted to use Song To The Siren on Blue Velvet. Unfortunately, the publishers were asking more than he was prepared to pay, so he got Angelo Badalamenti to write something similar, and Badalamenti roped in a singer from New York he thought could achieve the same purity of note and ethereal quality that Fraser had managed. Enter Julee Cruise, and this ersatz This Mortal Coil song became Mysteries of Love. It's interesting to listen to it now and compare and contrast. The rest is history, as they say. Lynch and Badalamenti wrote Cruise's first album, Floating Into The Night, all of it comprised of songs which had been used as incidental music in Twin Peaks, including the title track, Falling. Julee herself even appeared as a singer at the Bang Bang bar in Season 2 prior to a spooky appearance by The Giant. Apparently she's scheduled to make a reappearance in Season 3, and I'm certainly looking forward to that. In the meantime, she'll always be the nightingale. But it's interesting to me that the whole tenor of the music of Twin Peaks is basically a conscious attempt to reproduce the sound of a band I loved even before I discovered Lynch World.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Aliens on a Train

So apparently there is a Horror Channel on Freeview - channel 70, if you're interested. I'd not encountered it before, and assumed it was one of those 'timeshare' channels, but it turns out they broadcast for almost all of the day. On Saturday night I came across it while channel flipping, just in time to see the start of a movie called 'Horror Express', and once I saw that it starred not only Christopher Lee but also Peter Cushing, I knew that I was on board for the long haul on this one.

Given the presence of Lee and Cushing, I initially assumed that it was a Hammer Films production - it's from 1972 and has that same brightly saturated Technicolor look to it, especially the vivid red substance they used for blood (I believe jokily known as 'Kensington Gore'). But in fact it turns out to be an Anglo-Spanish co-production, filmed in Madrid on a very tight budget with a Spanish director and largely Spanish cast - much cheaper at the time than filming in the UK. Yes, it's in effect a Spaghetti (or Paella) Horror movie.

The film starts with the discovery of a strange humanoid creature frozen in the ice in the Himalaya by a team of western explorers - more on this later - then quickly shifts to 1906 'Peking', where the usual mixed bag of characters are joining the Trans-Siberian Express to Moscow. Among them is Sir Alexander Saxton (Lee), who has a mysterious crate he will not allow inspection of. A thief tries to break into the crate as it sits on the platform, and then is found dead, his eyes completely whited over. Dun-dun-duuuuun! Saxton's fellow travellers include British scientist Dr Wells (Cushing) and his bluestocking assistant Miss Jones; Count Marian Petrovsky and the beautiful Countess Irina - Petrovsky has invented some new kind of steel "harder than diamond"; a Rasputin-like Orthodox priest, Father Pujardov (who pronounces that the crate is 'evil'); and Natasha, a beautiful thief with her eyes on the Countess' jewellery. And so the stage is set for some Orient Express-style shenanigans on a train, but with a horror slant. Once the train is on the move, Cushing is curious about the box, and bribes a porter to break into it, and said man is also found dead with white eyes. The creature inside, bizarrely, picks the lock and gets out (there is a good reason for this - bear with me), and an inspector - who is on the train following thief Natasha - takes charge of the investigation.

And here is where the film segues from horror into science fiction, albeit hokey, bullshit, horror movie SF. An autopsy on the porter reveals his brain is completely smooth. Somehow the creature is draining people's brains (hence it gaining the ability to pick locks from the thief at the start). Also - it leaves somethng imprinted at the back of the eye - the last thing the person saw - this was a popular medieval trope, here there's a sort-of reason for it. When the creature is apparently shot dead by the police inspector, vistas of prehistoric Earth and even the Earth seen from space are seen etched on its retinas - as my companion sagely noted, the latter was something that would very much be in the public eye in the early 70s due to the Apollo moonshots. The old priest of course is convinced that this is Lucifer, not an alien, but that still doesn't quite explain why he throws his lot in with the creature. Meanwhile, after seeming to be dead, the creature swaps bodies - possessing the police inspector, and more running around ensues. The Count, Miss Jones and the beautiful thief all meet their various ends. And more - we come to start to understand the creature. It seems to be just trying to get home - in the guise of the Inspector it quizzes Lee about rocketry, it steals the secret of the hardened steel by absorbing the Count's mind, eventually it even tries to persuade Lee to help it, in return for advanced knowledge it can give him.

And then suddenly, Telly Savalas randomly appears as a comedy Cossack leader, boarding the train with his men, possibly because someone has telegraphed ahead, but the point is not made terribly clear. He drinks, he wenches, he chews the scenery and generally steals his scenes, and then within about five minutes he is swiftly killed by the creature and turned into a zombie (as are all of the other dead people - they really have thrown the kitchen sink at this plot). There's an ending involving decoupling the car with the survivors in and sending the train plummeting over a convenient gorge, but frankly after Telly dies, it's all anti-climax.

So how to sum up this unexpected discovery? It's not that bad - hokey at times but entertainingly watchable in a late night horror movie kind of way - exactly right for the slot the Horror Channel put it in. The beautiful countess and femme fatale are beautiful, Cushing and Lee play it completely straight as always and are their usual impeccable selves, and aside from some bad dubbing over the Spanish extras and the random Telly Savalas cameo, it could basically be any Hammer film of the 60s and 70s. Savalas was here at the height of his bankability; just post- his major film roles like 'Kelly's Heroes' and 'The Dirty Dozen', but just pre-Kojak, so quite a big name to have secured, albeit for a bit part. Both Savalas and the locomotive and train car set were, it seems, borrowed from 'Pancho Villa', which was just about to start shooting at the same studio.

But what really interested me was the whole 'alien dug out of the ice, goes on a rampage but is actually trying to get home' element. This plotline first appeared in 1931 in the pioneering novella by SF-horror maestro H.P. Lovecraft: 'At The Mountains of Madness'. This then led pulp writer John W. Campbell to write his own 'alien spacecraft trapped in the ice' story 'Who Goes There?' in 1938, which became filmed in 1951 at the height of American UFO panic as 'The Thing From Another World', and which itself was then remade in 1982 as 'The Thing', directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell. Ridley Scott's 2012 Prometheus is also arguably based on the same ur-plotline (it was cited by Spanish director Guillermo del Toro as the reason he abandoned his own simultaneous attempt to film At The Mountains of Madness). That there should have been another movie inspired, albeit obliquely, by the same plot, is a delightful find. The fact that the horror has a scientific element to it in Horror Express makes the film more interesting than just a simple revenant on a train, and that science element is reminiscent of a couple of other Hammer films like the 1967 oddity Night of the Big Heat (also starring Lee and  Cushing). All told, it's an interesting curio, and worth watching if it ever comes by again.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Here Comes The Sun

Movie trivia: what were the most expensive films produced in 1990? As BuzzFeed might put it: the answer may surprise you. 1st: Die Hard 2 ($70 million), 2nd: Total Recall ($65 million), 3rd: Dick Tracey? Back To The Future 3? The Hunt For Red October? Nope. Solar Crisis ($55 million).

And yet I am going to take a punt and suggest that you have never even heard of Solar Crisis, much less seen it. It certainly wasn't one of the top grossing films of 1990. In fact, outside Japan (it was a Japanese-US co-production based on a Japanese novel), it seems to have had a very limited cinematic release. But $55 million is a lot of money to splurge on a straight-to-video B-movie. So was it some kind of mafia money laundering scheme? Well, not on the face of it - it stars Charlton Heston (yes, that one), Jack Palance, Tim Matheson (the vice president in The West Wing), and Peter Boyle (the dispacher in Taxi Driver, the monster in Young Frankenstein, and Ray's dad in Everybody Loves Raymond), and was directed by Richard Sarafian, who in his younger days had made cult road movie Vanishing Point. A lot of special effects money also seems to have been thrown at the film, although by today's standards it still looks pretty hokey. However, the fact that Richard Sarafian asked to be credited as 'Alan Smithee' hints that the film may have had a... shall we say 'troubled' production history.
Like you, I had never heard of Solar Crisis, but I came across it on top of a pile of DVDs at my parents' house, and was intrigued at the idea of a 1990 SF film starring Charlton Heston that I had never heard of. Could it be another overlooked cult movie like the 1980 SF B-movie Saturn 3 (Kirk Douglas, Harvey Keitel, Farrah Fawcett and a killer robot - what's not to like)? So I borrowed it and - last night - watched it.
The other thing that had intrigued me was the premise - Earth is facing destruction at the hands of a monstrous solar flare. To divert it harmlessly away from Earth, a crew of astronauts must pilot a massive bomb into the heart of the sun. Sound familiar? That's because it's - give or take - the premise of Danny Boyle's 2007 SF film Sunshine. The idea that it had been done 17 years earlier with Chuck 'From My Cold Dead Hands' Heston sounded amazing. However, the similarities pretty much end there, and it turns out that there's a good reason you've not seen this movie. It is... well, not exactly terrible, just not terribly good.
So let's start with the plot - it's all over the place. The main 'carry the bomb to the sun' plot plays second fiddle to confusing shenanigans back on Earth. Tim Matheson, captain of the Helios - the ship with the bomb - has unresolved dad issues both with his son - who absconds from military academy - and his dad, the Admiral (Chuck Heston). Meanwhile religious corporate baddie Peter Boyle reckons that the solar flare won't happen, and therefore (?) for no particular reason tries to sabotage the mission, by employing a hitman who looks like Billy Idol, who botches the assassination of a key henchman who then goes on the lam. Henchman, military cadet, corporate goons and military rescue squad all collide in some Mad Max-style badlands area where crazy old man Jack Palance turns out to be ex military and saves said cadet. Oh, did I mention the sexy cyborg (Annabel Schofield, apparently channelling Liz Hurley) who gets reprogrammed by Billy Idol to sabotage the Helios...? The confusing plot unfortunately rubs shoulders with risible dialogue (even for an 80s - or nearly 80s - SF movie), a smart alec talking bomb that seems to have escaped from Dark Star, and gratuitous female nudity (Annabel even gets that staple of 80s movies - a random shower scene). Jack Palance isn't really trying, Charlton Heston does gravitas very well but doesn't get enough screen time, and the whole thing ends in a strange 2001-style 'Stargate' sequence as the sexy cyborg ovecomes her reprogramming and sets the controls for the heart of the sun.
As SF turkeys go, though, this one is definitely M&S hand-reared free range turkey, and you're welcome to borrow the DVD.

I watched it as a double bill with the aforementioned Sunshine, just for comparison. The truth is, though, there just is no comparison. Danny Boyle directs with a sense of wonder at the sheer scale of everything, the acting is fine, and the plot is pretty tight and concentrates quite rightly on the whole 'getting the bomb to the sun' thing. I hadn't enjoyed Sunshine very much when I first watched it, and this was the first time I had seen it in several years, but the plot actually made much more sense the second time around, aside from the central conceit, which doesn't make sense in physics terms (even a fission bomb 'the size of Manhattan' would be a mere drop in the ocean on something the scale of the sun). Still, that bothered me less this time and I enjoyed the atmospherics, and the way staring into the sun drove people to madness. I actually ended up wishing more could have been made of that, especially what had happened to the previous Icarus mission - something of an Event Horizon-type thing as they put the pieces together (but with less religious mumbo jumbo). But the main distraction for me was Cillian Murphy, whose character looked too much like Professor Brian Cox, and I kept on expecting him to break into a soft Lancashire accent and big cheesy grin, and have a large, exciteable Irishman appear alongside him to crack a few jokes. But yes, I think I can see what Mark Kermode likes about Sunshine now.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Whatever happened to cyberpunk?

So here it is - the year 2016. I'm living in the future that I could only imagine back in the 1980s. But how does it measure up?
Personal cyberdeck?


Domestic robot?


All transactions conducted in Eurodollars?

Ehhh... kind of. A bit.

Direct brain interface for my cyberdeck?

Not so much.

Cybernetic arm with concealed shotgun?

Seriously, WTF? Why would you even want that anyway?

But hang on... what's this...?

How the hell did we not manage to imagine mobile phones?

The future is a strange place, but I think I kind of like it.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Hard to be a Soviet

It is a commonplace that science fiction tells you far more about the time and place it was written in than any potential vision of the future, but this was brought home to me recently by reading two very different and yet similar books. The first, Almuric, was written by Robert E Howard, writer of the Conan stories and part of H.P. Lovecraft's 'weird fiction' circle in the 1920s, while the second, Hard To Be A God, by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, was from a very different time and place - not the sunny, macho post-pioneer cowboy world of frontier 20s Texas, but instead the rather drabber and more circumscribed world of the 1960s Soviet Union. However, both deal with the idea of a visitor from a technological Earth being dropped into a more primitive culture and having to make his (and in both cases it is a he) way in it.

The stranger from our world, or a future version of it, journeying in a more 'primitive' culture is of course a well-worn trope of science fiction, running from Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court (written back in 1889 as a satire on the romanticised Victorian pre-Raphaelite view of the Middle Ages) to Iaian M Banks' 1998 novel Inversions, but the treatments couldn't be more different. Almuric is a so-called 'planetary romance' in the mold of Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars series, which Almuric is, to be blunt, a poor pastiche of. However, for all of its alien (though generally humanoid) window dressing, its roots, like John Carter's, lie solidly in the 'white man has adventures in the wilds' genre that can be traced back to Kipling and Rider Haggard - The Man Who Would Be King and King Solomon's Mines. The main difference is that while the colonialist Boys' Own adventure stories tended to emphasise the primitiveness of African (and for Martian we can pretty much read African) tribes, Robert Howard was clearly much more sympathetic to what he viewed as the more 'authentic' nature of tribal existence, unmediated by the trappings of 'civilisation', and his hero, Esau Cairn, is another of his burly man-mountains in the mold of Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane and Francis X Gordon, who is out of place in his own world and finds the more existential challenges of the wilderness more to his taste. Indeed, there is more than a touch of the Western about Almuric, albeit the kind of Western that Hollywood didn't start making until the 1960s, where the Native Americans stop being simply villains - something akin to A Man Called Horse, for example, and Almuric is as much about Cairn's acceptance into the tribe he finds himself among as it is a story of rescuing women in peril and two-fisted action. Howard was growing up in a time and place when the Frontier was still within living memory and he clearly had a respect and fascination for tribal culture based on real world 'Indians', but his books are also something of a paean to that frontier world of his grandfathers, fast disappearing in his time as America industrialised. Like Cairn, he would rather have been transported into that world than have to put up with the new America of automobiles and office work.

Written from the vantage point of the post-colonial era, Hard To Be A God has no such romantic view of 'primitive' cultures. Life in the Arkanar Kingdom on a world light years from Earth is nasty, brutish and short, and fastidious Russian scientist Anton, posing as nobleman Don Rumata, is continually repelled by its smells and cruelties at the same time that he worries that they are rubbing off on him. Anton is a product of a socialist, utopian future Earth (the so-called Noon Universe, which the Strugatskys used as the setting for several novels), which is what we would now call a 'post scarcity society', and a model for Gene Rodenberry's benevolent United Federation of Planets in Star Trek, and more particularly The Culture from Iaian M Banks' stories. But its sociologists, working under cover while trying to gently push the medieval society of Arkanar towards a Renaissance, cannot work out why their wonderfully Soviet-sounding 'Basis Theory' does not seem to account for Arkanar's resistance to progress, which causes the society to move backwards through a fascistic authoritarian coup into a theocratic dictatorship. All they can do is save a few philosophers, poets and intellectuals from the pyres. The book is dense with questions about free will, human nature, and the responsibility of more advanced societies towards those less so - allow them to make the same mistakes that we did, or intervene and remove their own sense of agency? But it also serves as a kind of allegory of Stalinism and the chilling effect it had on the intellectual life of the USSR; the book was published in 1964, when Kruschev was still in the process of 'de-Stalinising' the country. Like real life (and very much unlike Almuric), Hard To Be A God offers no easy answers to the questions it poses, but it may be one of the most interesting SF books I have read in a very long time.