Friday, December 11, 2015

Pan's Labyrinth

As a child the filmmaker Guillermo del Toro liked to draw. And, just as many children, he liked to draw monsters. His pious Catholic grand-mother, who often watched over him, was afraid that little Guillermo was drawing demons, at one point sprinkling holy water on them to drive away the evil spirits. As Del Toro tells it, "she tried to exorcise me for the shit I was drawing. I started laughing and she got so scared that she threw more at me."

We can all be thankful that the exorcism didn't work; the monsters stayed monstrous, and eventually made their way into his films: The Devil's Backbone, Cronos, and two Hellboy features. In his early student films, Del Toro did his own makeup and prosthetics, and those who've worked with him have been appreciative of his understanding. He doesn't, as do many other directors, go straight to CGI, but prefers to do whatever he can with makeup and prosthetics, then "tune them up" with just enough CGI to make them seamless. It's an advantage to the actors, too, who get to add their bodily gestures, and to those who act with them, who don't have to pretend to see things in a greenscreen room.

But the real essence of Del Toro's genius is that he believes in fairy tales, and respects them. He understands their arcance and ancient logic, and knows there should be three fairies, three doors, and three special tasks. And most of all, he believes in his actors, eliciting astounding performances from them, especially Ivana Baquero, who plays Ofelia. He knows that a film such as this must create a world, and that the world -- or worlds -- must be internally consistent. And yet, with that foundation, he lest his fancies fly, and they travel much further, and deeper, than any other fantastical films of our era.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Tales of Andersen

1) The Shadow. We've probably all experienced the sensation: somewhere, somehow, we saw a new possibility open up before us, or felt a strange impulse to follow a desire that we could hardly name. We were wise, or so we thought, to resist the temptation, to stay on the path of our sober-minded, plan-in-advance selves. And then, perhaps years later, we wondered why, and what things might have been like if we hadn't.

"The Shadow" takes up this question -- decidedly one that haunts adults rather than children -- in a strange allegory that reads like a fairy tale but burns at the soul like some mad tale of Poe. And like Poe (and Shelley, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and many others), Andersen hit upon the folk legend of a double, or doppelgänger, as a metaphor for this desire deferred. With roots deep in popular folklore, these tales of someone with an uncanny resemblance to one's self are chilling enough as far as they go -- for it seems that there's only room in the universe for one of them: either the double or the self must die.

In Andersen's tale, the "learned man" (perhaps "scholar" would be a more apt English translation) permits his shadow to do pursue a course of action he himself was too timid to attempt, and initially counts himself fortunate. The lack of a shadow, after all, was but a minor inconvenience -- what of it? The twist here is that this decision precipitates the birth of a separate entity, one that eventually comes to possess all of the boldness and sense of purpose that the student lacked. The student, gradually and inexorably, is fated to become the shadow's shadow, and eventually even less than that.

2) The Red Shoes. A bloodcurdling tale of "friendly" woodcutters who chop off girls' legs, dancing disembodied limbs, and bloodied toes. No, it's not SAW VIII, it's another strange tale from the twisted mind of Andersen, designed it seems to haunt children throughout their lives and cast a shadow on the love of shoes. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it's the tale of his most often "bowdlerized"-- in many editions up through the 1960's, the whole bit about the woodchopper and the legs was left out -- a fate that befell other stories as well, among them the Little Matchgirl and the Snow Queen. And yet, despite the grim turns of the tale, it's been a favorite of many readers, and the inspiration for a number of adaptations.

The best known of these is certainly the 1948 film, produced and directed by the legendary team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Filmed in luminescent three-strip Technicolor, it tells the tale of a tragedy within a tragedy -- of a young woman whose ambition to become a star ballerina, and her appearance in an ballet adaptation of Andersen's tale, foreshadows her own tragic romance and death. Martin Scorsese has spoken often about his love for this film, and although panned by critics at the time, it's risen steadily in the estimate of film scholars and historians; the British Film Institute rated it #9 in its list of the Top 100 British Films of all time.

3) The Little Mermaid. It may be one of the best-known fairy tales of all time, but it took its time to het there. Although written in 1837, it wasn't translated into English until 1872, and although Andersen considered it one of his fairy tales "for children," there seems to have been some shyness about handing a tale to little girls that clearly seems to take as its underlying theme the subject of sexual maturity. Andersen himself sealed the ending of the story with what may be one of the most moralistic morals ever penned"
"For every day on which we find a good child who pleases his parents and deserves their love, God shortens our days of trial. The child does not know when we float through his room, but when we smile at him in approval one year is taken from our three hundred. But if we see a naughty, mischievous child we must shed tears of sorrow, and each tear adds a day to the time of our trial."
As P.L. Travers (Mary Poppins) said, "A year taken off when a child behaves and a tear shed and a day added whenever a child is naughty? Andersen, this is blackmail. And the children know it and say nothing. There's magnanimity for you."

Disney, in converting Andersen's antique moralizing into modern family fare, actually did a remarkable job of holding on to the charged understory of a girl coming of age with desire, not just for the human world, but for a human prince. They discretely applied two scallop shells, along with water-bound as well as air-bound sidekicks, and made the sisters into the same sort of annoying wannabes as those of Cinderella. But it was with the Sea Witch that they worked the best magic; by having her, with Ariel's stolen voice (thankfully not her actual tongue) embody Ariel's rival they considerably upped the ante on the final climax. And of course, the little mermaid -- who doesn't die -- gets both legs and man.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Soylent Green

Back in the 1970's, apocalypses were mostly nuclear, to the point that it had become almost a cliché -- actually, scratch that, it was a cliché. Soylent Green was far ahead of its time, staking its end-of-the-world scenario on a more gradual, but ultimately inescapable doom: the growing human population, a warming planet, and the ultimate depletion of nearly all the conventional sources of food. In a superheated city, with homeless people sleeping in stairwells to escape the stifling streets, the film deposited two old codgers: Charlton Heston (fresh from his last role as the Omega Man), and veteran Edward G. Robinson, better known for playing gangsters in the black-and-white era). Heston's a cop in an time when riot control means scooping people up with giant front-end loaders; Robinson is his "book" -- one of reclusive club of elders known as the Exchange, who preserve the knowledge of the old world, have a knack for finding things out.

The stage is a crowded one -- there's room for a feminist subplot, as women come included with an apartment as "furniture" -- and for a cameo by Jospeh Cotton as an executive with the mysterious Soylent company, apparently killed by a hired assassin. In a way, it's a genre-bender -- cop drama meets environmental fable -- but it's the final sequences that make it memorable. For among the other features of this distopian world, there's a voluntary euthenasia center with the sinister nickname "home," and when Robinson's character throws in the proverbial towel, it sets in motion a series of revelations that takes an already-horrific world in a yet more frightening direction (watch for Dick Van Patten as the attendant that Heston wrestles with). We all know the reveal, but it's no less terrible for all that -- unless in the form of the box of crackers (above) manufactured in anticipation of an (eventually abandoned) remake.

But it's hard to predict the future. The novel on which the film was based, Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! was set in 1999, which at the time he wrote it was more than thirty years in the future. In it, the overpopulation of the earth has reached crisis levels, and the U.S. population has swollen to 344 million, represented as an unsustainable number. But here in 2015, it's already 322 million, and will reach the Soylent figure within the next few years; by 2050 it may well top 450 million. That is, if we're still here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Handmaid's Tale

Could the United States be converted into fundamentalist utopia -- the 'Republic of Gilead' -- and the status of women be demoted to Old Testament proportions? It seemed possible in 1985, when Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale, and even though the political muscle of evangelical sects has diminished a bit since then, the rise of ISIS/ISIL has shown that there are some places on earth where it can. ISIS has eliminated education for women; ruled that girls can be married as early as the age of nine, and consigned them to a life of domestic duties. Alcohol and cigarettes are banned (although, much like the Commander, some leaders in ISIS seem to flaunt their own rules), and ancient statues in museums are to be smashed as signs of idolatry.

In 1990, the novel was adapted as a film. Things looked good at the start, with Harold Pinter (later a Nobel laureate) set to write the script, and an A-list cast was lined up that included Robert Duvall as the Commander, Faye Dunaway as Serena Joy, and Natasha Richardson as Offred. The original director, Karol Reisz, had wanted thousands of extras for the crowd scenes, along with other big-budget set pieces; when the studio nixed these, he quit, and was replaced by Volker Schlondorff. Pinter, claiming he was "exhausted," begged off doing any of the script changes Schlondorff requested, giving him and author Margaret Atwood "carte blanche" in rewrites, and later trying to have his name taken off the script. Another day in Hollywood.

Given all that, it's remarkable that the film is as strong, as coherent, and as passionate as it is. Certainly, it was far ahead of its time in many ways, and despite its modest production values conveys an uncanny feeling that such a world might still, a quarter of a century later, be just around the corner.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Stepford Wives

The novelist Ira Levin can claim credit for two novels -- the other being Rosemary's Baby -- that were the basis of classic horror/sci-fi films of the '60's and '70's. With Stepford, Levin tunes in on many of the issues of the day -- urban flight to the suburbs, feminism, and the pressures of conformity -- without in any way making it an "issues" novel -- it's been called a "satirical thriller," and that probably comes as close as any other phrase to describing his subtle yet sardonic portrait of an independent woman in a suburb filled with women who don't just act robotically, but are in fact robots. built deep in the bowels of the mysterious "Men's Club."

The fascination with the idea of human automata or robots goes back to the earliest days of modern technology. In the early 1800's, Henri Maillardet built astonishing automata, including one which could write poetry and draw. This figure, amazingly, was found in a state of disrepair after having been damaged in a fire; on its being restored and wound up, it made a number of drawings, including one one under which it wrote "Ecrit par L'Automate de Maillardet" -- Written by the Automaton of Maillardet -- in a sense, it identified itself.

The quest in more modern times has been to create a robot which is as similar in its outward capabilities as a human being, and yet most of its fictional and film incarnations have been hostile rather than kind: cyborgs such as the Terminator, organic humanoids such as the Replicants in Ridley Scott's Bladerunner, or the Borg of Star Trek, whose famous taglines are "resistance is futile," and "you will be assimilated." Friendly robots have not fared so well; the best, such as Robin Williams' Bicentennial Man, have been vaguely pathetic in their never-ending quest to reach a humanity that is denied them.

Levin's genius -- and the genius of the 1974 film version, starring Katharine Ross -- to imagine robots who are nothing if not built to please -- men, that is -- but whose ultimate significance to the women they replace is a total loss of identity, followed by a death that will never be reported in the Stepford Chronicle.  They're entirely technological, but in other respects much like their organic counterparts in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

There are a few interesting differences between the book and the film, most significantly its ending, a fade-to-black that suggests that the knife goes in a rather different place. The book also introduces a black couple new to Stepford, Ruthanne (a children's book author) and her husband, Royal. It's a feint -- sexism trumps race, and while Ruthanne is useful to the book's last pages (it's through her eyes that we see Joanna's replacement), there's a strong implication that she, too, will soon be Stepfordized.
As an aside, the novel explicitly mentions the urban legend about the Abraham Lincoln animatronic (designed by Disney engineers for the 1964 World's Fair) going 'crazy.' It didn't, but a frequently posted online video shows that it had other, equally bizarre, troubles. The adventuresome might also check out the TV sequels, Revenge of the Stepford Wives and The Stepford Children -- for even more animatronic weirdness.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Something Wicked This Way Comes

When Ray Bradbury was a young boy, he went -- along with every other kid in his neighborhood -- to see the carnival that had just arrived in his small midwestern town. Among the acts that attracted his special attention was one "Mr. Electrico," a performer of an act that was quite popular back in the 1930's, that of an "electric man," or, in his case, a man in an "electric chair." The trick was based on a version of the "Tesla" coil: the eletricity that danced over Mr. Electrico's chair and body -- Bradbury even recalls it sparking among his teeth -- was high-voltage low-amerage high-frequency current. Such current has the curious ability to leap through space like lightning, but its low amperage and high frequency render it unable to penetrate the body. The performer, of course, must still be very "well-grounded" in his art, but so long as he is, there's no harm, despite the extraordinary spectacle (even today, the Australian performer Peter Terren -- a.k.a. "Dr. Electric" -- does a similar act).

But Mr. Electrico had a slight variation in his: equipped with a sword, he would reach out and touch members of the audience -- if they dared. Ray dared. He stepped forward, and Mr. Electrico touched him on his shoulder, like a monarch dubbing a knight, shouting forth "Live Forever!" as he did so. And the damned thing worked -- for, although Brabury died in 2012, his works, as surely as those of Shakespeare or the Brontës, will live forever among us.

Published in 1962, Something Wicked This Way Comes is, for this and many other reasons, Bradbury's most personal, most intense novel. It's set in the same sort of town he grew up in, and it too starts with a bolt of lightning. From that point onward, the citizens of this place would be well advised to be cautious -- and yet, for some reason they don't see the peril they face in this dark carnival of souls. It's up to two young boys, and their father -- the custodian at the town library -- to fight back. It's a story with resonances with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or The Circus of Dr. Lao, a novel written in 1935 and made into a Hollywood film in 1964, two years after Something Wicked appeared. But Bradbury's art, the art of this book, reaches before and ahead of any other such tales; it has an urgency that only someone who knew the stakes -- in both books and life -- would know.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Left Hand of Darkness

When it first appeared in 1969, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness boldly went where few other science fiction novels had gone before. For one, it opened the question of sexual identity, with a new race of humanoid creatures who only took on a specific gender when they went into a sort of sexualized state known as "kemmer." Thus, a single individual could be the mother of two and the father of three -- and, in the interim between, partake of a gender ambivalence that was deeply unsettling to some readers (and indeed to the book's own narrator, Genly Ai. Secondly, and perhaps as a consequence of this curious condition, the political prestige system of Le Guin's imagined planet was unusually subtle and stealthy; its very name -- shifgrethor -- seems to to echo its shiftiness.

In her later writings, LeGuin confessed that she'd thought about coming up with a new, gender-neutral pronoun -- after all, if someone could be he today and she tomorrow and he again the next day, any grammatical term that implied stasis would ring false to the novel's premise. Initially, she defended the use of "he" as the generic pronoun, but later rejected that view; in 1985, working on a screenplay for a film version of the novel, she experimented by using the pronouns a/un/a's to refer to Gethenians not in kemmer, something she thought worked well in speech but would have had a much harder time in print. Today, thirty years later, in the era of spectacularized transgender identities such as Caitlyn Jenner's, language again is troubled; while no set of non- or trans-gedered pronouns has come into general use, many are tried, and the prefix cis -- indicating someone who is culturally comfortable in their assigned gender -- does seem to be making some headway.

But in The Left Hand of Darkness, this aspect of Gethenian culture is but one of many differences; along with Genly Ai, we puzzle and stumble our way through this society, where, although war is unknown, the keystones of arches must be mortared with blood, politicians only invite you to dinner after they've ceased supporting you, and saying almost anything directly is probably a violation of protocol. It's a fully realized otherworld, whose strangeness never quite wears off -- and a long long way from either monks or space-guns!