Friday, September 30, 2011

TERM LIMITATIONS

I've changed the name of my movie blog and my AUM theory for a couple of reasons.

One is that I've become aware that there's actually another "AUM Theory" out there, some psychological dingus called "Anxiety/Uncertainty Management."  I'm sure there would never be a literal conflict between them and me in the best/worst of worlds, but I just don't want the duplication, even if I never publish my theory anywhere else.

Two is that about a year after I formulated the basic parameters of my theory, I found myself displeased with the term "atypical" that I explained in TALES OF THE ATYPICAL, UNCANNY AND MARVELOUS. I specified that the concept of "the atypical" could well apply to the type of narrative disequilibrium that pertained within what might loosely be called a "realistic" or "naturalistic" discourse, for which my first-chosen example was the novel THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL.  I felt the need for a particular term to denote what Tzvetan Todorov called "the real" in his book THE FANTASTIC, but one which would not privilege consensual accounts of "the real" as did Todorov's book.

Recently, however, I tried to see if the term "atypical" applied very well to elements of stories aside from the movement of disequlibrium that Frank Cioffi called "the anomaly."  "Uncanny" and "marvelous" (which I swiped from Todorov, though I know he took the first one from Freud and think it likely he picked up the latter from other fantasy-critics) worked fine.  But "atypical" didn't work across the board.  When I look back at one of my few reviews of an "atypical" film like HAWK OF THE WILDERNESS, I don't think "atypical" aptly describes what narrative forces make the film closer in spirit to realistic fiction than its "uncanny" near-cousin, TARZAN OF THE APES.

I'm not going back to change the text of old essays here or on THE ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE, though I will change the labels for "the atypical" to "the naturalistic."

From now on, my specialized use of "naturalistic" will connote those things that are, as the earlier essay says, "not fantastic" in any way.  Moreover, since some of my cited definitions of fantasy stress how the natural order is broken or compromised within fictions of the uncanny or marvelous, it seems appropriate to have one category that remains "naturalistic" in all respects.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN (1958)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, cosmological*

Of director Edward L. Cahn's two collaborations with SF-writer Jerome Bixby. CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN is the more mythically resonant movie, even though the other film probably gets the most press, often deemed as little more than : IT! THE TERROR THAT INSPIRED 'ALIEN!'

It's fascinating to see how Bixby attempted to use the tropes of the "mummy movies" that had seen some revival in the mid-1950s, apparently with the aim of seeing how far he could distance the tropes from their original contexts.

The first and foremost re-thinking is naturally the "Faceless Man" of the title. Rather than being a bandage-wrapped denizen of ancient Egypt, the titular monster is a Etruscan gladiator "wrapped" in an impenetrable stone covering, the legacy of having been buried in the famous volcanic explosion that devastated Pompeii in the year 79 A.D. However, according to the amazed modern scientists attempting to explain the mobility of the stone-faced warrior, gladiator Quintillus Aurelius does owe his prolonged life to Egypt indirectly. In fact, it's scientist Paul Mallon (a rare starring role for Richard Anderson) who posits that Aurelius was exposed to mummy-preservation chemicals in a temple of Isis. The idea of radiation is tossed into the stewpot as well by Bixby's script, but Bixby puts the greatest emphasis on the chemicals, perhaps indicating his desire to give viewers a more SF-oriented version of the classic magical mummy.

Another major trope with which Bixby experiments is the film-mummy's tendency to go looking for a modern-day woman who just happens to have reincarnated his ancient beloved. Karl Freund's 1932 THE MUMMY remains the essential expression of this theme: in this film the modern woman in question is partly Egyptian and so may be not only a reincarnation but also a descendant (albeit over thousands of years) of the original beloved. Most later mummy-movies weren't so concerned with an extensive pedigree, and in most of them, wherever the mummy happens to come to life, he encounters some not-very-Egyptian-looking female who happens to reincarnate his lost love.

Here Bixby pulls a bit of a switch on normal expectations. Normally the lead male has a girlfriend whom the mummy attempts to abduct. But during Paul Mallon's Pompeiian mummy-hunt, the script gives him both a current girlfriend, American Tina Enright, and an Italian ex-girlfriend Maria. Since in life gladiator Aurelius pined after an upper-class Roman woman, one might have expected Maria to be the reincarnation of the mummy's lost love. Instead, Aurelius goes after Tina, who is never given explicit connections to ancient Rome but whom the scientists eventually declare to be the spitting image of the Pompeiian noblewoman.

I'm not sure precisely what Bixby wanted to accomplish with this "splitting" of the heroine into Former Girlfriend and Current Girlfriend. It may be a testament to Mallon's virility: in his introductory scene while he's talking to another character he turns a lascivious eye toward a statue of a semi-clothed Roman goddess. This bears a degree of irony in that later his own lover, an artist, will be partially seduced by the stony charms of Aurelius. Tina dreams of the "stone mummy" and paints his picture before she ever sees him. It's never clear that she is literally a reincarnation, though. The film invokes "ESP" on one occasion to explain how Aurelius can navigate given that his face is covered by stone. Perhaps one could as easily justify the notion that Aurelius subconsciously mesmerizes Tina, who toward the end frees him from his restraints. Tina's fascination with her "demon lover," like those of the character Helen in THE MUMMY, function as the emotional core of this mummy-flick.

Other elements aren't as psychologically successful. Just as Paul has a current girlfriend, Maria has a fiancee, one Enrico, though he barely figures into the plot. Maria does seem to have misgivings about marriage with him, implicitly because she still loves Paul. Indeed, from one angle one might see Aurelius as a manifestation of Maria's hostility toward the woman who replaced her. Following Tina's initial encounter with the mobile Faceless Man, the artist falls into "shock" and Paul almost accuses Maria of not doing enough to help Tina, prompting Maria to perhaps "protest too much" about how she does want to help Tina. Toward the film's end Maria does reaffirm her commitment to Enrico even as Paul remains loyal to Tina, but the script as presented never shows either Paul or Maria as seriously tempted by one another.

The "curse" of the title is an interesting twist as well. Despite the hints of ESP and reincarnation there's no actual magic-style curse involved; Aurelius simply leaves behind a document in which he curses the Roman people for his frustrations in loving the noblewoman. There's a small allusion to class warfare here, in that despite his fame as a gladiator Aurelius couldn't wed his love due to his slave background. On the other hand, just to confuse things a bit more, Tina has a psychic episode in which she seems to channel her ancestor, who regards Aurelius with fear rather than love. Here the Faceless Man seems molded after the model of female fantasies of the Deadly Male a la KING KONG. Indeed, the conclusion focuses on Aurelius' capacity to endanger his beloved Tina when he thinks he's protecting her, as he bears her away from civilization and tries to take refuge in the sea, imaging that Vesuvius is exploding once more.

The psychological aspects of FACELESS MAN are the most prominent, but one should not give short shrift to the cosmological ones. Bixby's justifications for the monster's mobility are naturally psuedoscience, but they play on real scientific knowledge for their effectiveness, and so give this faceless Italian mummy a bit of a "face-lift."

Saturday, September 17, 2011

TARZAN AND THE LOST SAFARI (1957); TARZAN AND THE TRAPPERS (1958)

PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair*, (2) poor
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*



After re-viewing these two Gordon Scott Tarzan entries-- his second and third efforts with the character respectively-- I'm rather surprised as to how quickly the ape-man slipped from a mythic, Adamic figure to a jungle cop.  I didn't see quite so great a change in the basic approach to Tarzan during earlier eras under producer Sol Lesser, not even when the starring actor changed.  It seems that as soon as Gordon Scott came in, the filmmakers started rethinking Tarzan somewhat.

Despite the shift to a hero with greater muscularity, the action-scenes are only fair in these two Tarzans.  The question of whether or not this Adam keeps an "Eve" around or not receives mixed emphasis; in SAFARI nothing is said of Jane or any version of "Boy," but in TRAPPERS (consisting of re-edited pilot TV episodes for a proposed Tarzan teleseries), Jane and Boy are back, though they're largely peripheral to the action.

TRAPPERS's choppy continuity is just barely held together by a theory of relativity: in one section Tarzan fights the usual illegal game-trapper, and in the second section, he battles the trapper's vengeful brother, who sets out to hunt Tarzan.  The dialogue and fight-scenes are thoroughly ordinary, and the only interest this film holds for me personally is that on this blog it's the first time I've reviewed a work with a "Most Dangerous Game" plotline. This alone places this film into my "bizarre crimes" category.  There's also a little interest in seeing an earlier appearance by Scatman ("Sherman" here) Crothers as your standard African native.

SAFARI is a little better.  A private plane crashes in the jungle, and Tarzan tries to take the ersatz "safari" to civilization against the wishes of a scheming white hunter and a sacrifice-happy band of natives.  For some strange reason the scripter decided to call the natives "Opar men." The name is is certainly derived from ER Burroughs' name for a savage but far more fascinating tribe in his books, but it seems a pretty pointless use of the name, lacking any real resonance.

The core of the conflict in SAFARI, such as it is, is a marital conflict between the plane's pilot Dick Penrod and his wife, the aptly named Diana.  It's suggested, in a very G-rated manner, that Diana may contemplate messing around on her man, either with Tarzan (who has a short speech about how women ought to come when their men call them) or with the villainous white hunter.  The most mythic scene is one of the few in which the film emulates the Weismuller swimming-scenes.  Diana and her frowsy female companion Gamage (four times married, she says) ogle Tarzan as he catches fish in a waterfall; for once making explicit the visual feast Tarzan allows for hetero female viewers.  ("I like the way it ripples," says Gamage, only apparently speaking of the waterfall.)  Then Diana goes for a swim with Tarzan which, though technically chaste, can't help but evoke the old Weismuller/O'Sullivan water-ballets, which almost always signified sexual congress.  But despite Gamage's example of rapacious femininity, Diana reconciles with her husband.  Needless to say, the safari is saved from becoming a routine jungle-sacrifice.

Still, SAFARI's mythic moment still doesn't make for much of a film.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

THE GHOST SHIP (1943)



PHENOMENALITY: *atypical*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*

THE GHOST SHIP is certainly one of the least well-known works in the oeuvre of producer Val Lewton, but after just one viewing, it's my new favorite Lewton.

Directed by Mark Robson immediately on the heels of THE SEVENTH VICTIM, the film follows another young innocent, Tom Merriam, as he secures a berth of "third officer" aboard a ship run by the authoritarian Captain Stone. As with most Lewton-produced films, the evolution of evil in the screenplay is subtle and deceptive: when Merriam first encounters Stone, the latter seems a fairly avuncular fellow, eager to find in Merriam a sort of symbolic son who will carry on his beliefs. Unfortunately, Stone's beliefs include what he calls "the right of risk," meaning his conviction that as captain he possesses the right to deal as he pleases with the lives of the men serving under him. Merriam suspects but cannot prove that the captain sets up one of the crewmen to be killed "by accident." None of the other crewmen support Merriam's suspicions, not even the intelligent radio-operator Sparks, who can quote Latin to Merriam yet chooses to hide his head in the sand (not unlike the tragic poet-character in SEVENTH VICTIM). Merriam leaves the ship but by happenstance finds himself aboard it once more as a passenger. He knows that Stone plans to kill him but up until the conclusion none of the crew will credence his fears.

The gradual exposition of Stone's subtly psychotic character is on a par with the character of Wolf Larson from Jack London's SEA WOLF, and as in London the captain's authority becomes a universal metaphor for the tyranny of authoritarians everywhere. However, though Captain Stone is a "psycho," at no time does he evince the qualities of what I term "strangeness" that would make this a film of the "uncanny" type. The title "Ghost Ship" is entirely metaphorical, used in much the same way Henrik Ibsen uses a similar metaphor in his play GHOSTS. In such works "ghosts" are the dead weight of the past, often if not always incarnated in the mistakes and failings of a previous generation, which the current generation must then seek to redeem.

Only at one point does GHOST SHIP seem "spooky," during a sequence when a cargo-hook aboard ship breaks loose from its moorings and swings wildly about, as if attempting to attack the men manning the ship.

In my SEVENTH VICTIM review I commented that many Lewton films possess what I called a "Jane Eyre myth" in that one character often supplants another one's romantic partner. This appears loosely through the character of Edith Barrett, a fortysomething woman who has maintained a relationship with Captain Stone for 15 years, though the precise nature of that relationship remains veiled. In her few scenes it's plain that she's aware that Stone has lost his humanity through his grim insistence on the captain's absolute authority. She loses the fight for Stone's soul, but she's an indirect vessel through which Merriam, after his life is saved, is fully redeemed to society, in that through Edith Merriam meets Edith's sister in the film's last scene. Clearly the sister is a substitute for Edith herself, in contrast, say, to the more direct transference of affections of a male character from one sister to another in SEVENTH VICTIM.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1981)



PHENOMENALITY: *atypical*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*

As I did for my essays on the Bond films THUNDERBALL and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, I chose to reread the Bond prose works that most influenced 1981's FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. The film EYES takes its title from one Fleming short-story of that title, about a young woman whom Bond helps in gaining vengeance on her parents' killers, but as it happens the main body of the film is built more around a second short-story, "Risico." In the latter story Bond is sent to Greece to attempt to allay the drug-trade in Great Britain by buying out one of the chief druglords. Since this wouldn't be a very dramatic conflict the hero is dragged into a battle between two Greek-bosses, with a certain amount of double-dealing about which of them is Bond's real enemy.

Both stories, like the film, fall into the phenomenality I call *atypical.* EYES sports none of the freakish villains that often transport Fleming's stories into the realm of the *uncanny,* and there are certainly none of the SF-elements that pushed the movie-series into the realm of the *marvelous,* as was seen in EYES' immediate predecessor, 1979's MOONRAKER. Indeed, the series' producers were very vocal in 1981 about getting Bond away from the more outlandish fantasy of MOONRAKER. EYES, despite some outrageous stunts necessary to sell the cinematic Bond, does that quite well. I found the film far preferable to the later "realistic" take on the Bond franchise seen in the Daniel Craig films CASINO ROYALE (2006) and QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008), which both lack the earlier franchise's concern with the exotic and the titillating.

EYES' narrative action follows "Risico" fairly closely, but in keeping with giving the movie a more noble sociological motive, here Bond is not attempting to buy off a druglord but to locate a lost codebreaker-device before one of the Greek crime-bosses, name of Kristatos (Julian Glover), can sell the device to the Russians. In fighting Kristatos, whose name slightly suggests "Christ," Bond is aided by a less venal crime-boss named "Columbo,"whose name in Greek means "dove." Neither in the short story nor the movie do there seem to be any conscious religious subtexts to the naming of the two characters, but in the film director John Glen does manage to work in dove-images from time to time, adding a nice visual leitmotif. I can't help wondering if perhaps Hong Kong director John Woo derived some of his fascination with dove-symbolism from the Glen film.

Bond's other major helper is the female lead, Melina Havelock (Carole Bouquet). Although the female avenger in the EYES short story is all-British, the film's screenwriters make the character half-Greek, which allows her to fit in better with the Mediterranean atmosphere, as well as giving her a bit of a Diana-the-Huntress resonance. As a female lead and helpmeet Melina is no more than adequate compared to other Bond Women, and isn't nearly as strong a character as Judy Havelock in the Fleming short story. But at least Melina isn't as much a diminishment of the original as is the film-version of THUNDERBALL's Domino.

The one primary character who's not in either short story is Bibi, a young protege of Kristatos being trained for Olympic skating competition, though it comes out that Kristatos is less interested in her legs than in what lies between them. Presumably Bibi appears because the filmmakers had engaged the services of popular skater Lynn-Holly Johnson, but her character provides some welcome humor when she attempts to seduce James Bond with a sort of Lolita-style aggression. Ironically, the character rejects Kristatos by saying he's too old for her: in truth Julian Glover was over ten years younger than Roger Moore. In addition, Bibi is played to be much younger than the actress actually was, as Johnson was only one year younger than Bouquet.

Moore does "realistic Bond" quite well, with less of the smarmy conceit I found in MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN. However, the best thing about EYES are the suspenseful action-sequences. For me the standout is a scene EYES lifts from the novel LIVE AND LET DIE, in which Bond is towed by the villain's boat through shark-filled waters. The film also adds Melina to the ride, adding to the suspense all the more. I suppose this scene registers as more exciting for me than THUNDERBALL's soggy underwater sequences because of improvements in underwater shooting-technology since the 1960s. But this and the end-scenes-- the invasion of Kristatos' mountain fortress-- make EYES the best of John Glen's Bond outings.