Sunday, 26 April 2020

GOODNESS GRACIOUS, GREAT BALLS OF FIRE [233]



“Nine hundred years after the Great Nuke. The world man created, he destroyed. Out of the darkness and ignorance of the radioactive rubble emerged a new order... and the world was woggos." (in old speak that means - Crazy!)”


Sometimes, these films just end up finding you. What is the plot of “America 3000”? “In 2890, 900 years after a nuclear apocalypse, warriors Korvis and Gruss stage raids to free men enslaved by the powerful women now ruling Earth.” How lovely does that sound, especially for a film released in the same year, 1986, as the original novel of “The Handmaid’s Tale”?


There is the extra layer of slime in knowing this film was released by Cannon. They had already employed the writer and director of “America 3000,” David Engelbach, to write the script of “Death Wish II” – he later co-wrote the story for the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling debacle “Over the Top.” It is quite possible that Cannon were making “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” at this point too, so “America 3000” may have received some of its budget, as Cannon tried to juggle its various B-movie productions.


Once I actually started watching the film, it appears that “post-apocalyptic” means something that resembles a mix of a medieval village, “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” and “The Flintstones” – the music, formed of your typical 1986 rock guitar and keyboards, sticks the film firmly into the past.


It should be made clear that Korvus and Gruss are that bit more intelligent than the enslaved men in “America 3000” because they found, as teenagers, a Ladybird-type book of ABCs, and a top hat. This appears to have been enough to elevate them away from the “machos,” or slaves, and the “toys,” who had their tongues cut out. It looks like a futuristic equivalent of Nadsat or Newspeak was attempted, but not explained, so you will find yourself listening to characters while thinking you missed something earlier, the last time your attention wandered.




I wish I could tell you why the world in the film is the way it is: we know about the “Mericans” and the “Commies,” a “Prezzydent” that will come back to lead them, and the “Great Nuke,” but why a feudal society, based on superiority of gender, with little other knowledge of what the previous world was like, has come about is completely beyond me. You hope this is a pocket of weirdness in the desert (possibly Arizona, but actually filmed in Israel), with life carrying on as normal elsewhere. It is not clear why the women, led by a “tiara” named Frisco, have full hair and make-up styling, other than as “war paint.” 


It is not clear why a ten-minute sequence of brutal conflict is resolved by Korvis and Frisco making kissing in front of everyone else, as everyone discovers this is what they should have been doing all along – I refuse to believe all the women and all the men are straight. It is also not clear why there is a sasquatch-like thing called Aargh the Awful, playing with an air raid siren, and holding a boombox. Finally, for me, it is not clear how a nuclear bunker would survive intact after nine hundred years, with the electricity working, and how the D-sized batteries that must have been in the boombox Korvis found had not leaked in that time.


“America 3000” is a typical example of a cheap film made by Cannon in the 1980s. The bizarre antics on screen did detract from realising the picture was released in 1.33:1 Academy ratio – presumably, all the anamorphic widescreen lenses Cannon owned were being used by “Superman IV.” The actor playing Korvis, Chuck Wagner, thankfully still has a career in musical theatre, in “Beauty and the Beast” and “Les Misérables.” For a futuristic film, “America 3000” is really only of historical interest, but it is online, if you really want to find it.


Sunday, 19 April 2020

YOU’RE THE DEVIL IN DISGUISE [232]


Something feels a bit “adult Famous Five” about “The Devil Rides Out,” its main characters being a group that have been friends for years. Dennis Wheatley’s original 1934 novel is the second in a series of eleven to feature the group, led Duc de Richleau, played here by Christopher Lee. Not all of them deal with supernatural themes, although the last, “Gateway to Hell,” definitely did - it was released in 1970, two years after Hammer Film Productions released their version of “The Devil Rides Out.” Furthermore, Dennis Wheatley’s writing led him to become an authority on Satanism, despite having complete disdain for it, becoming a member of the Ghost Club, founded in London in 1862 to investigate and research the paranormal.


“The Devil Rides Out” begins with one friend acting strangely, having fallen in with a cult and its charismatic leader. The others must use black magic to fight the cult leader, who will face divine retribution for summoning the angel of death. It is a rollicking good adventure, almost a cautionary tale – film censorship issues over the occult were an obstruction to the film’s production for some time – and is told in a very adult and straightforward manner, with themes of brainwashing and possible child murder, by one of the demons summoned, coming into the mix. No wonder the characters literally thank God when all is over.

Christopher Lee is having the time of his life in one of his favourite roles, possibly because he was playing the hero, and not the monster, although I am not clear on why he knows so much magic himself. This time, evil is entirely human, through Charles Gray as Mocata, leading a ritual on Salisbury Plain, then infiltrating a family home – “I shall not be back... but something will.”



Hammer films have a very particular look, and for one set in the 1920s, its gothic trademark is all over the production, adding in a goat-headed devil and a giant tarantula. Aside from Christopher Lee, many actors in this film will be seen later: Paul Eddington, later seen in TV sitcoms “The Good Life” and “Yes, Minister,” plays the sceptic Richard Eaton, on whom the Duc de Richleau stakes their friendship in requesting Richard to stay within a chalk circle to bring a demon forward; Charles Gray, pre-Blofeld here, will also be found in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Shock Treatment”; and Patrick Mower, playing Simon Aron, the friend that gets pulled into the cult, has appeared in the soap opera “Emmerdale” since 2000.

“The Devil Rides Out” has a reputation as one of the great Hammer horror films, and is a cult favourite, but the definitive book of the company, “The Hammer Vault,” said it flopped upon release? How could it? It had the stars, the horror, and certainly the writing – the script is by Richard Matheson, of “I Am Legend,” “Duel,” and a number of short stories and “Twilight Zone” episodes. However, what was a co-production with an American company, Seven Arts (owners of Warner Bros. at the time) did not translate to success in the US: Paramount had its own occult hit film in the same year, “Rosemary’s Baby.” Christopher Lee’s big film in 1968 turned out to be, well, “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave.”


Sunday, 12 April 2020

YOU RESCUE ME, I RESCUE YOU [231]



So, how are your New Year’s resolutions going?


To all those that declared that 2020 was going to be “their” year, it feels natural to write it off as a false start, and skip to 2021. Twelve days were “lost” when the Gregorian calendar replaced the Julian calendar, in Europe, in 1582 – we could do it again! Australia could have Christmas in winter!


Addressing severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the cause of coronavirus disease 2 (COVID-19), has taken time because I believed doing so would not be helpful. Realising I needed to do it for myself, concerns over tone, and point of view, melted away. We all need hope, but we have our own hopes.


I understand the characterisation of the fight against coronavirus as a war, because of our collective memory of the last national emergency on this scale, mobilising an entire country against a common enemy, even if the Queen saying “we’ll meet again” at the end of her special broadcast made me think of “Dr. Strangelove.” 


But this enemy has no strategy, forcing sacrifices in routine not seen even during the Second World War, for our bodies are under attack, not our homes. (I know it didn’t stop Donald Trump calling coronavirus “a brilliant enemy... genius... hidden, but very smart,” but his words surprise no-one anymore.) Coronavirus may not be a plague, or a pox, but my mind headed there. Reading the diary of Samuel Pepys from late 1665, recounting the figures from the weekly bill of mortality, and hoping the impending frost will flush out the plague from London, is not far from our hourly news bulletins and talks of an “exit strategy.”

My exit strategy from coronavirus is set – having studiously followed Government advice to stay at home, leaving only for exercise or to buy essentials, I’ve had time to think. I needed a haircut before the UK was locked down, and it is now my priority - it’s weighing my head down. I will then head to a restaurant, most likely Five Guys – my burger toppings are “all the way,” with no ketchup. I fixed on these two actions as the signs of a return to normality, and decided not to question them further.


Once these are done, I can assess how my actions will change, just as everyone adjusts to new realities. The short version of the rebuilding of London after the Great Plague, followed by the Great Fire, was that a competition was held to devise a new layout for the city, but abandoned with the need to start rebuilding quickly... but the closed sewers, wider streets and installation of pavements to separate the public from the road ensured lessons were learnt just as fast.


In April 2020, we cannot yet say what we will change, but when a respirator can be conceived, designed, and approved for medical use within days, innovation caused by necessity will outstrip wish lists and ideology – see Brexit for further details. I have made attempts to order a contactless debit card, with cash being accepted in fewer shops, and have made changes at home to continue working. At the same time, internet networks will be strengthened to take a shift to working online that may eventually stay. Virtual or phone-based GP appointments, formerly a compromise, are mostly the only option right now, but more people are ready to accommodate them. Some shops that have adopted a delivery-only model during the crisis may continue in this manner without reopening their physical location. More consideration is going to be given to ideas previously dismissed as inconceivable, like a universal basic income, due to emergency measures like the Government-paid furlough in the UK. It would be a mistake to expect things to go back to normal – at least, not straight away.


There are also things that never change. Mobile phone masts have been attacked in the UK over the misplaced belief that the electromagnetic waves generated by 5G mobile signals make changes to people’s bodies, that will make them more susceptible to coronavirus. However, this conspiracy theory, itself spread by 5G being adopted first in more densely populated cities, ignores the fact that those frequencies use capacity vacated by digital television, so not only did these waves already exist, they were being used to broadcast “You’ve Been Framed!”


Meanwhile, as people stay at home, television increasingly resembles the YouTube series of “Leigh Spence is Dancing with the Gatekeepers.” My tips for making your video calls look better are very simple: sit or stand back from the camera, have the lens at your eye level, instead of looking down or up at your device, and use cool white lightbulbs at home instead of warm ones. My only extras are an external microphone and green screen, and you don’t need either of those.


I won’t go as far as saying “we’ll meet again,” but I look forward to saying “Happy New Year” again.

Sunday, 5 April 2020

Saturday, 4 April 2020

DANCE WITH ME, DON’T DANCE WITH ME [229]



"Kid Auto Races at Venice" is a six-minute film from 1914, best known as the film that introduced Charlie Chaplin, and his “tramp” character, to the world. Also known as “The Pest,” it is about a man constantly walking into the view of a newsreel camera, filming soapbox and car races at Venice Beach, California – from his first moment on film, Chaplin’s eyes are fixed on the camera, and his audience.



The premise - and all that happens - is Chaplin posing in front of the camera, in some cases only feet from being hit by a car, before being pushed out of shot by the director, giving Chaplin multiple ways of throwing himself out of shot. Only Chaplin, the director, and the cameraman are actors, with the watching crowds of people being members of the public there to watch an actual race meeting, gatecrashed by a film crew. This is the only time Chaplin appeared as the “tramp” without anyone knowing who he was.



As improvised as it may look, “Kid Auto Races at Venice” was made to a formula established by Mack Sennett, who ran the Keystone Film Company:



-          Get an idea, and follow the normal sequence until it turns into a chase

-          Use no more than ten different camera setups

-          Four types of film - "park films" (a cheap and easy setting); public occasions; a more formal comedy (based in a hallway, with two rooms either side, action building between them); and a combination of interior and exterior shots



You may have a one-page outline for a script, but the rest was improvised from there. This formula, established by Sennett to meet the insatiable demand for his comedy films, all one reel in length – at 11-16 minutes, this was the standard length of a film for 1914 – was stirred from the primordial soup of film language stirred by the director D.W. Griffith, for whom Sennett once worked as an actor and writer. At the Biograph Company, from 1908-13, Griffith made around five hundred short films, making whatever story he could, shaping camera shots, acting and playing different stories between scenes, before he began the push from short subjects to feature films with "Birth of a Nation" (1915). As a result, the standardised system of film editing and continuity used to this day is most often credited to Griffith.



“Kid Auto Races at Venice” sticks to this formula closely, its “split-reel length” meaning only seven camera shots were required. Within a year, Chaplin was pushing it further, directing his own films, blowing camera shots wide open with music hall slapstick, then bring it further and further in to show emotion and pathos, making for a more fulfilling cinema experience, and showing where it can go. The final shot of “Kid Auto Races at Venice”, as Chaplin makes mocking faces at the camera, is the most important of the film.