The Deadly Dream – Limping Man

May 6, 2011

I grew up watching Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt.  Loved that sound of bubbling on the soundtrack, and those nasty run-ins with Moray Eels!  So, when The Deadly Dream, a TV movie, came out in 1971, I had to watch.  Even at the age of 14, I knew it was junk, but my friends and I found it amusing, and my nascent interest in surrealism was tickled by the premise of the confusion of reality and the dream.  I caught up with Lloyd Bridges again in The Limping Man (1953) the double-feature on my DVD of The Scar.

Bridges plays a man returning to England to pick up with his war-time love after being stateside for six years.  She’s a real dreamboat, and an actress to boot, but she  doesn’t meet him at the airport as planned.  As he walks from the plane, the man behind him asks for a light, they pause, and a sniper shoots the man dead!  The corpse has a picture of Bridge’s lady friend on him, but that comes out later.

The film is a passable suspense story that seems ripped off from The 39 Steps, Hitchcock’s films in general, and The Third Man.  Stylistically, it’s no great shakes, although I liked the sequence of shots below, as Bridges runs after a man he believes is implicated with the shooting.  A little bit of noir-expressionism on the London riverside.

  

I enjoy films that show the seedy side of life in London in the 50s (Dance with a Stranger, Night and the City), and there was some of that here.  The ending of the film is so unexpected and so outrageous, I didn’t know whether to laugh or smash my video screen.   This is one case where I will keep completely mum so you can make your own unbiased judgment if you watch it!

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Drainage on my mind…

December 10, 2008

  welles_sewer

The other night, I caught the tail end of a special on the The History Channel called “The Sewers of London.”  Wow, that must have drawn quite an audience…but I was watching.  It described the horrors of cholera and typhus in London before the scientists had sorted out the causes of these scourges.  The miasma theory (infection borne by odor) which was wrong, but which nevertheless motivated great public works that led to spectacular gains in public health, dominated the medical establishment.

The Great Stink of the the mid-19th century in London arose from raw sewage dumped right into the Thames, the source of the city’s drinking water.  The theory of water-borne disease was not accepted, and Pasteur’s germ theory was not developed yet.  Get the stink away and the cholera will leave – it was common sense!

bazelgetteEnter Mr. Bazelgette, heroic engineer of the Victorian Age.  (Alas, we  have these giants  no more!)   He built a huge gravity drainage system that directed the city’s sanitary waste to two large pumping stations, from which it was lifted into giant holding reservoirs.  (They must have been a frightful sight when full!)  When the tide on the Thames was going out to sea, the reservoirs were emptied into the river, and the sewage was carried downstream, away from the city.  “The solution to pollution is dilution,” as they say in the engineering world.  Today, the beautiful Thames Embankment, imitated the world over, including in New York City’s Battery Park developments, sits on top of the massive gravity sewers designed by Mr. B.

londondrain1 thames_embankment

Around the same time, Doctor Snow made his famous map, dear to epidemiologists and cartographers, that showed the incidence of cholera in a neighborhood he studied.  He inferred correctly that the cases were all linked to the snow_mapsource of their drinking water, a local pump.  To test his notion, he dared to remove the handle (take note, Mr. Dylan) and the frequency of cholera deaths in the area dropped suddenly.  Case closed!  Disease is carried by…something…in the water, not by smell!

Which brings us to Alida Valli, the woman at the head of this post, the love interest of Harry Lyme (Orson Welles) who meets his ignominious end in the sewers of post-war Vienna in Carol Reed’s film The Third Man. I heard about this film from my mother, at a very young, formative age. Was I, perhaps, conditioned by what Pynchon calls the “Mother Conspiracy, ” just as poor Slothrop was? Is that why I now make my living fiddling with drainage systems and subterranean infrastructure? Well, leaving aside my hydraulic-psychoanalytics(and Freud was, I recall, very fond of hydraulic metaphors) it’s a great film.  And if you think I’m the only one who spins strange associations off of this film, read this appreciation of Ms. Valli.

I recently saw Valli in another film, Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case, a not-so-great film in which she plays a wonderful femme fatale. Yep, she did it, she get’s hanged.  The film’s location shot of the court struck me as it showed the corner blasted away from a bombing raid – it was shot in 1947.

And on the subject of sewers and culture, check out:

  • He Walked by Night – Richard Basehart kills and is killed in this Los Angels noir featuring a climax in the storm sewers
  • V by Thomas Pynchon – Benny Profane searches for the albino alligator rumored to lurk within the New York system
  • Need I say it, Les Miserables, which includes an entire chapter devoted to the history and importance of the Paris sewers, and includes some deprecatory words on the modern ones
  • Various memoirs of the Warsaw Ghetto – hiding and escaping in sewers was common
  • Adolf Loos’ emphasis on plumbing as the standard by which civilizations are to be judged
  • Gibson’s novel featuring The Stink, The Difference Engine

There are other items I’m sure…send me your finds!

valli


Pynchon

February 21, 2008

v2-stamp.jpg

The image here is an elargement of a postage stamp from the last days of the Third Reich showing the launch of five Victory Rockets, the V-2, towards London. (I bought it on ebay, where else?) For dramatic effect, the artist has shown the rockets taking off at steep angle rather than vertically, as they would have been launched. When they reached the point at which their engines would cut out, brenschluss, the rockets would continue on their way, “pure ballastic”, powered solely by the force of gravity, describing a rainbow parabolic arc to their explosive terminus in England.

I have read Gravity’s Rainbow several times. Most of the people I recommend it to barely start it. I guess I like it. But I’m not sure how much I like it. It was certainly an important book to me when I first read it in college – we fans called ourselves the Gravity Men. But since then, I have gone back and forth on my “critical” assessment of this work that is, regardless of my opinion or anyone elses’, a very important, i.e., influential, book.

To summarize the “main” thread of its incredibly complicated set of plotlines, or at least the one that interests me the most and relates most directly to the title:

Tyrone Slothrop is a private in the US Army stationed in London during the V-2 blitz. A colleague, plotting with colored pins on a map of London the impact sites of the rockets, begins to notice a pattern: When Slothrop, who has a knack with the ladies that is envied and celebrated by his buddies, beds down with a new bird, the rocket arrives the next morning to destroy the site. It’s almost as though Slothrop’s presence brings the rocket on later, or as though through some weird sex-guilt-perversion-psycho complex, Slothrop chooses to have sex with women who will be destroyed. And how could he know in advance..? Are cause and effect reversed in time? (You only hear the supersonic rocket coming after the impact!) It all has to do with the experiments performed by Lazlo Jamf, using baby Slothrop as a subject, that tested his sexual arousal in the presence of a new plastic, Imopolex G, which substance is a critical component in the V-2 rocket…

From here on, it gets complicated.

Maps, mathematics, sex, history, techo-weirdness…it has its appeal.

Pynchon can write poetically, and he sometimes conveys a sense of deep pathos, but too often his characters are mere cardboard that he moves around to make his fascinating and convoluted points. The book is permeated with the spirit of “stoner humor,” the sort of jokes that you imagine might be hilarious if you were high, but that can be a bit tedious and sophomoric if you are just reading. Paranoia, the ultimate scheming by the unamed and unknowable Them, the depiction of all social structures as conspiracies (from motherhood to the distribution of lightbulbs) can be outrageously funny, but to one who has never been a fan of Ken Kesey, 60s-style counter-cultural posturing, it can also appear dated and somewhat trivial.

Lots of critics are in awe of Pynchon’s grasp of science and mathematics, but I suspect that this has a lot to do with the general ignorance of such topics among literary critics. (cf. his endless discussion of entropy, a concept much abused in non-scientific argument.) I love his fascination with drainage and urban sewers (a central element in his novel, V) and as one who grew up in the shadow of Rocketdyne and the roar of its engine tests (or at least that’s what we thought those noises were), how could I fail to be amused by The Crying of Lot 49, in which Yoyodyne is the name of a principal defense-aerospace contractor? (I was told by an auction house person that nobody uses that phrase, “crying a lot” anymore.) That novel centers on another conspiracy, one involving the postal service, the first one of which was started by the ancient family of Thurn und Taxis (you can see that name carved into the frieze around the NYC main post office along with the famous “Neither snow, nor sleet, nor gloom of night…” slogan.)

Still and all, Pynchon can compress so much into a paragraph. Here he is describing the Victorian Gothic-Revival architecture of the building, known as The White Visitation, where the British counter-intelligence teams work:

The are approaching now a lengthy brick improvisation, a Victorian paraphrase of what once, long ago, resulted in Gothic cathedrals – but which, in its own time, arose not from any need to climb through the fashioning of suitable confusions toward any apical God, but more in a derangement of aim, a doubt as to the God’s actual locus (or, in some, as to its very existence), out of a cruel netowrk of sensuous moments that could not be transcended and so bent back the intentions of the builders no on any zenith, but back to fright, to simple escape in whatever direction, from what the industrial smoke, street excrement, windowless warrens, shrugging leather forests of drive belts, flowing and patient shadow states of the rats and flies, were saying about the chances for mercy that year.

The spirit of the age crystalized in architecture, and his prose.


Mr. Churchill Says…The Kinks Say

April 23, 2005

For the last week, I’ve been listening to Arthur, or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire (1970) by The Kinks. Listening over and over again because it’s such a good rock album, and I have always been fascinated by pop music that takes a look at history and society, although I don’t mind songs about wanting to hold hands either.

I was only 13 when this album came out – I didn’t get to know The Kinks’ music until the last two years, spurred on partly the interest of my young daughter in 60s music. I wasn’t a close follower of rock ‘n’ roll as a teen, but I knew the big hits by The Kinks – “Lola”, “You Got Me”, etc. “Mr. Churchill Says,” a song on Arthur, is now firmly lodged in my head and I can’t get enough of it. It begins with a slow, bluesey cadence:

Well Mr. Churchill says, Mr. Churchill says
We gotta fight the bloody battle to the very end
Mr. Beaverbrook says we gotta save our tin
And all the garden gates
And empty cans are gonna make us win

and goes on to quote Churchill himself, with a little additional text by Davies:

We shall defend our island
On the land and on the sea
We shall fight them on the beaches
On the hills and in the fields
We shall fight them in the streets
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed to so few
‘Cos they have made our British Empire
A better place for me and you
And this was their finest hour

 An air raid siren goes off, and the song changes into a fast-paced rock number. After a long instrumental passage, they sing:

Did you hear that plane flying overhead
There’s a house an fire and there’s someone lying dead
We gotta clean up the streets
And get me back on my feet
Because we wanna be free!
Do your worst and we’ll do our best
We’re gonna win the way that Mr. Churchill says

 Is he mocking Churchill? Yes. Is he celebrating him? Yes. Is it gentle mockery or admiration he’s expressing about the slogans, the legendary ‘British pluck’ that got them through the blitz? Both, I think. The last song, “Arthur”, after making a little fun of him, concludes with the rollicking chorus

Arthur we read you and understand you
Arthur we like you and want to help you
Oh! we love you and want to help you…

 Several of the songs evoke the horror and dehumanization of war – are they “anti-war” songs? They are intensely personal. Is “Get Back in Line” (on a different album) an anti-Union song because of the lines,

‘Cause that union man’s got such a hold over me
He’s the man who decides if I live or I die, if I starve, or I eat…?

It’s intensely personal, but doesn’t make an explicit political points. Davies is not a politico. His song “Some Mother’s Son” is about death in war, good war, bad war, indifferent war, period.

Davies was born in ’44 in working class London, too young for memories of the war, but no doubt surrounded by folks for whom the experience was as vivid as it could be. So British, so 60s in a way, breaking away from the past, welcoming the swinging present, but looking with a bit of (sceptical) nostalgia at the past. I don’t know of a comparable strain in American rock/pop music, but Ray Davies may just be extraordinary. Certainly, his muscial roots in British music hall culture (someday I’ll find out just what that was) are part of it, and he shares that with the Beatles.

The Blitz? Gravity’s Rainbow does a nice job of evoking the terror of life lived under the rain of the first rockets. Orwell, in 1984, draws on his experiences with the random destruction of streets, houses, and lives in that time. (I wonder if Orwell would have liked the song – he could be a real stick in the mud when he wasn’t being brilliant.) I’m not sure why it fascinates me so – I’ve always had a thing for the Spitfire airplanes. The fact that the Brits had radar, and nobody else did, so that they had advance warning of the Luftwaffe raids, which, together with the skill of the RAF and the prowess of the Spitfires, wrought terrible losses on Hitler’s planes. Of course, it was nothing compared to the siege of Lenningrad…which makes me think about September 11th …

Some people say 9/11 changed everything – I just don’t get it. It was a terrorist attack…but maybe I’ll post more on that later.