Alpha Noir

March 8, 2012

Alphaville (1965) is Jean Luc Godard’s noir-sci-fi mash-up, and it’s pretty darn good.  The film seems like a stylistic riff on those genres, with a hunk of surrealism thrown in, and at times it has, I think, its tongue in its cheek, but always just so:  the control of tone never wavers.  Sort of like Flaubert… Those French!

I don’t quite understand the use of music in French films of the 50s and 60s.  I commented on The 400 Blows that I thought its music was intrusive:  In this film, the soundtrack is purposely so, but sometimes it borders on romantic schmaltz.  But then, there’s that ironic, stylistic mash-up again…

A noir thriller with a main character called Lemmy Caution (Not sure, but I think there was a series of films or books with that character in France at the time…) played by an American expatriot actor whose face looks like it’s seen a lot of action, that ends with the destruction of an entire city.  Well, maybe not.  “Maybe all the inhabitants will heal and it will become a happy place,” Lemmy tells us as he drives away with his princess who saves herself and ends the movie by speaking the words she never learned, “I love you!

The story begins with Lemmy, aka Ivan Johnston, a secret agent from the Outer Countries, running around Alphaville in a fedora and raincoat looking for Dr. von Braun.  He snaps pictures of everything with a cheap camera, pretending to be a journalist.  The film is shot in haute and not so haute moderne architectural sites around Paris.  Part of the near-campy weirdness of the film is that it’s supposed to be in the future – not sure how far – and it’s supposed to be on another planet, but everyone talks as if they just got off the subway in NYC.  Lemmy drives American cars, of course.

Things happen that don’t make sense, but since it’s  a noir, it’s all rather deadpan.  A man breaks into Lemmy’s room, and Caution, not being too cautious, shoots him.  Later, interrogated by the Alpha 60 computer that runs the city, he says he was nervous and doesn’t take chances.  How was he to know it was just a psychological test?  Lemmy is pretty quick with a gun at the end, shooting people right and left with aplomb as he decommissions Alpha 60 and sets the city on its ear.

Lemmy is a hard-boiled type.  He knows his way around the hi-tech world, but he prefers old technology.  I concur – you won’t catch me with a smart phone.  He finally catches up with von Braun who tries to bribe him with gold and women, the two things Lemmy told the central computer he cares about.  But he was probably fooling – he’s a romantic under his tough exterior.  He tells von Braun he’s used to living with the fear of death:  “For a humble secret agent like me, it’s a constant companion, like whiskey.”  Hard-boiled, indeed!

 

Of course, women in Alphaville are mostly at the disposal of men, and come in various seductress levels, with numbers tattooed on their necks.  Lemmy isn’t tough enough to resist this one (Anna Karina, Godard’s wife), his own femme fatale who reminds me of the one from Zamyatin’s We.  Lemmy even says she has “sharp teeth” like the characters in old vampire movies.  She’ll betray him, of course.

When Lemmy goes on the rampage against the computer, we aren’t quite sure what he does, but it all begins with him speaking illogically about love.  The shot below is a portent of 2001.  With Alpha 60 on the blink, the citizens literally start to climb the walls, acting like termites in a nest where the queen has died.  Alpha 60, like Hal 9000, speaks, but with a voice that is distorted with a synthesizer.

Typical sights in Alphaville…huh?

The use of sites is very clever.  While we hear narration about the ways non-normals are executed, we see a theater with banks of seats that are rotating into a recess in the floor, and learn that a large group was electrocuted while watching a show.

Ivan/Lemmy is a cool customer with a semi-automatic, and he uses it without hesitation.  The thugs disarm him, however, by commanding the girl to recite story No. 434, which gets a laugh from Lemmy:  then they pummel him into submission.  Still, isn’t this film the forerunner of other noir-sci-fi faves, such as Blade Runner?  Maybe not – it’s so French.  Readings from the surrealist poet Paul Eluard’s Capital of Pain figure prominently in the narrative (every Frenchman with pretensions to cool would have known the text), and there is much abstract talk of love, conscience, humanity, and such existentialist cliches…

Mission accomplished, the girl rescued, Lemmy drives off on the ring road to inter-sidereal space, returning to his own galaxy in the Outer Countries.


Altered States

December 27, 2011

Paddy Chayefsky had no business being angry about the treatment given to his screenplay for the movie Altered States directed by Ken Russell in 1980.  Reportedly, he was angry about the way his beautifully crafted dialog was treated.  Here’s a rant by whiz kid scientist Jessup (William Hurt) delivered while he’s raging drunk:

“What dignifies the Yogic practices is that the belief system itself is not truly religious. There is no Buddhist God per se. It is the Self, the individual Mind, that contains immortality and ultimate truth.”

Not far from the truth, but an absurd piece of dialog, in context.  All the characters speak in this stilted, intellectual way, which, along with the deadpan treatment of the action, gives the film a comic-ironic dimension.  Apparently, Paddy took the ideas dead seriously, but this story is ridiculous, and what redeems the film is Russell’s usual over-the-top imagery, in this case perfectly in sync with the psychedelic freakout ethos of this post 60s romp that seems trapped in Strawberry Fields.  Religious, mythic, erotic, pop-cultural, oh that Ken, he’s something else!

In this series of images from Jessup’s mushroom induced hallucinations with rural Mexican Indians, Russell recreates the craziness of pharmaceutical mirages and seems to be paying homage to that milestone of surrealism, An Andalusian Dog.

That Andalusian Dog

 

 

 

Man meets his inner lizard.

 

Pagan Goddess

Adoration

…………………  …………..

 

In stone, for eternity.

As I said, the plot and the ideas driving it are laughable:  it includes an extended interlude in which Jessup regresses, physically, to a primitive hominoid state, nearly kills some security guards, and finds peace only after breaking into a zoo and devouring a sheep raw.  I wanted nothing but to survive that night, to eat, to sleep.  Italo Calvino treats the same ideas, the bliss of pre-cultural consciousness, in his wry and funny piece, Interview with a Neanderthal Man, but, as I said, the screenplay of this film plays it straight.

During Jessup’s final trip, there are some nice images, and more homages to films, I think:

Could be Kiss Me Deadly.  What’s in the damn box?

Bill Gates freaking out on Windows?  Where did this primordial goo come from?  And who’s going to mop it up?

This definitely recalls 2001:  A Space Odyssey.

The Love Goddess saves the day!


Watch the Skies!

November 6, 2011

The Thing from Another World (1951), is a film that influenced a lot of sci-fi movies that came after it.  I don’t know if there are any similar ones that preceded it, but it surely was the mold for much boring and formulaic stuff that I watched as a boy.  The TV  Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea comes to mind with its standard ‘monster epic’ plotting:  strange, destructive things happen; monster revealed and monster rampages; solution found, monster killed – all is well.  But The Thing, however preposterous it is as a sci-fi story, is a wonderful entertainment because of its characters, pacing, and dialog.

Anyway, just what thing from another world are we talking about?  Men from Mars and women from Venus?  The captain and the fetching assistant in the North Pole station have some romantic missteps from a drunken bar encounter to put behind them:  he suggests that she tie up his wandering hands, and she agrees.  “I’ll bring a rope, ” he says.  He does, and they’re loving it!

The captain’s a crack officer – he leaves off the sexy hijinks to do his duty and check station security.  After a bungled attempt to lift a flying saucer out of the ice – they burned it up by accident – they retrieved the alien pilot from the ice and brought it back to their station.  A negligent guard covered the iced-alien with an electric blanket to hide the ugly sight, but the blanket was on!  Oops again.  The alien broke free as its ice block melted, and proceeded to escape, loosing an arm in the process.

Examining the arm, the chief scientist realizes that the alien is a vegetable.  There’s a metaphor there somewhere.  He is enthralled by the idea of an anthropoid being reproducing with the more efficient botanical method, rather than the messy, chaotic, and uncontrolled sexual technique we inferior humans employ.  “No emotion at all!”  It also turns out that the alien is sustaining itself by drinking the blood of sled dogs it kills.

The characters make many snappy references to army bureaucracy, at one point lampooning the complex and long-winded army regulatory memoranda by which they are supposed to abide, while they repeatedly bungle their work, and the garbled radio messages provide a humorous counterpoint.  A directive to keep the alien prisoner arrives just after it escapes.   At one point, the men point out that according to Army documents, UFOs are simply an illusion, an example of mass hysteria.  Carl Jung agreed.  The men chuckle.

The scientist is a stock character, so wrapped up in his intellectual passion – “It doesn’t matter if we die, we must communicate with it!” that he achieves a sort of comic grandeur.  Of course, his sexual frigidity – the comely assistant is his amanuensis, that’s the only way he uses her – is a funny contrast to her penchant for bondage games with the captain.

How do you kill a vegetable?  The woman supplies the answer:  boil it, steam it, fry it… When will we properly value women’s work as homemakers?  The scientist tries to reason with the green giant, offering himself as disciple to the greater wisdom of the alien.  Mr. Vegetable replies, humor again, with a grunt and a shove.  Then he’s fried, or is he being crucified?

The newsman is finally given permission to broadcast his inspiring scoop to the press, and he concludes with the warning to all Earthlings to “watch the skies.”  Indeed.  The Russians are coming – it’s the Cold War after all, and things are seen in the skies.


A Boy and His Dog

September 14, 2011

1970s post-nuclear apocalypse, bad sound quality, low budget, grainy images, cult status: that’s A Boy and His Dog, based on stories by Harlan Ellison.  Don Johnson plays Vic, who traipses across the desert with his highly educated, cynical, and telepathic dog, Blood.  The dog calls him Albert to annoy him.   If you hadn’t read the story (or the Wiki article) you might think Vic is hallucinating and talking to himself, but it seems that before The End, civilization got into some pretty advanced biological experiments.

Vic is trapped, lured underground by a piece of ‘cheese’, a beautiful girl (Susanne Benton), to a surviving community where things look nice, but society is ruled by a committee of three and Christian pap is pumped over loudspeakers endlessly.  Vic is needed for his sperm – he’s a good, healthy specimen of a male.  When he learns the reason for his abduction, he’s all for it!  He doesn’t realize that the process will be rather mechanical. 

This movie is pretty slow, and it’s hard to watch because of the quality and low budget…but there’s something to it.  Especially in the second half, it’s so crazy and darkly satirical, that it comes together.  Of course, there’s that ending after Vic and the girl escape back to retrieve Blood, left topside in the desert.  I won’t spoil it for you.


Doggone it!

May 29, 2011

I don’t think it’s a joke:  the Nazis believed all sorts of outlandish things.  Now it comes out (why now?) that they had a project to train dogs to speak and perform military tasks.  They wanted to create an army of Nazi dogs!

In 1998, I read The Lives of the Monster Dogs, a novel that takes place in Manhattan in 2008 when a bunch of walking, talking dogs, with Prussian accents, become celebrities.  They escaped from a remote town founded by a Prussian officer hoping to do exactly what the Nazis wanted to do.  I guess the author, Kirstin Bakis, scooped the news long ago.

And on the topic of talking dogs, Jim Thompson’s novel, The Golden Gizmo, a macabrely comic tale, features a deadly Doberman that talks and sings along with hymns.


People of the Heart

April 11, 2011

Ice is the middle volume of a trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin.  (NYRB published Ice first, and has just now published the entire set in translation.)  It tells of a weird, blonde-haired, blue-eyed brotherhood of souls who are awakened to true life after being hammered in the chest with sledges made of blocks of ice from the comet that nearly slammed into the Earth in 1908.  Other humans are regarded as “empties,” empty of spiritual heart, that is, and simply die under the impact of the hammer.  It’s a mix of vulgarity, pulp, sci-fi, absurd New Age fantasy, and social satire.  Among the most biting passages were those that depicted the ruthlessness of Stalin’s minions among whom the Brothers and Sisters of the ice move in an effort to find the rest of their group.  Can’t say I feel tempted to read the other two volumes, but this was a quick read that started off really well, and then just petered out.


Blind Shear Ram!

June 22, 2010

Ever since reading the NYTimes article on the details of the BP blowout, the phrase, blind shear ram, has been reverberating inside my head!  I love the sound of it.  So powerful, macho-mechanical, almost apocalyptic!  The last resort…that failed!  The failsafe mechanism.  We must…ac-ti-vate…the blind-shear-RAM!!

The last time I heard a word like this in the news was probably when MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction was in vogue among the nuclear wargame crowd.  Or perhaps it was in 1980, during the summer transit strike in New York City when the term Gridlock, with all of its ominous and terrifying connotations of complete urban dysfunction, made its way into public consciousness.  (I was told at the time by a former classmate, that a magazine of critical theory had devoted an entire issue to the term!  If anyone has a citation, send it please!)

Bind shear ram.  I just realized what other association was lurking there.  I read a novel by Stanislaw Lem many years ago, Fiasco!  Is that appropriate, or what!  In the beginning of the story, a mining engineer is working on Venus, sitting in the top of a gigantic robotic ‘man’ hundreds of feet high.  He gets stuck, is going to die, so he activates the last resort safety mechanism.  His body is rammed into a cylinder and immediately supercooled to preserve him for a future time when they may have figured out how to unfreeze him without turning him to mush.

Memory does funny things.