Kirk 1, Spock 0

Aliens, Culture, Fiction, Film, Gentleman thieves, Science Fiction, Space is deep, Television

Off to Star Trek on Saturday with H; hugely enjoyable, but – when I came back home and picked up my new Sexton Blake compilation (good fun and wide ranging, but not necessarily the best of Blake) to read myself to sleep – something quite interesting struck me.

The Star Trek TV series is one of the most potent products of 20th Century science fiction; but in form it also owes an awful lot to Victorian and Edwardian adventure stories, where manly, usually imperial, heroes of various different stripes are threatened by exotic new dangers on a reliably regular basis.

As a rule, such heroes come in pairs. There’s Sexton Blake and Tinker; Sherlock Holmes and Watson; Nayland Smith and Dr Petrie; Raffles and Bunny; and so on. And, by definition, the sidekick is very clearly a junior presence, someone who lacks in some important way the authority of the lead.

That sense of a senior / junior relationship is fundamental to the new Star Trek movie; but it’s an inverted relationship. The plot is in large part driven by the fact that, because the time is out of joint, Spock becomes the Captain of the Enterprise, and Kirk is left as his subordinate.

However, it’s a temporary upset. By the end of the film, normality has been restored. Kirk has become Captain Kirk, and Spock is his first officer. Spock’s junior status has been acknowledged. But that’s peculiar; because, throughout the film, great play has been made of Spock’s seniority.

It’s made very clear that he’s older than Kirk – in fact, he’s one of Kirk’s tutors. In something of an under-remarked narrative manoeuvre, he’s also sexually more charismatic than the famously priapic Captain. Kirk’s rather adolescent attempted seduction of Uhuru fails; Spock builds a strong, adult, clearly sexual relationship with her.

He’s also a more effective combatant. Kirk spends much of the film nearly getting thrown off cliffs, walkways, etc, by various cosmic thugs. Spock’s Vulcan neck pinch is as swiftly efficient as ever. And Spock knows true loss; where Kirk never even met his dead father, the adult Spock witnesses the simultaneous death of his mother and his home planet.

So, what is it that makes Spock the sidekick, not the hero? It comes down to one thing; his (in the film’s terms) over-rationality, his consistent and near-absolute privileging of logic over emotion. Within the context of the movie – and of the Star Trek series in general – Kirk’s reliance on intuition and passion makes him the better person.

And that’s fascinating. In part, it’s a hangover from the deep suspicion of thoughtfulness, of academic learning, that drove so many of the action men of the 19th and 20th century pulp thriller. But that suspicion takes on a new meaning in Star Trek – because Star Trek is science fiction.

As a genre, science fiction prides itself on its roots in the deep, tested realities of science. It lays claim to a rational objectivity that sets it apart from other, more emotionally driven forms of writing. Given this, surely Spock is the rightful captain of the Enterprise?

Absolutely not. Spock – science fiction’s supreme logician, the most famous Science Officer in fiction – reveals the untruth of that claim, or at least the contradictions that stop it from being really convincing.

The Enterprise is helmed by Kirk’s wild, dangerous emotion – just as science fiction, like all fiction, is powered not by logic, but by human emotional relationships, and the wild, exciting dramatic fallout thereof.

The Spiders of Instruction

Film, Horror, Science Fiction

Watching first ‘The Fly’ and then ‘Island of Lost Souls’ – the first the original 50s shocker, the second the classic 1933 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’, starring Charles Laughton as the titular doctor – was a shocking experience, because both end in scenes of the blackest nightmare.

In ‘Lost Souls’, Moreau is forcibly – and amateurishly – dissected by the beast men that he has himself created; in ‘The Fly’, the minute man-fly – pale human head and arm emerging from black chitin, small buzzing voice wailing ‘Help me! Help me!’ – is trapped in a web and bitten at by a spider, before both are squashed with a rock by an utterly horrified policeman.

But in both cases these moments of horror precede a resetting of the balance, a return to the normal. With the death of Moreau and the burning of his island lab, his experiments are rendered un-reproducable and (it’s assumed) their man-beast results are all destroyed. With the destruction of the man-fly, the only remaining end-product of Delambre’s scientific work is smashed; he has himself earlier broken all his equipment, one of his last sane acts before he became a rapacious, inhuman fly-man.

Looked at from this point of view, each ending resolves as near perfect tragedy. The shocks that sprang from each scientist’s tragic flaw are resolved; the by-products of those flaws are erased from the world, if not from the mind. The remaining characters – and the audience, come to that – are left sadder, but wiser; silent in safer, but also very clear diminished, worlds. Implicit in each scientist’s fall is the force for good that their work could have represented; that possibility, too, has gone.

But that possibility had in fact been eradicated long before the end of the film. Moreau’s comment on the ultimate futility of his attempts to raise animals to the level of man – ‘the beast creeps back in and begins to assert itself again’ – could be read as the subtext for both movies; but that subtext expresses itself in very different ways in each film.

In ‘Lost Souls’, the beast is Moreau’s own overweening ego. Beginning with whimsical experiments with asparagus and various flowers, he ends by creating a race specifically designed to worship him. Science can give man a sense of god-like power over nature; Moreau falls headlong into the moral trap that that represents, lacking the strength of mind to see himself as only ever fallible, only ever human. But nature triumphs; at the end of the film, he’s brought face to face with his very human limits, in the most direct and painful way imaginable.

Oddly, ‘The Fly’ is a harsher film; odd because it’s protagonist, unlike Moreau, is brought low by no great moral failing. It’s pure chance that the fly ends up in the teleporter with him; and his struggle against his new, insect self is powerfully shown. He remains a good man, right to the end, always battling the insect inside himself. But there is no escaping the consequences of his actions, and he ends by dying twice – once as fly-man, and once – horrifyingly – as man-fly; in both cases, his death is suffused with a sense of regret and injustice.

That sense of injustice is what makes the film so bleak. ‘Lost Souls’ shows us a pitfall of scientific enquiry, but doesn’t imply that all scientists could fall; rather, it shows us what happens to an atypical researcher, a brilliant man lacking a certain moral compass. ‘The Fly’ implies that research itself will lead to horror; that – inevitably – chance will throw a spanner in the works, turning the potentially revolutionary into the always destructive.

Darker by far than its 30s brother, ‘The Fly’ despairs of the possibility of safe progress beyond a certain point. Dr Moreau is flawed, but adult; ‘The Fly’ implies that scientists are little more than children, playing with tools far more dangerous than they could ever know or take full precautions against.

At the end of all scientific enquiry – it’s implied – is a reduction in scale, a Lovecraftian understanding of our true, insignificant place in the universe, of the impossibility of our ever achieving effective, constructive agency within it. The helpless enquirer can only ever become a fly; tangled in the web of truth, all that can be done is to pray for oblivion before the spiders of instruction reach and painfully break you.

A gig, a story, an interview and the apocalypse…

Aliens, Festivities, Film, Gigs, Horror, Landscape, Moi online

First of all, Happy New Year all! An enjoyable and productive 2009 to all.

Secondly, a gig, a story and an interview. Graan are ringing in the New Year at A Music Club this Thursday 8th January – as ever, I’ll be adding spoken word to the heavy sounds, jah? Sehr gut. Also, my short story ‘Sohoitis’ – a psychedelic tale of drunken Soho gods, inspired by the ever-magnificent Julian Maclaren Ross – is now available in the latest Postscripts. And finally, my interview with Nebula Award winner Ted Chiang has gone live at the Nebula site.

And on weird pondering – H and I have just sat down to John Carpenter’s utterly compelling ‘Prince of Darkness’. On rewatching it, I was very struck by how interestingly it riffs on (amongst others) Nigel Kneale’s 70s masterpiece ‘The Stone Tapes’. But I’ve also just downed a bottle of wine, and on this cold, late night my lovely hot bath calls, so more on this in the next post…

Batty falls from the stars

Aliens, Doves, Fiction, Film, Science Fiction

Screens in Blade Runner; for a movie that’s always been billed as a key cyberpunk progenitor, they are – for the most part – remarkably large, and remarkably one way. A core essence of cyberpunk is the hackable system, the two way engagement with the data stream, but there’s precious little of that in this film. Visuals float above Los Angeles, words booming down on its denizens, showing them worlds they can watch but never – it seems – interact with, or enter.

For me, those screens have more to do with the cinematic than the cyber. A cinema audience sits in darkness, visions washing over them; watching worlds they can imagine but never reach or participate in. The screens in Blade Runner make their audience potential migrants – ‘A new life awaits you in the off world colonies… a chance to begin again in a golden world of opportunity and adventure’ – but we know that only the most uncommon will ever really leave the dark city.

It’s the same with so many movies; sitting in the dark, watching people ‘begin again’ (how common a trope is that? The life restarted, the ordinary world left behind) in ‘a golden world of opportunity and adventure’. We too, as audience, become non-migrating migrants; enough of an urge to move on to make us unhappy with our lot, to make us want this kind of escapism, this promise that there could be somewhere else, that we could all be someone else; enough of a sense of stasis to keep us in our seats, to keep us in our lives, unchanged after all.

And yet, there can be glimpses; the other can break through. Roy Batty makes it to earth, and teaches Rick Deckard how to be human. Deckard’s flight is Batty’s in reverse; more tactful in his movements, needing to be less revolutionary, his leap out of the city will (we feel) be sustained, tacitly supported by his colleagues. He can take Rachael, and step out of the picture; away from the great floating dreams and – ironically – away from the screen we’ve been passively watching him on. To enter fulfilment is to leave narrative behind, to leave the sense of absence it’s founded on.

But there is a screen in Blade Runner that does foreshadow the cyber; the esper. Deckard uses it to burrow into the Replicant’s lives, revealing the social connections between them, understanding them as a social process, a network. He explores the room they’re in as he were almost there himself; able to watch, but not to touch. A lovely image of the working of the net, both in its interactivity and its subtle emphasis on emotional inter-relationship. But by the end of the film, that’s a screen he can step away from, too; he no longer needs to dissect the relationships of others, because he has one of his own, and will live it for himself.

A short post about hauntings

Film, Ghosts, Horror

Late night Bank Holiday Monday, and rather than enjoying the delights of the Notting Hill Carnival the hard working writer of Weird Fiction finds himself enjoying a glass of whisky and the Amicus portmanteau semi-classic ‘Vault of Horror’. Terry Thomas, Tom Baker (in possibly the maddest ginger false beard and wig combo in cinema), Anna Massey, various others in the same film; the opening music an enjoyable melodramatic rip-off of Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’; the whole thing set in Millbank Tower, foreshadowing the horror that was to be New Labour; what’s not to like? Not much, but alas even with the best will in the world it’s well worth watching, but it’s not a classic.

For true portmanteau brilliance, I always go back to ‘Dead of Night’; authentically haunted black and white chills. It’s best known segment is the Michael Redgrave / ventriloquist’s dummy tale, but the story that always spooked me was the ‘Christmas Party’ section. An English country mansion; jolly chaps and chapesses playing hide and seek; a lovely young gel comes upon a mysterious child in a tucked away bedroom; talks to him, returns to the party, realises he’s in fact a ghost; and says, ‘I’m not scared. I’m not scared’, and then sits down, rather too quickly.

Such a subtle moment; horror registered not through gore or mayhem, but rather through the silencing of an otherwise irrepressible county girl, the kind of woman that John Betjeman would have romanced shocked into inactivity through an encounter with something absolutely outside her frame of reference. In a way, it can be read as a brilliant shorthand summary of the whole English ghost story tradition; the safe, dreaming idyll of the country house, the golf course, the bachelor apartment, the coastal path, shattered instantly and absolutely by the intrusion of the other. ‘I’m not scared. I’m not scared.’ – all the response that repression allows, but absolutely a lie in the face of a broken certain world.

THE SENTENCE THAT MAN WAS NEVER MEANT TO READ (or, why the new X-Files movie stinks)

Aliens, Film, Horror, Narrative, Science Fiction

A quick post today, as – what with one thing and another – I’m running around at high speed. So, a high speed rant about what a total dog the new X-Files movie is…. As it is an epic of badness, a truly colossal set of plot and ethics blunders, a movie that gives duncery a bad name, a Fuckwitiad of an epic of an idiotic abortion of a waste of celluloid that should have never been made. And, come the end of the post, it’s going to have me typing THE SENTENCE THAT MAN WAS NEVER MEANT TO READ. I can’t type it here, because reading it will bring about the apocalypse. Sorry, but the new X-Files movie is that bad. I have to type THE SENTENCE THAT ETC.

Oh, and this review is going to be full of spoilers, but this film is so awful I really don’t think anyone should see it (in fact dissing it feels like some kind of religious calling – perhaps I am the new SF fuelled religious guru de nos jours, and can found a religion based on doing the exact opposite of everything that happens in the X-Files movie? We shall see. If I am driving a gold plated Rolls Royce this time next year, you’ll know it’s worked, and perhaps some positive thing will have come out of seeing this eye gougingly painful acrapalypse of dismality. Anyway…)

So, why’s is it so bad? Well, at the most basic level, it feels like it’s several rewrites off a finished draft. For example, there’s a weird ambiguity about whether Mulder and Scully are living together or not. At the start of the film, Scully drives off into the middle of nowhere to find him living in bachelor-y isolation; suddenly they’re in bed together; suddenly they’re splitting up (!) and Scully’s saying she’s not coming home again, which upsets Mulder deeply. Have they been living together? When did that happen? WTF?

Then, there’s a truly nutty twenty four hour sequences where Scully stays up all night bustin’ crime in the freezing fields of Virginia, before going to work, arguing for the life of a dying orphan she’s treating (he’s not really an orphan, but the film works at that level of manipulative emotional pap, so that’s what I’m going to call him), discovering a previously unknown miracle cure for him, researching it on the internet, accidentally cracking the case that she’s on with Mulder (by this time it seems to be early afternoon), going into full surgery with several doctors, nurses, watching nuns (yes, really), and then wandering off to sort out more crime.

The NHS should hire her! She’d make everyone immediately healthy using previously unsuspected techniques she found on Google, save many other orphans at the last minute, sort out the London knife crime epidemic while her kettle’s boiling for elevenses, and then discover that by playing with the wiring on the kettle she could sign a peace treaty with those whacky dudes from Alpha Centauri. Result!

There’s the berserk ethical front loading of Scully’s rationality. As any fule kno (ta Molesworth), the Scully / Mulder conflict is built on the conflict between Scully’s rationality and Mulder’s sense of faith (I want to believe, as the movie clodhoppingly subtitles itself). The movie seeks to reaffirm faith, in a god-vomitingly programmatic and absurd way, so as it begins it sets up a seemingly unopposable argument for rationality over faith.

Scully gets to try and cure her orphan using THE POWER OF SCIENCE. Mulder gets to listen to prophecies and visions about a kidnapped FBI agent from a 36-choirboy buggering paedophile (the script is very precise about its numbers) priest who lives on some strange self-policing paedophile compound. I’m really not making this up. But you won’t believe me, because now I have to tell you that Father Joe – the aforementioned choirboy fiddler – is played by Billy Connolly.

Honestly, I’m really not making this up… Cosmically peculiar casting of a cosmically awful role. Anyway, of course by the end of the film Scully realises that she can only cure her orphan with THE POWER OF FAITH; and Father Joe has quite possibly been forgiven by God and received into Heaven, etc. Not that I have any problems with forgiveness per se; rather, I’ve got considerable disdain for such boneheaded moralising that seeks to be ‘challenging’ by dealing in such absurdly opposed moral opposites.

Anyway, as yet I’ve only scratched the surface of the awfulness of this nonsensical melodrama, this cinematic purgatory, this inferno of any form of the televisual arts, this film so pointless that – had the first caveman who first put chalk to wall to create the first cave paintings seen it, thus seeding the visual arts as we know them today – he would have fed both his hands to the nearest woolly mammoth and gone and sat in the sea to try and de-evolve into an amoeba for the good of creation as a whole – because I haven’t mentioned the villains.

And once I’ve mentioned the villains you’ll think, nope, it really can’t get any worse. And that’s when I’ll start talking about its sexual politics. And at that point you’ll be on your way to the sea to start de-evolving into an amoeba yourself. And only then will THE SENTENCE THAT ETC be unleashed, and the apocalypse won’t matter, because we’ll all be happy little amoebae and won’t even notice it.

So there is a silver lining after all.

Anyway, the villains. So these rather shitty looking Eastern European guys (probably Russians) have set up a severed head (and, it’s implied, other limbs) swapping facility in a kennels somewhere in Virginia, using various local women (who they meet at a swimming pool and select for their rare blood type, detected apparently by watching their swimming style and drawing according conclusions – there’s some nonsense early on in the film about how two of the victims have been treated at the same medical facility, but that’s just forgotten about as the film goes on and the narrative torture continues).

The limbs are discarded in a conveniently frozen river (how they mystically teleport into the feet of ice they’re found in, rather than just sit on top of it like severed limbs would if you or I tossed them in there, is beyond me – give Scully half an hour and a Kit-Kat and she’d no doubt develop an entirely new branch of theoretical physics to explain it, but anyway…).

No motive is given for this nutty limb swapping facility; no sense of what it’s up to, how it pays its multiple doctors and nurses, why they might want to swap limbs and heads in Virginia, is defined. No back story for any of it; no groovy alien or conspiratorial connections (surely a sine qua non of any X-Files movie?); nothing. They’re just a bunch of whacky Russians who decided to go and swap some limbs around in a kennel somewhere. As you do. And in fact, we only see one head and limb swapping patient – and he’s at the heart of this Dreckenbury Village’s spectacular fucked sexual politics, so I can’t hold back the rant gates any more…

So, the two antagonists of the film – a severed limb delivery bloke (really) and the guy who runs the firm he works for – are gay lovers. One of them was one of Father Joe’s choirboys. Implicit in their presentation is the sense that homosexuality is catching, that it’s spread by paedophilia, and that homosexual love can lead to the kind of mass murdering moral depravity we see in the film. And that’s not all; this sclerotic codpiece of awfulness doesn’t even have the courage of its comprehensively repugnant convictions. Because the action of the film takes place because limb delivery boy needs to find a new body for his lung-cancer dying lover; and so he’s kidnapping women to find a replacement body for him.

WTF??? I kid you not. Our loopy antagonists are busy trying to transplant the head of a gay man onto a woman so that – presumably – antagonist gayness can be neutralised in a bout of ‘actually I’d rather shag you as a woman’. So contemptuous of gay relationships that it goes as far as an entire body swap to avoid having to deal with them, having first presented them as some kind of ethical leprosy, this film is built on possibly the most fucked sexual politics I’ve ever encountered. It has no redeeming features, beyond the fact that it’s finite. And, one day, with the onset of senility or similar, I might actually forget that I’ve seen it.

Oh, and one of the plastic severed heads in the final scenes is actually pretty good. It needs a better agent, tho’, if this kind of cobblers is the only sort of thing it’s getting offered.

Anyway, so that’s the rant over and done with. And now it’s time for THE SENTENCE THAT MAN WAS NEVER MEANT TO READ:

Don’t go and see this film; go and see ‘Battlefield Earth’, it’s better.

Enjoy the apocalypse, amoeboid regressing friends! I’ll see you in the swamps…

Momentous moments of mirth

Comedy, Comics, Culture, Despair, Film

A quick post today, highlighting a superb article from Tanya Gold in The Guardian about that uniquely British phenomenon – the Carry On movies, a set of (very cheesy) UK comedies made in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

If you’re British, you don’t need me to tell you about them. If you’re from anywhere else, you won’t have heard of them – and you certainly won’t have a sense of their omnipresence in the British, and particularly the English, cultural mindset.

There are some very specific reasons for the deep impression they made on us, that Tanya pins down with absolute precision:

‘The Carry On films are not funny. They are parables about failure. The typical Carry On hero is an everyman who lives a life of misery, unrequited lust and boredom…. So why did people like them? Because it was happening to them. Carry On held up a cartoonish mirror to the depressed and repressed Britain of the 1950s and 1960s.’

Bang on. My favourite Carry Ons now are the ones with contemporary settings; the ones that take us into the backstreets of suburban England and show us the lively, limited, busy, thwarted worlds that never appear in more narratively and aesthetically ambitious films.

The Carry On characters would be little more than extras in such movies; here, they, and their local, petty, entirely human desires are given centre stage, and allowed free rein, creating a mythology of English suburbia that is both precise and timeless in its vision and its impact, and that haunts the English accordingly.

That haunting is leant depth by the gap between the superficial froth of the films, and (as Gold points out) the desperation of so many of the lives that underpinned them. The on-screen comedy of failure was underpinned by a series of off-screen miseries that failed to ever develop into anything as resolved and satisfying as tragedy, instead petering out in alcoholism and waste, squalor and death.

There’s something very recognisably English in the deep efforts of repression, the sense of forced jollity and pretence that all’s well, that that reality / fiction relationship embodies. As a nation, we’ve spent the last fifty years or so failing, in one way or another, while beaming joyfully and pretending that nothing’s gone wrong at all.

The Carry On comedies aren’t just myths of suburbia; they’re myths of that pretence, as well, a pretence of normality and worth that’s regularly undercut by the serial collapses it’s not quite managing to hide.

The rest of the article is here, and well worth checking out; and here’s a brief sampler of Carry On-ness, courtesy of YouTube:

Here’s Kenneth Williams, as Julius Caesar, delivering the infamy line:

And here’s another key bit of Carry On-ness – Sid James’ laugh, possibly the single most lecherous sound in cinema. It’s a short clip, alas the best I could find:


Oh, and there’s popcorn and hotdogs on sale in the foyer, now!

*cues crap curry house ad*

A Knievel Christmas

Festivities, Film, Knievel

Well, I was going to type  my Happy Christmas post last night, but alas I got sidetracked by Evel Knievel’s early 70s masterpiece, ‘Viva Knievel’. What to say about a film that begins with orphans casting their crutches aside and thanking EK for healing with them, moves on to showcase a berserk anti-drugs plot delivered by a clearly completely stoned cast, and climaxes by teaming Evel with Gene Kelly (yup, that Gene Kelly) to go head to head with Leslie Neilsen and sundry 70s TV staples in a nutty Porsche’n’motorbike chase around a mountain, some roads and (for no apparent reason) a Mexican restaurant. Well, it made my Christmas.

But alas I don’t have time to pontificate on it properly, as I’ve got to hop in the car and drive to Devon – and I haven’t even packed yet! So I’m off to sort that out. In the meantime, have a Very Merry Christmas and a Wonderful New Year! And see you in 2008…

Life with the Vaders

Comedy, Film, Science Fiction

Well, a busy day at Allumination Central, so for your delectation – and following on from yesterday’s Star Wars referencing post – here’s the first of the magnificent online saga that is ‘Chad Vader – Day Shift Manager’.

It’s about Darth Vader’s somewhat less adequate little brother, and his daily battles as he manages a 24 hour convenience store somewhere in the States. Quite apart from being very funny, it’s entirely justified by the acoustic guitar version of the Imperial Theme that plays over the opening titles.

The rest of the episodes are here.

So – enjoy!

H and I go movie

Film, Horror

Well, a short entry today pondering ‘Carnival of Souls’ and last night’s piece of filmgoing, ‘Yella’. They are related, both being spooky and subtle tales of the possibly supernatural, but I can’t tell you why because I’d blow key plot twists

So instead of anything specific, a very quick thought. Writers who are primarily realists can see a step into the supernatural as being very liberating – and that sense of liberation can be very destructive, as it leads to the abandonment of anything like narrative logic and therefore any sense of satisfying resolution.

That abandonment is even more frustrating if the writing that surrounds it is superb. It shows a failure of imagination on behalf of the writer – or rather, a failure to realise that the weird isn’t an end in itself; it’s just one more tool to support the communication of truth through narrative.