Tuesday, February 03, 2009

"Absolutely Imperial!"

In previous posts I’ve banged on about the wonderful film seasons the BBC used to show before the proliferation of television and movie channels meant they couldn’t obtain the rights as easily or some bright spark behind a desk decided to spend the money allocated on shoddy lifestyle programmes to grab audiences. Frankly it’s a shame, and not simply because they delivered so much entertainment.

The demise of such easy access to earlier movies means there’s probably more than a generation of bright young things who have absolutely no fucking clue of film history, confirmed by the fact that on a recent edition of University Challenge none of the contestants could identify James Stewart. Of course in the scheme of things something so utterly dumbfounding isn’t exactly that a big deal. Young fans of, say, Blue Velvet probably don’t give a shit that Hitchcock had explored the same dark underbelly of suburbia more than forty years earlier in the far superior Shadow of a Doubt. Hell, they probably don’t know or care who Hitchcock is anyway.

Where problems arise is when the little bozos either weasel their way into the industry or clamour around the door scratching to get in. What can we expect them to deliver if, for instance, their knowledge of film comedy comes from Judd Apatow and, God help us, the Farrelly brothers because they simply have no familiarity of Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges or Ernst Lubitsch? The spate of thoroughly unpleasant horror movies we’ve been subjected to these past years specialise in graphic violence simply because without it they cannot conjure up the sheer terror brought to the screen by the likes of FW Murnau, Tod Browning or producer Val Lewton who let the power of suggestion scare their audiences witless.

I’m not saying that older films are always better, although based on recent evidence they certainly have the edge. Because I had mentioned how BBC used to screen collections of terrific science fiction movies from the 1950s and 1960s like Invaders from Mars and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Mister Mark, who also been entranced by them in his younger days, hatched a cunning plan: pick a weekend, set out the chips and dips, and put on a screening of our own. A vital component was to invite a bunch of mates over to watch them with us. The inherent danger of course was that the movies wouldn’t be as good as we once thought. So if our memories were playing tricks on us at least we could have a good laugh together while each drama unfolded.

To get us started we broke the rules by watching The Amazing Screw-On Head, only a couple of years old and based on the one-shot comic from Mike Mignola. Described as a “hilarious send-up of Lovecraftian horror and steampunk adventure”, the half-hour animated short was produced for the Sci-Fi Channel with the possibility of becoming a series. That didn’t happen, leaving us with this sole adventure of President Lincoln’s top secret agent battling vampires, werewolves and a monkey with a machine gun as he tries to stop his arch-nemesis, Emperor Zombie from unleashing an ancient evil that will threaten America and the world.

If it sounds utterly bonkers that’s because it is utterly bonkers, and absolute genius. The reason for prefacing the older films with this was to put everyone in the right mood for what was to come in case it all went pear-shaped. As it was we didn’t have to worry because next up was Forbidden Planet. Double genius! In the run-up to the weekend I’d mentioned that some of the older films could be ropey when it got to the science parts. Amazingly, Cyril Hume’s screenplay got it right when it came to the physics and the remastered DVD looked even better than when we first saw it on television all those years ago.

Watching this stone-cold classic, I reminded the room that Gene Roddenberry once remarked that Forbidden Planet had been an inspiration for Star Trek. By the time the United Planets Cruiser C-57D disappeared into the depths of space, we decided that “wholesale theft” might have been a more accurate description. Still, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. As the discs were changed around and drinks replenished, I snuck out into the garden with our pal Idris, who had scooted all the way over from Wales to join us, for a quick gasper.

Because there were so many films stacked up to watch, the only way we would have got through them all would be to mainline caffeine and where would be the enjoyment in catching up with the past if we were frazzled? In advance Mister Mark had written the film titles down in strips of paper, folded each one up and placed them in a hat. We went around the room, picking one out in turn to determine the running order. Next up was George Pal’s The Time Machine. Here there was no science part. Rod Taylor’ time traveller demonstrated how the machine moved through time to his close circle of friends, but nothing was mentioned of how he had come to engineer it.

Remarkably, without the blather of bullshit technobabble we’ve come to expect from contemporary films that try to sell us an outlandish notion, it worked. The film remained aloft on just our suspension of disbelief because we were ready to accept the idea. The only time we had to pause the film and skip back to the beginning of a scene was when the time traveller reaches the 1960s and we double-checked that the air raid wardens were indeed wearing the costumes from Forbidden Planet.

Next up came my turn to pick from the hat and I came up trumps with It Came from Outer Space. In any season of SF films you have to have some Jack Arnold. If we had more time beyond the weekend we would have gotten around to Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarantula and The Incredible Shrinking Man. As it was this had to suffice. With the escalation of the Cold War in the 1950s, many of the films from the time are remembered as thinly-veiled allegories, warning people of the encroaching Red Menace and appealing them to remain vigilant.

Based on a story by Ray Bradbury, It Came from Outer Space stoutly refutes that xenophobic hysteria. Though the residents of a small Arizona town are gradually taken over by aliens after their spacecraft crashes in the desert, it isn’t what everyone expects. If that was the only surprise of the film it would certainly have been enough, but we were also treated to gorgeous black and white photography from Clifford Stine and wonderful direction from Arnold. Perhaps more remarkable for me is that while I didn’t remember ever seeing this film before, I was still hooked from the beginning.

Three films down and next up was This Island Earth. Within the first couple of minutes we all decided we wanted to be Cal Meacham. As a scientist, he rocked! He could fly jet fighters and the journalists loved him. He was 1950s’ “Captain Awesome.” This Island Earth is always remembered for the iconic pincer-handed mutant from the planet Metaluna, even if the character only appears in the final sequences. Instead the bulk of the narrative is taken up with the alien Exeter recruiting a group of scientists to help save his people from extinction. What makes the story all the more remarkable is that ultimately his plan fails, which seemed like an absolutely shocking turn of events.

After a break for Mister Mark’s wonderful homemade stew, the last film of the day plucked from the hat was another of the great influential science fiction films of the 1950s and the second from HG Wells: George Pal’s adaptation of War of the Worlds. A damned sight better than Spielberg’s recent load of nonsense, the disc contained a wonderful print of the film. In fact it was so crisp and clear that wires on the Martian war machines started to show up on occasion. But really that was no matter. Even if wires or matte lines appeared in any of the films we watched, none of them would have been vastly improved by the CGI we have today. In fact the limitations of the time, while hardly a distraction, only led to the sequences becoming more inventive in their execution.

Come Sunday we were down by one as David had to return home and running late because I was the last to rise. Stoked with toast and coffee we continued with First Men in the Moon. Our third movie of the weekend based on the science fiction novels of Wells, it was a fitting tribute to producer Charles H. Schneer. Produced in “Dynamation – The Miracle of the Screen”, it was made just years after John F Kennedy announced his goal of landing a man on the moon in 1961 and then famously reiterated the statement a year later at Rice University with: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Obviously it played fast and loose with scientific facts – the Victorian adventurers wear old diving suits to protect them from the vacuum but don’t bother with any gloves – but who cares? As Mister Mark pointed out, Lionel Jeffries wonderful turn as an obsessed scientist was an early prototype for Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown in Back to the Future, the script, co-written by Nigel Kneale, deftly illustrated that the stout-hearted men of the British Empire could be mindless thugs when encountering a new civilisation, and Ray Harryhausen’s animation and effects were simply marvellous. I don’t actually ever remember seeing this film as a kid and it was an absolute joy.

After that Idris had to make the long trek home leaving just the pair of us to round off the afternoon with one final movie. There was still When Worlds Collide, The Thing from Another World, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers as well as those two further Jack Arnold-directed movies to watch. Instead the last title pulled out of the hat was Robert Wise’s The Day The Earth Stood Still. Oh frabjous joy! What better film was there to round off the weekend? There are few films that you can keep throwing superlatives at until you run out of breath. The Day The Earth Stood Still is one of them and once again, the print on the disc was just astonishing.

It looked better than when I first watched it all those years ago, staring goggle-eyed at the TV as Klaatu and then Gort appear before the astonished crowds in Washington DC. Many of the films of the time conveyed the public’s fear of the Cold War or a suspicion of the emerging Atomic Age. Here the two elements dovetail perfectly, even throwing in a religious metaphor for good measure as Klaatu, having taken on the guise of Mr Carpenter to observe human life firsthand, is resurrected by Gort after being shot dead by the soldiers sent to track him down. Yet at no time does Wise set aside the drama to preach to the audience, which is why it stands up to this day. However decided this needed a remake should be smacked with a shovel and dumped face down in a ditch.

Too quickly the weekend was over, leaving just as many films unwatched as watched. It’s not something I usually say, but our very own film season deserves a sequel.


At 11:33 pm, Blogger Ian said...

Jealous of your weekend.

I only saw "Forbidden Planet" for the first time last year, when it got a release on HD-DVD. Been a huge "Star Trek" fan ever since it replaced Doctor Who on Saturdays at 5.15pm the first time round, but all these years later watching FP found myself thinking "Blimey! Roddenberry stole EVERYTHING from this movie".

At 12:21 am, Blogger Good Dog said...

Actually, I wish I hadn’t mentioned it because I hadn’t seen Forbidden Planet in quite a while, certainly before I found out that little tidbit. As the film progressed we were all just commenting about what had been ripped off wholesale for Star Trek.

That aside, it was a bloody good weekend. I’m going to have to get myself copies of the movies because it was amazing how many of the DVDs – even the cheap boxset – had accompanying documentaries and commentaries that I’m sure will be fascinating. They were sure better than the couple of movies I saw this afternoon: The Incredible Hulk on disc and Moonraker on ITV this afternoon.

Having not seen it for a very long time I just couldn’t believe how embarrassingly bad the Bond movie was. Normally I would have switched channels or gone back to reading the newspaper but it was fascinating to see how much worse it got. I’d prefer to have watched The Creature from the Black Lagoon or Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.


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