Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Retro-Futurism was Sure to Go: 10 Cool International 60s Sci-fi Trips Streaming on Prime and Criterion

 Lately I've been unable to escape a yen for all things sci-fi mid-60s --the stretch between Sputnik and the moon landing--when an ex-Nazi rocketeer named Werner released (through Disney!) a series of speculative documentaries about NASA's plans for ze future: moon landings, orbiting satellites, revolving space stations, little robot-armed one man capsules, and maybe even explorations of Mars and Venus. Movies of the time borrowed all his ideas and plans, specifically the revolving space station idea. Science later realized a lot of his proposals wouldn't work (like you couldn't duplicate Earth gravity that easy), so Werner's Disney collabs don't get trotted out too often in SCI channel documentaries. But we've got the movies that sprang from them--reminding us of a time when space seemed like a swinging cocktail jazz bar waiting to happen--and now they look better than ever, streaming through the ether to your little credit card-thick phone! Disney and von Braun never imagined that!

Von Braun points out his plan for a new space station in a 1955 Disney film. 
This round revolving shape would henceforth be the go-to design
for the next decade+'s science fiction space stations. 

more post-Axis sci-fi: X FROM OUTER SPACE, THE

This era between Sputnik and Apollo became known in comic book circles as the Silver Age: the era when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby replaced bland square jawed superheroes with dudes complex, tortured, relatable, with a cohesive universe full of crazy Steve Ditko abstraction. Onscreen, the squaresville atomic caution of the golden 50s was being replaced by colorful space opera cocktail decadence. Strong female characters no longer had to fight sexist blowhards to be respected as officers (see: Angry Red Planet, Rocketship XM). Now they could heads of communications and operations, doctors in astro-biology and chemistry; they could be pretty without having male crew members snicker behind their backs or wolfishly lick their lips. I've deliberately eschewed any movie from this list that contains even a hint of that type of dated 50s sexism.  I've also avoided any streaming titles of less than watchable quality, though your mileage may vary. So.... What are we waiting for!? The future ain't gonna get much older!

(1962) Dir. Wesley Barry
***1/2 / Amazon Image - A

I'm beginning to understand the fuss about this being Andy Warhol's favorite movie. It's fast becoming one of my favorites too! It contains everything I love in a late night sci-fi chill-out film and nothing I don't. Deep dark reds and grays, extendable tubes, silver eyeballs, skeletons, space age decor, pulp novel skies, heightened theatricality, an 'all in a single night' time frame, and spooky analog sci-fi music. I love the total absence of exterior shots and that it all occurs against painted backdrops that seem lifted right out off the covers of early-60s space age paperbacks (including great lighting, colors, and cinematography from the legendary Hal Mohr). It also has an endlessly fascinating premise that warrants its talky nature. Set in a post-nuclear future where cities have become more advanced than ever and most humans are sterile, robots have become highly advanced and do most of our work and have taken on human form, albeit with gray skin, silver yes, and bald heads. Don Megowan stars as "the" Craigis, a member of the Order of Flesh and Blood, a space age luddite hate group out to halt the production of humanoid-looking robots as they're too much like "us" for these racist/homophobic-style comfort. They hassle robots on the street and strut around in fascist sashes and Civil War caps. Meanwhile, Dudley Manlove--in his second best sci-fi role--is one of the robots, cementing the film's queer-coded message (i.e. 'we're closer than you know, we mean you no harm, and we don't intend to stay in the shadows much longer'). David Cross (no relation) is Pax, the 'clicker' (as the robots are derisively called) in 'rapport' with Craigis' sister more liberal sister Esme (Frances McCann). Cragis tries to get her to break it off via a 3 AM visit, but not everyone is afraid of having all their needs met by a mechanical device in this most perfect of all eternal nights. She just happens to be up having cocktails with her friend !  Doesn't anyone sleep in the future?

Beautiful to look at and never boring (even if no one seems to ever 'move'), this is clearly a real labor of love from director Wesley Barry. I like to imagine it got workshopped at some off-off-Broadway East Village coffeehouse all through the 50s as--for all its measured talkiness--it's never dull, uneven, or repetitive. Occasional deadpan jokes ("we did make you a bit thinner,") land like gentle spiders amidst the vocalizing space age echoes on the soundtrack (courtesy an uncredited Edward J. Kay). The serene George Milan is Acto, the head robot. Able to seem comforting yet otherworldly at the same time, Milan makes a great team with Manlove as his right hand "man" - droll, laid-back, and unfazableI urge you to watch it late at night, with a loved one sleeping next to you, so you can gaze down at them occasionally and wonder...

(1966) Dir. Antonio Margheriti
*** / Amazon Image - A

An instant immersion in a future world of moon bases and orbiting space stations, anti-matter bombs, and astronauts soaring through black soundstage space on visible wires onto planets that breathe out through their craters. The ever-marvelous Giacomo Rossi Stuart (Kill Baby, Kill) is Commander Rod Jacskon, in charge of the Gamma One space station, tasked with finding the gravitational disturbance that's destroying Earth's weather patterns. Sultry-eyed Terry Sanchez (Ombretta Colli) is his head of communications and an organized officer. Rod loves her, but his needy cat-eyed fiancee (Halina Zalewski) on Earth ("a no-good ground chick!" as his pissy right hand man calls her) happens to be the daughter of General Norton  (Enzo 'Italian Burt Lancaster' Fiermonte)! "It's too involved" Rod tells Terri. There's no time for that now, though; if they don't find the source of the disturbance there'll be no Earth to go back to, and--as the ineffective Norton puts it--"it's not a matter of days, but hours!" As with all the best science fiction films, we barely see Earth or exterior shots at all aside from some disaster shots on the monitors and a coda funeral/memorial. Instead director Anthony Dawson (Antonio Margheriti) makes sure everything is space ships and soundstage space, full of odd sound effects and eerie music.

The wild planet they find causing the trouble is an uninhabited but impressive red ball, 25 miles in diameter, with fields of cold red gelatin quicksand and islands of hairy ground surrounding craters breathing out plumes of cold steam. They descend into one of the craters to plant anti-matter charges and find themselves attacked by white tendrils that bleed but repair themselves as soon as Rod stops hacking at them. It's quite a destination!

I love this crazy movie. It has some of the best dubbing ever, matching the lips with weird hesitance and fast-talking when necessary. Dialogue is rich with technical savvy, using the weird pauses of the actors to create mood and drama... rather than just making them sound drunk (though there's that too): "Read your retros - don't get clogged, Mack!" / "Who's got the flagship?!" / "I'm engaged to her, Terry... not that... I want to be."

The imdb score is unfairly low, and perhaps based on old faded VHS pan and scans (I remember hating it when catching it on early morning TV back in the 70s) but the Prime print puts it on a whole other level. The deep blacks and reds that make up the bulk of the colors look really rich and alluring now, making Gamma-1 seem the place to be, way cooler than the Enterprise or anyplace like that. So if space opera style drama and mature adults doing work as an organized group in constant radio communication is your bag, with plenty of women in capable professional positions. Rod doesn't really even try to stop Terry from going along on all the dangerous missions, instead just telling her "it's every man for himself." In other words, though far, far from perfect, this film should be the cornerstone of your spiritual Euro-6os science fiction pyramid. As Commander Rod says "use your retros!" And then seek out the others in the series: Wild Wild Planet, Battle of the Planets, The Snow Devils and The Green Slime as well as Battle of the Worlds (below),

(1968) Dir. Peter Bogdanovich
*** / Amazon Image - D+

When I can't sleep in a foreign land I like to fall asleep to this crazy movie, with Mamie Van Doren and assorted Venusian blondes indirectly encountering cosmonauts from a relatively expensive-looking Russian science fiction film (Planet of Storms). As the cosmonauts encounter man-eating plants and various dinosaurs, the hippie mermaids watch and sing, swim, spy, eat raw fish while treading water, worship a pterodactyl, and wait to see what happens. When the cosmonauts shoot down their pterodactyl god (in self defense), the ladies take action, get really  mad and create volcanos and floods through chanting like witches. 

The story of this brilliant melange is cinematic legend: Roger Corman tasked young Peter Bogdanovich with dubbing one of the Russian sci-fi films he'd recently acquired into English and adding Mamie Van Doren and a cadre of her fellow blonde sea nymphs (with great hip hugger green lame flair slacks subliminally evoking mermaid tails -- a truly inspired high-fashion solution courtesy Alice Mitchell) to jack the sex appeal. In addition to the dubbing, the new soundtrack washes over one in a near constant flow of ocean sounds, eerie pitch-shifting electronic wind, spooky-swooping two-note siren singing, t satisfying ambient noises, the deep mechanical voice of John, the ship's boxy robot, occasional bursts of Keith Benjamin's score, and Bogdanovich's hipster narration as the younger, romantically inclined cosmonaut (proving it's the Bog by assorted allusions to Welles in Lady from Shanghai). Take all those sounds overlapping together and you have the best white noise machine in the galaxy.

Some of the ways Peter (and production coordinator Polly Platt) merged new and old footage is ingenious: a Hollywood-made rubber pterodactyl corpse washes up in the surf for the girls to find, pray over and send back... back to the sea (after the far larger and more elaborate original is shot down by the cosmonauts in the Russian footage); nice undersea flourishes like a cloth octopus, merging with our LA sirens spying and undulating; the robot washing up into the new footage caked in mud; the chef's hat Mamie wears when praying (evoking the hat worn by the one Venusian we see in a reflection at the very end of the Russian version, etc. It would have been easy to just half-ass it the way the earlier Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet did (using the same footage, but adding different American scenes) but the Bog really tried to make it special and leave some kind of a personal stamp on it, which is appreciated. 

In short, I love this terrible movie. Sure the Russian film (now available and seeable on YouTube) is fantastic on its own. I love the giant man-eating plant, the attack of the man-sized Allosauruses, a passing brontosaur. But also I love the dopey, near muppet-like voice (uncredited) of Commander Lockhart and the dreamy telepathic voice of van Doren's character. I love the way when we first see the sirens they  completely blend in with the rocks around them, like sleeping seals. In short, watch Planeta Bur / Planet of Storms if you want good science fiction. Watch Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women if you want to fall into a pleasant alpha wave trance on your next flight. 

(1966) Dir. Mario Bava
**** / Amazon Image - A+

Fourth on the bill, Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires is actually the best as far as gorgeous cinematography and clever, if not always successful, in-camera effects. The storyline fuses elements of Last Man on Earth with Invasion of the Body Snatchers and looks forward to Night of the Living Dead, and most notably Alien (which it partially inspired). It's gorgeous and fascinating film that would be worth seeing even if you had to see it in Italian without subtitles, just cuz it's so beguiling to look at. The plot concerns a rescue mission to a strange foggy planet where the soon-dead crewmen are taken over by fourth dimensional aliens eager to hitch a ride off their dying world. The co-ed crew wear sexy high-collared black leather uniforms with deep yellow trim (the coolest and most high fashion space crew uniforms ever), and their ship is a huge minimalist black floored matte and mirage wonder. The outside miniatures make the ship look at times like soap on the rope anchored to the bottom of an aquarium (but that's not a debit) and the planet is a bizarre landscape or red and blue gels, swirling fog, petrified tentacle tree rocks, quicksand type burbling pits, and weird noises and disembodied voices barely audible in the whooshing winds. Sublime. The shots of the outside guards looking deep into fog for signs of life are some of the most eerily beautiful in all of science fiction. The dubbing is good (lead Barry Sullivan does his own) and the music is super eerie. It just gets better with every viewing, especially in this HD color-restored super-marvelous shape.

(1966) Dir. Curtis Harrington 
*** (image quality: A-)

A tale of first contact with Mars, we're in a near future where space exploration is done mostly by young people played by hip Corman company future-stars like Dennis Hopper and John Saxon, in a big international space center led by Basil Rathbone. The mission: escorting a female vampire alien from a Martian moon to Earth after her ship crash lands. As with the above Prehistoric Women, it's a case of reverse engineering as another Corman protege, Curtis Harrington, intercuts footage from Corman's imported print of Soviet bloc sci-fi film MESTRE NASTRESHU. Acting as a fine mirror to issues of gender as well as Soviet-American relations of the era, the footage is matched brilliantly to its respective sides: the Dionysian and ornate deep red Russian footage for the female vampire Martian ship and the "Red" planet surfaces / the Harrington-shot Earth scenes and space ship interiors a nice powder blues with cafeteria grays on threadbare Apollonian sets; the combination works perfectly - allowing for an artistic level of special effects quality and, for devotees, a chance to marvel at the ingenuity Harrington used in matching the footage. The end result is not only atmospheric and strangely sexy, it's coherent, and looks way more expensive than it probably was, not to mention there's a uniquely bitchy silent antagonism between Florence Marly's classy, mute green-skinned queen and Saxon's girlfriend (Judi Meredith), who seems to wear even more make-up than the green skinned queen! Indeed, her lipstick and eyeliner alone can cut through any amount of interplanetary white noise. We can tell, since the Prime print comes in blazing restored colors. See it a few times and then realize that--in warning of the short-sightedness science, the prioritizing of bringing the human-devouring, egg-laying monster back alive no matter how many astronauts die along the way--this is, like the previous entry on this list, one of the influences behind Alien.  It's also short (79 minutes), and damned nice to look at it late at night while drifting towards dreamland. 

(1966) Dir. Hajime Sato
** / Amazon Image - A

Thanks to an amazing Prime HD image, this sexy-terrible Japanese fusion of underwater Bondian supervillain lair-trashing and Jules Verne-style fish people enslavement (ala AIP's War Gods of the Deep, Japan's Atragon, the Philippine's Beyond Atlantis, and Italy's Island of the Fishmen (AKA Screamers - also on Prime) is finally worth seeing thanks to a spiffy HD remastering. A young Sonny Chiba and a cute blond gaijin named Peggy Neal (The X from Outer Space - see below) star as a pair of intrepid diving reporters who follow fishmen tracks in search of a missing scientist while their contact in the American Navy (Franz Gruber) tries to get clearance to help them. While he berates Navy protocol, the interracial lovers find a grotto underwater, run into a squad of fish men; then wake up at a secret lair on the bottom of the sea, their wetsuits replaced by sleek white tunics. Youthfully gorgeous and well-lit as they are, you can understand their horror when the evil sunglasses-wearing villain starts converting them to ugly fish people -"with no differentiation between the sexes"!  Biloxi-born Neal's revulsion at being "scaly" (actually more like sudsy) is hilarious, as are the fish people -- they have opaque black marble eyes set too close together and skin looks like that silver plastic foam wrapping your toaster comes in. 

Naturally things go wrong and they run amok, shooting everyone in sight and carefully fighting hand-to-hand (their fish suits get torn up really easily - as the now glistening HD print shows all too clearly). Meanwhile Gruber still labors to convince the top brass to send a search sub once the pair go missing. But will he find them in time?

Towards the wild climax the editing gets really wonky--each shot last whole seconds longer than it should; asides and pauses for no reason drag the usually frenzied editing scheme of an 'underwater lair about to implode' kind of climax to an agonized crawl. The time between a shot of someone looking at something and a shot of what or whom they're looking at is stretched past the point of abstraction. When the good guys are trying to escape and battling the bad guy's minions for space on the emergency elevator, this sluggish pace--as each new emotion is formed on the actor's faces--is super aggravating. I haven't seen it enough times yet to appreciate it for its deep pocket badness of all that, but I already love the way Chiba has to carefully fight with the monsters so as not rip their tissue paper-thin silver skin. And while he's suffering blow after blow in that pristine white hallway, the professor and Neal just stand there, for minutes on end, looking 'horrified.' Never thinking to help him or try to save their own lives. 

Lastly, though there are one too many unflattering close-ups of the sunglass enthusiast / megalomaniacal gaijin master villain Dr. Moore (Erik Nielsen) and the snaggle-toothed assistant scientist (Mike Daneen), it evens out as there also many lovely close-ups of Chiba and Neal, whose blazing white form-fitting tunic and villain-issued beige slacks hang on her just perfectly. Beaming with vitality and poise, flipping her short bob of a blonde hairdo, she's a perfect gaijin counterpoint to Chiba, whose deep dark eyes can drown any unsuspecting viewer who gazes into them too long (and we have plenty of opportunities). So see it anyway. Shunsuke Kikuchi's memorably groovy score and the gorgeous evil lair lighting on Prime's flawless HD print makes experiencing TERROR BENEATH THE SEA worth the time, as long as you don't forget to anchor yourself to rock bottom expectations.
Il Pianeta degli uomini spenti / Translation: Planet of Extinct Men
(1961) Dir. Antonio Marghereti
**1/2 / Amazon Image - C

There is a stand-alone version of this PD title on Prime (the "Comic Book Edition") but it's been so yellowed by someone's idea of color grading (for the old yellowed newsprint effect of old comics?) I find I prefer Prime's "Double Doses of Sci-fi: Hostile Planets and Doomsday" version (starting on the 0:17 mark - ending 1:22). It's a shoddy looking analog transfer clearly taken from a VHS tape but--as with the above Planet of Prehistoric Women--there is no good HD upgrade available as of this writing. Take what you can get, and say thank you to the nice Prime. (PS 6/22 - a better looking print is floating around YouTube last I checked)

Sort of the prequel to Margheriti's 1966-7 "Gamma One" Tetralogy (note its American title is Battle of the Worlds, and is not be confused his War Between the Planets or War of the Planets, both of which came later). This one has a runaway planet entering our solar system and taking up orbit around Earth, all predicted by an aged, vaguely portly Claude Rains in owlish spectacles, hamming wildly, but dubbing his own voice so it's great, as a mathematics expert. Such a team player is our Claude, he sells the dialogue like its Shakespeare and even wears a space helmet during the big alien planet-landing climax, racing around like a kid in a candy store through miles of alien tubing and red gel lights while issuing grating 'music of the spheres' from his portable synthesizer. (The alien UFOs are maneuvered via soundwaves, leading to lots of overlaid asynchronous tones as ships race into heavily-edited dogfights ).

Mixing Mycroft Holmes and Peter O'Toole doing Henry II, Raine's mathematician physicist is so brilliant he can just write an equation on the observatory floor in chalk for all the world's leaders to see (via camera set-ups from around the world) and he convinces them to give him complete control of the coming battle. Meanwhile the young couples (a pair from a Martian outpost, and a pair from his own observatory) fawn over him, stand around in awe and then saddle up when it's time to ride out of orbit and take on "the Outsider" (as Raines dubs the interloping world). 

Mario Migliardi's score smoothes over any soft patches and helps to give the rocky island scenery a proto-giallo sense of class, though the barrage of synth noises in the second half may wake your sleeping girlfriend if you don't keep the volume low. Long a PD title, one can dream of seeing this one day remastered to look as good as the (above) War Between the Planets. What else is the stuffing of the stars, Professor? Dreams all come true, eventually, it's just a matter of when. 

Operazione Goldman / Operation Goldman
(1966) Dir. Antonio Margheriti
*** / Amazon Image - A-

In this, a superior example of one of the countless international spy thrillers that proliferated in the mid-60s (due to the astronomic success of Thunderball), we get both rocket toppling and a trippy undersea lair powered by an undersea volcano, via the directorial coolness of that inexhaustible maestro Antonio Margheriti. Packed in amidst the quips, drinks, and car chases lurks some exciting footage of real-life Nasa rocket failures, with Anthony Eisley's staggering around in front of an ocean of fire. The rest of the time he's either being shot at by a lovely blonde (Wandisa Guida) or trying to score with his lovely handler, Captain Flanagan (Diana Lorys) in what's supposed to Florida but sure looks Mediterranean. A long forklifter chase/brawl through a brewery, from the loading docks all the way down the grain silos, is a big highlight. And the supervillain's ocean floor lair is an amazing expressionistic maze worth the price of admission itself.  So many of Europe's countless mid-60s Bond imitations were encumbered with endless travelogue footage, stripteases, talking heads, comic relief, static plot-heavy dialogue, trite pick-up lines, and fashions so dated and sexist you can smell the cheap cologne lingering in the air for weeks after you watch it, but Lightning Bolt is worth standing in the rain for. Riz Ortolani spy music is on-point and on-message throughout and the sublime HD prime print makes the old new again.

(1965) Dir. Robert Gaffney
**1/2/ Amazon Image - A

Puerto Rico really needs your help right now, but Frankenstein Conquers the World isn't the reason, entirely. Sure, some fancy critics give it a bad rap and, sure, it's a little too aware of its own Party Beach hotrod absurdity, but some of the scenes have same kinetic weird nouvelle-pulp energy we fist saw in Rollin's Viol du Vampire and Franco's Diabolical Dr. Z, while still staying as gosh-darn American as a NASA-sponsored apple pie (filmed in Puerto Rico!). The plot follows a pair of evil aliens--the bald pointy eared, vaguely Uncle Fester-meets-Jon Lovitz Dr. Nadir (Lou Cutell) and the aloof Princess Marcuzen (Marilyn Hanold)--as they abduct a bunch of bathing suit wearing, cocktail drinking, pool party frugging, party girls to back to their sterile post-war planet. Threatening any resistors with their pet space monster, they're quite the hammy pair, milking every line to the point of dryness. But in contrast there's a nice current of realism with footage of driving past real-life NASA's gates and a funny press conference with their newest astronaut Col. Saunders (Robert Reilly), who freezes up halfway through the Q&A-- we find the secret: he's a robot! When his ship crashes (thanks to the alien's toppling powers), Saunders falls to earth a burnt robot amnesiac who proceeds to run amok until his creator (the great--always deadpan--James Karen) and his girlfriend (foxy Karen Grant) fix his circuitry and turn him around against the alien threat. And you can bet your bottom dollar that the title match is coming as the space monster is warmed and readied for Frankie's visit and Grant is next on the conveyor belt to Nadir and the Princess's home planet. The military arrives but daren't attack while all the girls are inside the (parked) ship. 

Man, Puerto Rico seems like quite the spot! Never before has military footage from our Air Force and Army training maneuvers been so seamlessly interwoven with western poolside garage rock decadence! Those teens who first saw this funky gem at the drive-in probably thought they were dreaming. Cutell's Dr. Nadir makes Dudley Manlove's Eros in Plan Nine seem a model of deadpan cool; and scenes of him and Marcuzen examining the visibly uncomfortable swim suit models (from the Miss Puerto Rico contest!) veer close to icky; but once everything is sorted and the credits start their roll, the ever-cool James Karen and his lady friend enjoy a leisurely moped ride through sunny San Juan as the romantic harmonies of The Distant Cousins walk us out, 

Now Come with me to Criterion Channel...!

Uchû daikaijû Girara
(1963) Dir. Kazui Nihonmatsu
*** / Criterion Channel Image - /C

A happy astro-theme song and groovy lounge soundtrack (courtesy Taku Izumi); cheerful blue colored outer space backgrounds; cute-if-unconvincing space miniatures and sets--X From Outer Space has my early-60s international sci-fi number, and yours too if you but let it. Once again where in that seemingly inevitable future (as envisioned by von Braun) of permanent bases on the moon, operated by a United World Order, where young people of both genders hold high-level positions on orbiting space stations and meet after hours at the space lounge to dance and be interrupted by urgent news. Cute blonde gaijin astrobiologist Lisa (Peggy Neal - see Terror Beneath the Sea above) is the girl in a group of four bound for Mars, stopping off on the moon to party with cute Michiko (Itoko Harada), whose got a crush on Capt. Sano (Shun'ya Wazaki), who crushes on Lisa (Neal) who likes him too but knows Michiko crushes so much harder. Franz Gruber (also back from Terror) sports a goatee as a high-ranking scientific advisor (he also counsels Lisa when hearts gets too heavy). 

Grooving at the moon's astro-lounge

Planetary danger erupts when Lisa collects a tiny alien spore she found stuck to the ship's tail fin and brings it down to earth in one of those sample jars that alien spores tend to escape from when everyone is off having more cocktails. This one leaves a chicken-size footprint etched in acid on the floor and immediately grows kaiju massive. Though joyful and triumphant, Guilala's attacks are a bit on the weaker side compared to his more esteemed Toho comrades, but with all the fun jetting back and forth from the moon to Earth--set to that swingin' pop score--plus visiting soap dish UFO visits, nicely arranged widescreen medium shot compositions, luminous glowing skin of the two lead actresses, and Guilala's aerodynamic head curling its edges when blasting laser spitballs--the balance is more than made up.

The Criterion image is way too soft but hey - if not for their "It came from Shochiku" Eclipse series, it wouldn't be out on anything but a $60 Japanese import (PS - I found the Blu-ray version on ebay-- the colors and image are so much crisper). To think, I may never have known it.  Man, I'm sick just thinking about it, because if there are cocktails being served on space stations or the moon in a 60s science fiction film, I shall be there, insatiable. There is no 'counting days' in space --there are no days to count! 

(1972) Dir. Andre Tarkovsky
 **** / Criterion Image - B

Tarkovsky's acclaimed science fiction masterpiece (which seems like a 60s film, due perhaps to the slower pop trendshifting behind the Iron Curtain) is set in a future on space station orbiting above an all-ocean, possibly sentient, planet that's started causing long dead lovers to re-appear, out of nowhere. Based on a novel by Polish sci-fi novelist Stanislav Lem, it's slow, depressing, and long, yet never less than compelling. It's certainly no slower or less ponderous than its western counterpoint, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Less trippy, though, unless you turn up the volume and pay close attention to the sound mix. Once you let the slowness hypnotize you, which is what it's for, weird things start to happen. The long drive through Moscow's tunnels and elevated highways to the the airport for example, becomes otherworldly when you tune into the way the sound of the traffic begins to discombobulate into the rush of rockets and radio static. The slow pans around rooms show Kris's (Donatas Bationis) dead ex-wife Khari (Natalya Bondarchuk) appearing in different points in time and space in ways you might miss if not paying the kind of deep half-asleep attention Tarkovsky demands. I've seen it five times and only managed to stay awake to the end once. Any Big Message is entombed in its weird mise-en-scene of ever shifting memory, with Tarkovsky cannily avoiding any attempt at momentous narrative or some wild "Beyond Jupiter" light show climax. But with regularly mismatched glimpses of things both there and not there, he does evoke the bathroom/bedroom rebirthing scene of 2001... if you stretch it to three hours and add a girl and a film rotectorssa..

Did I nod off?

But what better film to wake up to? It's long enough you can wake up from a sound nap after trying to pay attention for an hour, to find it's still playing! If that happens to you, do as I did: just sit up and keep watching where you woke up from, don't try to rewind. To watch it in between bouts of consciousness, to blank out right in the middle of some portentous cosmic revelation, is to become one with the screen in the engulfing silence of space--is this perhaps the ideal frame of mind fo Solaris? 
Nyet to whatever the answer is. Nyet.

So that's it for the Sixties! Adieu to the cautious cocktails and radiation-eating hopes of the space age. Adios to swinging astronauts being hoisted around on wires while saving the day. Dasvidaniya to the idea of a perfect romance with a mystical anima projection in the form of an ex-wife at the prime of her hotness. Such is the realization of Tarkovsky's most surreal film. It takes ideas similar to those in many other older science fiction films (including Ib Melchoir's Journey to the Seventh Planet) and drafts a meaning so high and profound it can use swirls of algae on still water, wind-rustled plants, stormy clouds, trees hanging over empty space, and a beautifully knit autumnal-colored afghan wrap held against the glow of a round space station window, to evoke the inscrutable majesty of that alien otherness beyond even the reach of our sleeping unconscious, past the light behind the dark behind the man behind the curtain, to reach at last that fractal form of probing consciousness we damage the minute we behold it, the way water crystals change just from our looking at them. 

Such things lie far beyond the limits of special effects, and even human imagination, to interpret in any concrete form.

So we bid farewell even to the most.... basic.... functions...zzz

 (If you refuse to watch SOLARIS, let the tenth film on this list be Criterion's DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968- Dir. Ishoro Honda) Yeah, boy, Akira Ifukube's pounding score, female aliens (above) turning into rocks, and a full roster of kaiju favorites uniting to really stomp the shit out of Ghidorah. Get Criterion channel now!! I also recommend GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER (1964), also on Criterion, which has a cool alien possessed princess side plot! 

For other cool Communist sci-fi films from the 70s that seem like they're from our 60s, I highly recommend these two films from East Germany (avail. only in OOP DVD and sometimes youtube)

Im Staub der Sterne
(1978) Dir. 
*** / DVD image - B-

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Just a Juggalo: JOKER + The Psychotic Sometimes Swims, Harley Quinn, Harley Quinn

Unlike the more Jungian equations of Marvel, DC has always been more of a surface player ala professional wrestling. Their mythic arcs offer a fusion between totemistic mythology, civics lessons, and those old Mexican wrestling movies, the kind where cultural and financial differences are worked out in masks, tights, and fights. But The JOKER (2019) is a work of art, built on the versions by Jared Leto and Heath Ledger, which in turn riffed off Jack Nicholson and Ceasar Romero, we can npw draw a straight line in DC from Romero's camp to Jack's being Jack to Heath's money-burning coke drip anarchist to Leto's meth-breathing nutcase, all the way to Phoenix's high post-Taxi Driver art. 

And dead in the middle? David Ayer's underrated Suicide Squad.

That movie isn't fondly remembered but Ayer, paragon of macho (he made Fury with Brad Pitt for god's sakes) is the reason we have Joker getting edgy acclaim, as well as the new Birds of Prey: The Emancipation of Harley Quinn opening this weekend, so it must be acknowledged that some special magic in SS made it a cultural touchstone despite the reviews. Maybe those fight club mornings  helped make everyone seem tougher but Robbie was so alluring in the way only hot messes can be in Ayer's film (and isn't in Prey, falling instead to Tank Girl over-quirk) it's clear he brought something. Or maybe I'm loyal to SS since I relapsed to it back in Xmas 2016 and my feeling of insane 'emancipation' was perfectly matched in the theme, style and plot. Alkohol macht frei! 

You may shake your head in disgust at that last--admittedly personal/posional--connection. If you haven't been incarcerated by sobriety by for 20 years you don't know what it means to go from utterly miserable for days on end in a tiny one room cabin at Xmas, as everyone around you shouts drunkenly at Alexa every five minutes, throws darts over your head, laughing and swilling, unable to escape the sounds of their bawdy good time loudness-- even with headphones on in the other room--to laughing and swilling along with them, brain suddenly alive and liberated. To haver a movie beginning right at the moment the booze kicks in for the first time after 20 years, and to have that movie be Suicide Squad. Perfect - in plot and in style, it mirrored my fall and brief liberation to a 'T"! I owe David Ayers everything. What could have been a depressing surrender became a triumph; that movie was right there with me, every step of the way.  

It's almost worth being miserable and winding up in the hospital for that hour of total freedom and a sense that your horizons have just widened by a significant "Kansas-switched-to-Technicolor-Oz" level. for however long your biological parole counsellor Viola Davis decrees. Her jugular vein bombs were my own addictive biochemistry. Now I'm back in the joint, but I got TCM.

No wonder I too feel the draw of the madness of Joker, a 70s NYC-ish Gotham-set saga of mental illness and delusion... and white male rage! Todd Phillips' film proves a fine echo-drenched tribute to the golden (70s-early-80s) era of Scorsese (if Travis was fired from a temp clown agency), and King of Comedy (if Rupert Pupkin took over the Jerry Lewis role and finally met someone twice as crazy as him) and hence perfect in the same year Scorsese slanders comic book movies and delivers his own (early-90s) Goodfellas-"tribute," The Irishman. It all happens in the order it does for a reason. Some day you'll understand that (1).

So we learn the truth about mental illness and it's sad. Joker loses his mom, his grip on reality, and his illusory girlfriend and then he finds his true self when a Goetz-y self-defense killing of three rich a-holes on a late-night subway triggers all sorts of fun insane civil unrest as people reason killing the rich is pretty cool if they can't see your face because you're wearing a clown mask. And Fleck, I mean the Joker, I mean "Joker," doesn't disappoint his fans.

To paraphrase that old Joseph Campbell quote about "the mystic swims where the psychotic drowns," Joker sinks to the bottom and realizes he's got gills. When you've lost everything, as Tyler Durden says, you can do anything. Of course you can argue it's a symptom of our trigger happy white male rage mass shooter age that we mustn't laugh at such things, and that's what makes it funny (and irritating that the genius of Joker is acknowledged but the genius of the far funnier and darker Observe and Report is slighted due to unfair Paul Blart associations). And thanks to a great color and lighting scheme (his red, orange and green suit contrasts iconically against the dingy gray of the city) and the way---during his celebrated stairs dance---the low-end roll of convicted felon Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll (part 2)" pumps perfectly through the channels opened by the mind-meltingly deep and true cello chords of Icelandic genius Hildur Ingveldar Guðnadóttir, we do get one of the defining moments of the cinematic year.

Pauline Kael would have loved it.

But first, before the psychotic can swim, he or she must find their animal or elemental or archetypal talisman:a penguin, a cat, an egg, ice, earth, a playing card, ice, a coin, or even just riddles, then their psychosis and amoral love of crime and villainy can take to the air like a kite. And Bruce Wayne can have an excuse to cut out of whatever gala he's slumming through, glad to have--once more--someone to chase around. 

But Wayne's just a kid in Joker. It's all just Phoenix looking in the mirror and abusing his smile. But that stairs dance to Glitter's anthem works so indelibly as a moment because it takes the time to work, to breathe into it, and because the music is perfect, the stairs are perfect and the sight of this clown, literally, in this super clean clown suit is so perfectly etched against the filthy melange of urban decay/gray that it makes you stop and catch your breath. We can't help but love him because there is nothing this clown wants from us. He's broken through to the other side. He no longer whines for our love or attention (the way, say, Jerry Langford used to do back in his bellboy days), and that's why we must give it. Usually there's something terrifically desperate about a clown, the human equivalent of a needy puppy that starts to whine the moment you cease petting it. No this clown! He has moved beyond us. The only person he needs to make laugh is himself. And he can't stop.

Everything builds to a fine old triumphant juggalos amok climax that I LOVED

but very last WTF coda scene after that kind of annoyed me. No, it really did annoy me. But I sure am fascinated nonetheless about why it seemed so imperative to add this little coda.

My guess: everyone worried the ending--the triumph of the loon--might incite the juggalos to rise the way they way gang violence used to erupt at inner city Warriors screenings, or the old Aurora Dark Knight Rises incident. They even worried Kids would promote teen vagrancy, and then Fight Club would motivate the trolls (back before they were called that) from out mom's basements and teach them the ways of men. 

But no worries, the time for fight clubs has passed; the time to don thy juggalo paint and raise a mighty ruckus is also passed. The popularity of Joker (and its cop-out "Scarface on the gallows" ending-ending) assassinated the present and there's no sense fighting if the opponent is but a dream. Safe in anonymity behind the goofball mask, we avoid the sting of teargas and truncheons by living outside the flow of time - clickclickclackclick. The NYC of the 70s, the one of pay phones and rampant street crime, seems long gone today. But Joker reminds us that should our 5G network go out, the 70s won't be far away. Joker is with us when we walk home on NYC streets deserted of brick and mortars. So why worry about the present with its Disney and Warner Bros. flagships that we once bemoaned for cleaning up the dirty streets of Gotham? Their copyright-protected clowns bounce with big bulbous heads, and if the Joker was just more cartoony, he'd be one of them. But let's face it. He's gone dark. He's joined the past, hanging out in front of the stores that were once crumbling movie theaters showing kung fu movies and pornography and posing for invisible tourist pictures.


Welcome the overalls
And now - the ex-girlfriend of the Joker (a sexier, younger Joker, mind you. Time is dead), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) comes pogoing onto screens this weekend. But things are looking grim based on the suspicious lack of advance critical notice. From her 'riveting raver' jumpers, pompom shoulder wraps (made from police tape_ replacing her Suicide Squad baby doll trash and vaudeville slutty shorts, to the somewhat grating (and all too sane-sounding) Brooklyn voiceover (monologues for crazy villains should sound crazy -- as in "So I wanted to stop the lightning shooting of my forehead and the only way to do that was steal the fingers of my old math teacher or so the shimmering blue triangle in my bathroom said," and not banal girl power edicts like "so the Jokah and I broke up and I was reel sad) followed by Marilyn Monroe dance recreations to express my freedom from lack of materialism.

Of course Anna Biller set the bar really high in Love Witch (2016) as far as able to bring a truly feminine eye towards lady sexy craziness. It looks from the outside like Yan and Hodson aren't even going to try, delivering instead what looks like another 'freshly broken up girl throws Ewan McGregor a beatin'' plot. Now, I'm all for beating up Ewan McGregor. No actor in the last two centuries has seemed to so fully warrant it (3) but the kind of crazy that's psychotic and sexy-gutsy, rather than just a mopey crying-jag downer, in films is all too rare, it's like striking gold when we stumble on it, hence the preciousness this year with Joker, the Beach Bum, the Parasite birthday picnic, the crazy subterranean's weird smiles in Us, the second half of Climax. But so much else in modern movies seems mired in a by-the-numbers sanity that unfortunately dogs even Frank Miller's DC adaptations like a plague.

When money is more than just paper, signifiers connect, and noir cliches about shadows in crumbling alleys rule over all, then we never really lost anything to begin with, did we, doctor?


Monsters Crash the Pajama Party: DARK KNIGHT RISES, TARGETS (8/6/2012)
"Gunman turns movie into surreal horror: 'This is real'" - News headline (Aurora Shooting)"

Creedence and Ivy's Eco-Terrorist Revue: BATMAN AND ROBIN, TROLL 2 (9/12/2012)
Rolling her eyes and carrying on about the plants of Mother Nature having their day, luxuriating over her plans to rid Freeze and herself of the feathered and furry caped crusaders, Thurman is at least in on the joke and exhibiting some signs--lacking in all the other cast members--that she's actually seen some of the films Schumacher is referencing. Bane, too, is ten times more fun in this issue as a hulking, mute, seemingly-inflatable Mexican wrestler under her control instead of Chris Nolan's musclebound Marxist professor.

Burn the Money: DARK KNIGHT and The Joker's Post-Fascist Used Topia (8/5/2008)
Chris Nolan seems to underline the hyper-commodity fetishism of Wayne's world, offering a sly socialist critique even as he fulfills his conspicuous consumption fantasy obligations to the producers and advertisers (Alfred is always interested in knowing what of Wayne's many cars will be taken out for drives. "The Lamborghini, sir?" he says, all a quiver)

All Clawed up and Nowhere to Go: CATWOMAN (8/10/2004)
Showgirls was camp feminism as imagined by bearded men with coke habits and million dollar tabs with Heidi Fleiss, but at least they weren’t afraid to portray the kind of feminism they wanted to see: Sharon Stone sticking that ice pick; a Joe Esterhaz stand-in getting the tar kicked out of him by a stripper in high heels --that’s real feminism as only the heirs to the Russ Meyer throne can portray it! But leave it to a Frenchman to get camp so very wrong. Here the feminist icon can’t crack a convincing smile let alone a whip.

Kitty Kali: (4/4/2011)
a sexy supervillainess makes the Batman mythos operate at a far more evolved level than with male baddies, for instead of an all-boy group of kids pretend fighting in the backyard, there's the female element of the hottie next door who makes all the boys stammer; the yin-yang dichotomy is in place. She becomes the chthonic enemy of normal patriarchal civilization, its inescapable shadow. How easily she gets our dynamic duo in tied-up situations, yet always leaves them room to escape; she likes the chase and the drama and the last minute rescues and, like the other villains, there's a clear idea that without the dynamic duo to wrestle with and subject to various colorful slow torments, a life of crime would be a drab, dull affair--no one to play with..


1. as Bogie once said to Ingrid in Casablanca, a line that smacks of patriarchal condescension (she's been trying to get him to understand it all through the movie; then she realizes the easiest way to get those visas is to play along and let him think it's his idea)
2. To paraphrase that old Joseph Campbell quote (? was it Jung?) "A mystic swims where a psychotic drowns"
3. Though to be fair, I'm basing that off of three movies he was in where he played a reprehensible swine, his smirky wally in The Men Who Stare at Goats; his entitled abusive/possessive poet in Moulin Rouge; and his bad haircut-sporting traitor ex-boyfriend to Gina Carano in the oft-seen-by-me Haywire.
4. Simpsons quote (S1: "Krusty gets Busted"), because we shouldn't let the last 20 seasons sway us from remembering the brilliance of the first 10 
6. See: Mother (2016)
9. The kind of gross 'dead-horse-dragging' belabored hipster triteness that makes you turn your back on hipsters and never want to watch the movie again for no other reason than the memory of it makes you want to retch and it's such a waste of Raquel Welch as a whip-wielding galley master. Who was the idiot editor who said "less Welch in leather please, and more posh shit-wading
19. In the flashbacks we see how cuckoo he is over her, and how for her it's just sex at first but also amused at his naivete and goo-goo eyes. This is now Americans fall for Europeans (or girls from Buenos Aires), our inability to realize a relationship can be just sex because when we find a girl for whom it's just sex we fall in love since we've longed for such a thing. It's the ultimate irony that then our innocence and adoration wins them over, as if that kind of naive swooning was as precious to them, moored in old world cool as they are, as their slutty self-assertion is to us (whose sex is mired in neo-Puritan 'Rules') But it's not really love, not the way Thelma and Louise, or the Joker and Harley, or John Dahl and Peggy Cummins, do it.  The problem with the Lazlos of the world is they force everyone to either kill them or join the fight. It takes a Switzerland to know how to stay neutral even when the Lazlos are grabbing at your lapels like old Ugharti begging for a place to hide.
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