The Wild, Wild West (Season 1, Episode 1: The Night of the Inferno): a cautious start to a classic TV series

Richard C Sarafian, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 1, Episode 1: The Night of the Inferno)” (1965)

With the Civil War over and the period of Reconstruction begun in the South, there is unrest aplenty in the western and southwestern territories of the United States and President Grant needs a man to go undercover and help bring order to these lands and their peoples. Enter one Jim West (Robert Conrad), brought to Grant in disguise as a renegade prisoner, and entrusted with a mission to seek and apprehend a Mexican revolutionary Juan Manolo in Texas. Travelling by private train given him by Grant and enlisting the help of Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin), Jim meets a Chinese informant Wing Fat (Victor Buono) who introduces him to Lydia (Suzanne Pleshette), who turns out to be an old flame of Jim’s.

Gordon and West discover that Manolo is keeping gunpowder in barrels supposed to contain wine in the cellar of Lydia’s mansion. After going their separate ways, West is later captured by some of Manolo’s men and imprisoned with Lydia. West engineers an escape, rejoins Gordon and together they capture the man who they think is Manolo. West takes the man back to his train where he is ambushed by the real Manolo who has been disguised as Wing Fat all along.

There follows a billiards game during which West tries to buy time while Gordon and Lydia, having arrived at the train, battle Manolo’s men. Both agents quickly despatch the baddies and with Lydia ride off into the night on the train. All quite mundane really: but this episode was a pilot episode for the series so it erred on the side of caution.

The episode liberally borrows from the James Bond movie series and the tropes borrowed become part of the show’s regular props: the character of James West himself, a suave undercover agent who’s cool, calm and very collected in even the most dire and dangerous situations; a femme fatale who’s attracted to West but can’t always be trusted; eccentric villains; bizarre plots and plot devices such as the billiards game; and strange settings (a train as a secret hide-out?!) among others. An original touch is the character of Artemus Gordon who’s a dab hand at ventriloquy and outlandish disguises which come in handy in every episode. Conrad plays West as a straight, fairly colourless character, foil to the real star Martin who imbues Gordon with a distinctive cheerfulness and zest: no matter how far-out the disguise is, Martin’s Gordon pulls it off comfortably in a way that treads a fine balance between plausible (and not so plausible) camp and seriousness.

Victor Buono brings flamboyant flair to the episode as the disguised Manolo, enlivening an otherwise run-of-the-mill story-line. America in the mid-1960s being a relatively innocent time, the producers dared to push the boundaries of what was acceptable to American TV audiences by portraying a Chinese character relatively sympathetically and then deconstructing it: in this way, the show called attention to racist stereotyping and the Hollywood tendency at the time to cast white people in roles of non-whites. (The series was unusual for its time in hiring non-white actors to play minor and sometimes major characters, to reflect the reality of the period in which it’s set.) The plot about a Mexican revolutionary thirsting for the return of US territory to his motherland soon after the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction might say something about how fluid territories and identities can be at a time when the civil rights movement was in progress and people generally were hit with the notion that what they considered “normal” was really unjust and degrading to people who through no fault of their own were born as social and economic inferiors.

The series was also pushing the portrayal of women just a little: women were no longer helpless but were as capable of throwing bombs or acting off their own bat. Still, compared to the British TV spy series “The Avengers”, “The Wild, Wild West” had a long way (literally and figuratively) to go.

And last but not least – why the Western setting? It provides a comfortable arena for a TV series to comment on and deconstruct familiar stereotypes about American society and history, past and present, and to present an alternate view of how America might or could have evolved. The Western genre had become tired and stale and was in need of a fresh approach in both TV and movies: shows like “The Wild, Wild West” by throwing and blending together the spy and Western genres breathed new life and eccentricity into both genres. Future episodes would feature science fiction and horror elements. Plus it’s just fun to think that “The Wild, Wild West” anticipates sci-fi steampunk about 20 years before William Gibson introduced the world to cyberpunk and all that followed in his 1985 novel “Neuromancer”!

Somehow it’s ironic that I’ve started watching this series at a time when American society in particular and Western society across the world generally seem to be retreating into identity politics and a crisis of confidence in its institutions, values and ideologies. West and Gordon might have been backing the “wrong” side as we moderns see it but whose side is really “wrong”?

The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 17: Night of the Feathered Fury): well balanced between serious drama and tongue-in-cheek fantasy

Robert Sparr, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 17: Night of the Feathered Fury)” (1967)

In this episode, the two US government agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) meet the diabolical master-mind magician Count Manzeppi (Victor Buono) who is seeking a toy bird that his assistant Gerda Scharr (Michele Carey) has stolen from him. Gordon has already stashed the bird in a locked safe after finding it abandoned in a building that Gerda had recently fled. Both West and Gordon are puzzled as to why Manzeppi and Gerda want the bird so desperately that they’re prepared to kill for it. West and Gordon subject the toy to various tests and find the name of the toy shop where it was made. West visits there with the toy where he watches an early form of motion picture in a box and is again introduced to Manzeppi who makes a grand entrance down from the ceiling on a crescent-shaped prop. After a fight and a chase, Manzeppi traps West in a bird-cage.

Buono over-acts magnificently as the dastardly devilish Manzeppi, particularly in the scene where he explains that inside the toy bird he seeks is the famed Philosopher’s Stone which also has the Midas touch on nearby objects when exposed to the full moon. Everyone else plays second fiddle to him though Martin’s Gordon almost steals the show in disguise as a Jewish travelling salesman. Minor characters can be quite eccentric and include a deadly Mexican dancer and an equally threatening Japanese fellow with an awfully long and vicious scythe. After a daring rescue and many fights, West and Gordon pursue Gerda who has taken the bird, only to discover that she has exposed herself and the Stone in the bird to the light of the full moon with a dire effect on her that recalls the famous murder scene in the James Bond film “Goldfinger”.

This episode treads an excellent balance between serious drama and tongue-in-cheek fantasy: it’s true that Manzeppi has too many far-out magic tricks up his sleeve that can’t be explained by science or logic to be completely credible but Buono carries off the character’s flamboyance and psychopathic villainy without a care in the world. Viewers can clearly see the actor was enjoying himself immensely in the role.  The sets for the toy shop with its labyrinth of dark passages and dead-end tunnels, and collection of sinister toys make for a magnificent backdrop for the action which ranges from all-out action-thriller Western to comedy to fantasy. There is an air of lushness and decadence to the entire episode: all the actors wear bright and lavishly decorated clothes, even for fighting – and that’s just the men alone! The coda to the story suits it well as West and Gordon voice a hope that one day Gerda could be restored to human form but the toy bird ends up in the ownership of someone who is completely unaware of the bird’s power.

Perhaps the silliest part of the whole episode is that something as mystical and dangerously powerful as the Philosopher’s Stone could be housed in a toy chicken of all things … no wonder in an early scene Martin is struggling not to laugh as Gordon and West face down a couple of villains.

The Wild, Wild West (Season 3, Episode 2: Night of the Firebrand): insubstantial plot wastes a good cast and some good ideas

Michael Caffey, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 3, Episode 2: Night of the Firebrand)” (1967)

In this episode, government agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) travel to the Oregon Territory to stop an insurrection fomented by outlaw Sean O’Reilly in Canada. Going their separate ways at first, West goes to Fort Savage to meet a Major Jason – and discovers the fort’s been taken over by O’Reilly (Pernell Roberts), aided by a comely lass Sheila O’Shaughnessy (Lana Wood, the younger sister of Natalie Wood). Despite O’Reilly’s best efforts to kill West, the agent escapes and continues on. Likewise Gordon meets a few colourful characters and despatches them to join up with West.

The episode is very slow to reach its centrepiece which comes about halfway through when West steals a Conestoga wagon, kidnaps Sheila from O’Reilly by making her comatose first and then high-tailing all the way from Oregon back to Fort Savage. This part of the film becomes a running gag: West and Gordon keep losing the wagon for some reason and Sheila keeps reviving only to be made comatose again … and again. The climax is an all-out catfight in which West faces down O’Reilly and a horde of henchmen; West however saves the day with a stack of dynamite which he throws one by one, eerily simulating a 20th century bombing raid. Eventually he has to get his hands dirty going mano a mano with O’Reilly and, well … no prizes for guessing who goes tumbling over a cliff.

I thought this would be a half-decent episode but it’s turned out to be a lot of fluff: the story is too insubstantial to sustain nearly 60 minutes of viewing-time. That’s a pity as some fine guest actors, notably Roberts and the horse playing West’s mount, appear: Roberts himself dominates the cast whenever the camera focuses on him. Conrad plays his usual all-American hero self who extricates himself from an apparently cast-iron deadly fate that Houdini himself would have gasped at, and Martin rises to the occasion of impersonating a French-Canadian diplomat and an ornery coonsman out of the backwoods. The story could have been beefed up a lot more by depicting the relationship between O’Reilly and Sheila as more complex than it is: Sheila the idealistic and starry-eyed proto-socialist following the more cynical O’Reilly who pretends to fight for the cause of the common man but who’s prepared to throw the girl to the wolves and take the money and run when it suits. The budding romance between West and Sheila is unconvincing: viewers know that in the next episode there’ll be another femme fatale waiting for him.

Although some ingenious fighting weapons are at hand for both West and Ward, the episode as a whole features few futuristic ideas and concepts. Aerial bombing as a form of warfare is the main futuristic technological idea here and a world in which ideologies favouring either the wealthy or the poor are at loggerheads is prefigured also. Historical accuracy was apparently a bit sloppy: in an early scene, a van passes through the forest in the far distant background.

Like many tongue-in-cheek TV drama series of its time, episodes of “The Wild, Wild West” usually feature so-called tag ends which comment on or parody the action that’s just concluded: in this respect, this series’ tag ends seem a lot less cute and more humorous than the ones for “The Avengers” (Season 5) which would have been screening in the same year.

The Wild Wild West (Season 4, Episode 4: The Night of the Sedgewick Curse): clever and intelligent combination of horror and science fiction

Marvin Chomsky, “The Wild Wild West (Season 4, Episode 4: The Night of the Sedgewick Curse)” (1968)

I don’t recall this series from my childhood yet when I heard the theme music in this episode’s opening credits, it seemed very familiar so I assume that it did feature on Australian TV in the late 1960s. Various distinguished gentlemen are disappearing in a hotel in a town and US agents James West (Robert Conrad) and his partner Artemus Ward (Ross Martin) set out to investigate the strange incidents. In the course of his work, West meets a young woman Lavinia Sedgewick (Sharon Acker) who invites him to dinner at the Sedgwick family mansion where he discovers the building is under a mysterious curse that may be linked to the murders and disappearances at the hotel due to its emblem: three knives embedded in a heart.

West is the action-man of the heroic duo while Ward does the brain work, dons the weird disguises and uses his ventriloquist ability to save his skin. Through West’s leg-work which brings him in contact with Lavinia’s grandfather and his spooky physician Dr Maitland (Jay Robinson) and Ward’s own investigation, disguised as a French diplomat staying at the hotel, which puts his life in danger a couple of times, the agents discover a horrible secret: the Sedgewicks suffer from a genetic disease that causes rapid ageing and Dr Maitland is seeking to cure the disease permanently by using the kidnapped men as guinea pigs to test a special serum he has developed. The problem is that while the serum works on animals and stops or slows down the ageing process, it has the opposite effect on humans and when West sees the kidnapped gentlemen in a cell, he is horrified to see they have all been rapidly aged.

This is a clever episode that mixes elements of horror (a haunted house with secret passages and a prison below, an apparently innocent woman harbouring a terrible secret, a bed that impales people dead, a housemaid who seems surly and who might be an ally – or the villain’s assistant) and science fiction (a mad scientist searching for the elixir that gives immortality) in a Western genre and a common TV narrative format: strange things happen to innocent people, two agents are summoned to snoop around and find out what’s going on, one of the agents is captured which leads the other to the villain’s lair, the entire business culminates in and is settled by some punch-ups, the crooks are rounded up and sent to jail and all loose ends are tied satisfactorily. The motivations of the various major characters are explained throughout the episode, the science seems quite plausible (one must remember the action takes place in the nineteenth century when Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was barely understood, let alone all the sciences that the theory as midwife enabled later) and the horrors that Dr Maitland’s nostrum causes are dramatic enough without appearing overdone and campy.

The acting is excellent, Robinson as the creepy and deranged physician and Acker as the desperate Lavinia probably the most outstanding. One notes that a couple of black actors play hotel clerks; this is credible from a historical viewpoint, black men often having been employed as cowboys, farmers, clerks and workers in the American West, but would come as a surprise to most people raised on old Hollywood Westerns where black people hardly ever featured. The music used is a mixture of the conventional orchestra-based soundtrack music of the period and some analog synthesiser tone melodies. The episode does rely on some cheap effects such as repeating thunder noises when a storm rages during the night. Set design and interior details, including those of objects used, look typical of the style and period of the 1870s.

“The Night of the Sedgewick Curse” shows that you can combine far-out science fiction and horror ideas in a plot-line that doesn’t need to be campy or feature wacky characters. The episode’s coda in which Ward attempts to feed West a healthy vegan lunch to prolong his life is comic without being cartoony, the actors playing their dialogue and actions straight. Characters show some sympathy and concern for others, even those others like Lavinia who turns out to be a femme fatale and who suffers tragically.

 

Frida: conservative bio-pic turns artist Frida Kahlo’s life into unfunny and crude soap opera melodrama

Julie Taymor, “Frida” (2001)

A very pretty and colourful film on the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954), “Frida” plays the artist’s life straight, concentrating on her personal life and loves from the time she was a teenager to the last weeks of her life. Although the film can be quirky in parts, having been directed by Julie Taymor, and makes good use of Kahlo’s paintings and other works to show audiences the connection between Kahlo’s emotions and feelings about events in her life and the art she produced, ultimately the whole shebang is very conservative and even dull towards the end as it drags towards the artist’s death. I guess in the current political climate, Taymor and actor Salma Hayek, who nursed an ambition to make a film about Kahlo’s life for a long time, have done what they could and played safe by narrowing the scope of the bio-pic to a straight retelling of Kahlo’s life and portraying Kahlo herself as an icon and role model for women.

The film starts in 1922 when as a school-kid Kahlo (Hayek) first meets Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) who was at least 20 years older than she was and already famous as a painter of murals. A couple of years later Kahlo suffers the trolley-car accident that was to affect her health for the rest of her life and direct her life away from studying medicine and becoming a doctor and to painting. After painting for some time, Kahlo remembers Rivera and asks him to evaluate her paintings so that she can decide whether she should continue. Rivera gives her paintings and painting ability the thumbs-up and so begins a long and tortuous romance between Kahlo and Rivera and their involvement in socialist revolutionary politics. Although Rivera and Kahlo marry, Rivera continues to have affairs with other women and over time this causes a rift to develop between the two. To infuriate Rivera, Kahlo herself embarks on affairs including one with Parisian chanteuse Josephine Baker and one with one of Rivera’s girlfriends. The last straw comes when Kahlo discovers Rivera making out with Cristina her sister and she boots hims out of her life. Divorce quickly follows.

Along the way Rivera accepts a commission to paint a mural “Man at the Crossroads” for Nelson D Rockefeller (Edward Norton) at the Rockefeller Center and the couple go to New York City for the course of the commission. When Rockefeller discovers Rivera has included a portrait of Vladimir Lenin in the painting, he demands that Rivera remove it but the muralist refuses so the commission ends and the couple return to Mexico. In the film the mural is destroyed and nothing more is said about it although in fact years afterwards Rivera was able to recreate the mural in Mexico from photographs taken of the original work. By 1937, Rivera and Kahlo have separated but go through the motions of being a married couple to give shelter in Kahlo’s childhood home to Leon Trotsky and his wife who have fled Stalin to come to Mexico. Predictably Trotsky and Kahlo are embroiled in an affair that upsets Trotsky’s wife Natasha and so the Russian couple must leave Kahlo’s house. That’s about the extent of the politics in “Frida”.

Although it’s probably too much to expect a 2-hour film to be exact on all the details of Rivera and Kahlo’s life together, “Frida” skips out some very significant details such as the fact that Rivera was an atheist and often railed against the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexican society and culture. Details about aspects of Kahlo’s life are often missing as well which lead to some lapses in the script and dialogue. The whole film is reduced to a sometimes unfunny and crude soap opera melodrama in which Kahlo and Rivera come off as a stereotyped cartoon couple who find they can’t live together while married but then find they can’t live separately after divorce.

After Kahlo’s death, I half-expected there might be a few titles stating that Rivera remarried after Kahlo’s death but died in 1957. It seems rather cruel that the film should have left this fact out – I’m sure the audience would have loved to know that after Kahlo’s death Rivera realised she’d been the best thing that ever happened to him – but this would have been inconsistent with the film’s intended portrayal of Kahlo as a contradictory creature who wanted to be independent and have a career yet wanted to be Rivera’s wife and to cook all his favourite meals and bear his children.

Where the film excels is in detailing Kahlo’s colourful character and eccentric fashion sense, and how her paintings were an extension of her emotional life, her pride in Mexican culture and life, and her private pain, both physical and psychological. The exuberance of Mexican culture is apparent although the portrayal can be stereotyped with an emphasis on the “exotic” aspects of the culture (such as the obsession with death and the Todos los Santos celebration in which families visit the graves of dead relatives and have parties with them). The Kahlo family home is a significant character in the film.

The actors do good work with what they are given and Hayek probably gives the performance of her life but overall the film isn’t remarkable and doesn’t do the figure of Kahlo much justice. The gender politics behind the making of the film ultimately pulls it down. One wonders why women like Julie Taymor, who already enjoy advantages that didn’t exist in Kahlo’s time, have to mould Kahlo to fit the template of independent career woman married to her art and philandering husband instead of just showing Kahlo as she was, warts and all. I’m sure Kahlo would have appreciated that.

 

 

The Prestige: fussy plot with flat characters turns on class and cultural rivalries of its setting

Christopher Nolan, “The Prestige” (2006)

Rather fussy if good-looking film about duplicity and duplications, duelling and an all-consuming devotion to one’s art, “The Prestige” is a crime thriller with science fantasy elements. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are two magicians apprenticed to master magician Milton (Ricky Jay) with Cutter (Michael Caine) as his engineer. Much of the film is told in flashbacks and at its beginning Borden is being tried and sentenced for the murder of Angier. The film then ducks to the events that lead to Borden’s trial: Borden complains to Angier and Cutter about Milton always playing safe with the same old magic tricks and Angier and Cutter put up reasons for Milton not wanting to risk his popularity and reputation via new and possibly dangerous tricks. One night a performance goes wrong and Angier’s wife Julia (Piper Perabo) dies; Angier blames Borden for the woman’s death and from then on the two men go all out to ruin one another’s performances, career and personal life, and steal ideas from each other as well. Then Borden surprises everyone with his act The Transported Man which Cutter believes must involve Borden using a double; Angier then tries to go one better with his own doubles but his act never sustains itself due to his own jealousies and Borden trying to wreck it.

Angier then pursues the famous scientist Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) to get him to make a teleportation machine that he believes Borden uses in his version of Angier’s trick. Tesla, needing the money after being financially wiped out by Thomas Edison, makes the machine and Angier takes possession of it before Edison’s myrmidons destroy Tesla’s laboratory.

Angier reappears in London with an updated version of his Transported Man trick: the teleportation machine creates duplicates of Angier who drown in water cells beneath trapdoors. Borden goes below stage during one such performance and, still feeling guilty over Julia’s death, tries to save one such duplicate. He is immediately framed for murdering Angier, is tried and sent to jail. While in jail, he is visited by an agent of Lord Caldlow (the true identity of Angier) who offers to care for his child Jess if he will yield his secrets. Borden is given Angier’s diary and realises he was framed. Unfortunately this news isn’t enough to save him from the gallows and Caldlow/Angier takes custody of the now-orphaned Jess, her mother having committed suicide earlier in the film.

It would seem that at this point Angier has the upper hand over Borden but things don’t quite pan out his way. At least conventional expectations about who’s the hero and who’s the villain are dispensed with: both Angier and Borden are fairly reprehensible men not above using the women who love them – Julia, Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) and Sarah (Rebecca Hall) – as unwilling pawns in their private spat. Both Angier and Borden make enormous sacrifices in their mutual self-destruction pact and both lose the love of two women. In their duel, Angier and Borden reveal themselves as hollow and amoral. The film’s moral centre resides in Cutter who must decide between being loyal to Angier or to Borden: whichever he chooses is important for the sake of Borden’s child Jess who could end up in a poor-house for orphans if he chooses unwisely.

The acting from the two male leads is solid and the supporting cast acquit themselves well. The characters though are so sketchy in a plot with so many complications and twists that perhaps it’s too much to expect the actors to devote time to drawing out some positive traits that could endear their characters to the audience. In this respect, Caine probably comes closest to making a real human being out of his character.

The film pays much attention to historical detail and captures something of the spirit of the late 1800s with its atmosphere of rivalry on several levels: during this period, the US, Germany and other nations were competing with the British Empire for colonies, trade opportunities, building railways and developing industries; and Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were locked in a professional rivalry, though it wasn’t as violent as the film suggests. At the time the film is set – it must have been some time about 1899 or after as Angier visits Tesla in Colorado Springs where Tesla moved in 1899 – there were several inventors around the world engaged in building aeroplanes and trying to make the first controlled flight in a heavier-than-air vehicle. There is another rivalry alluded to in the film, and that is one of class: Borden represents the working class, willing to get his hands dirty, adventurous and on the look-out for new ideas; Angier represents the upper class who sees no reason to change and adapt to a new world. It is inevitable that these men, originally friends, should clash; their duel is that of the old established order with a particular set of values being challenged by a new order and new set of values. Both the old and new orders have their attractions but also their faults and at the centre of both, ethics can be lacking. The job for the audience is to decide which side they’re on and what values they should bring to whatever claims their loyalty.

There is yet another rivalry at work and that is the rivalry between magic, deception and secrecy on the one hand, and science, technology and openness on the other, and the film makes much of the fact that science and technology to people untutored in their principles, logic and workings can appear as magic; at the same time, magic is explained throughout the movie with logic.

As with other Christopher Nolan films I’ve seen, “The Prestige” substitutes a convoluted plot with many themes and plays and variations on the themes for rather flat characters lacking in feeling. Although the film is good-looking and reflects its setting quite faithfully, it tends to be of a piece with other Nolan films like “Inception” and the Dark Knight trilogy, and might even be seen as a test run for Bale and Caine for their roles in the Dark Knight films.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb: black satire on fetishisation of war and technology

Stanley Kubrick, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb” (1964)

Notable as the film that features British actor Peter Sellers in three very different roles, this black comedy is a satire on the Cold War that had developed between the United States and the Soviet Union in the late 1940s and which extended to the early 1990s when the Soviet Union fell, and the attitudes, culture and outlook associated with that period. In particular, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, in which countries refrain from nuclear war due to the fear of universal nuclear catastrophe resulting from detonation of an atomic bomb irrespective of who drops it first, is revealed as an inadequate response to a situation of deadlock which should be resolved by communication and diplomacy, both options being badly bungled by politicians on both sides. The film is outstanding for its cast of actors and their acting: Sellers has perhaps never been better before or since he made the film, and other actors like George C Scott, Slim Pickens and Sterling Hayden also distinguish themselves playing characters on the brink of mental derangement brought about by extreme fantasies and paranoia born from their military training and background.

The narrative divides into three connected strands: General Jack D Ripper (Hayden) is so hung up about the Commies contaminating America’s vitality – there is a clear theme of nuclear power being analogous to male sexuality, therefore paranoia reveals male sexual inadequacy – that he orders a sudden nuclear air strike on the USSR and four bombers take off to drop their loads far deep in Soviet territory. News of the order reaches the White House where President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) frantically tries to contact and convince his Soviet counterpart that the attack is a mistake. Muffley tells his War Secretary Turgidson (Scott) to storm the military base where Ripper and his second-in-charge Captain Mandrake (Sellers) are located; Mandrake tries to stop Ripper from ordering the nuclear attack but fails so he turns instead to figuring out the recall code that will stop the bombing. The base is stormed and Ripper’s men, believing they are being attacked by the Soviets, fight back. Ripper commits suicide and Mandrake finds the recall code and phones the White House.

In the meantime the President and his cabinet are shocked at news from the Soviet ambassador Alexei Sadeski (Peter Bull) that the USSR has built a doomsday machine after its politicians read a New York Times article proclaiming that the Americans had already made one. Muffley summons his scientific advisor Dr Strangelove (Sellers) who suggests that the ambassador’s statement is a ploy. Sadeski admits the doomsday machine’s secret was going to be revealed by the Soviet government in another week.

Three of the four US bombers are eventually persuaded to turn away but the fourth, headed by Major Kong (Pickens) heads for a ballistic missile complex in remote Soviet territory and in spite of various technological malfunctions in the plane – malfunctions deliberately installed so as to make the job of dropping bombs difficult and so enforcing caution on those who would use the bomb – Kong manages to get it going in a spectacular scene suggestive of sexual penetration and the adolescent schoolboy reaction to “getting it up”. On receiving the news that a nuclear bomb has been released, Muffley and his dejected cabinet begin discussing how they can protect the American population from the inevitable radiation fall-out once the US and the Soviets begin trading inter-continental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads in earnest. The weird Dr Strangelove, struggling with his atavistic Nazi tendencies, finally stands up and the feared doomsday machine is triggered as suggested by the film’s repeating coda to the tune of Vera Lynn’s famous World War II song “We’ll meet again’.

The various characters in the film draw their effectiveness from the real people who inform them: Strangelove is based on famous German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, physicist Edward Teller, futurist and strategist Herman Kahn, and mathematician John von Neumann; President Muffley is based in part on US politician Adlai Stevenson; and Mandrake is based on British airforce officers Sellers had known during World War II. Mandrake is played fairly straight though it is not difficult to see Sellers’s most famous role of Inspector Clouseau of Pink Panther notoriety in the character and Muffley is also quite a straight, non-comic character in spite of the hilarious lines he sometimes has to deliver. Bureaucracy and political ineptitude are targets for satire through these characters. The sinister Dr Strangelove is a metaphor for Nazi scientists and others who fled to the US from Germany while the latter country was descending into flames and hell in 1945, and whose loyalties to America might still be in doubt despite the passage of time. Strangelove worships science and technology and the capabilities and range of opportunities these offer; his character might be said also to satirise those who fetishise technologies of annihilation so much that they rejoice even in the alarming number of deaths the weapons are certain to cause.

Sexual innuendos abound in the characters’ names, the language they use and their actions (Strangelove’s behaviour at the end of the film being an example) and in much of the film’s visuals and the images employed, especially near the end. This suggests that the competition to build up armed forces and military weapons with no thought for their consequences is a puerile fantasy that can only end badly.

Cinematography is employed in ways that enhance the film’s claustrophobic paranoia: the bomber aircraft is cramped, the President’s war room looks bunker-like, sealed off from public scrutiny, the headquarters at Ripper’s military base is made bunker-like as well due to the attacks on it. The film’s climax and conclusion are dominated by scenes of the bomber flying to its definition, all flipping backwards and forwards among themselves, to create a feeling of growing tension as viewers become convinced that the bomb will be dropped in spite of the White House’s best efforts to stop it.

While the film has dated in nearly 50 years as of this time of writing, what with military technology having changed dramatically to the extent that aerial bombing has all but ceased, the point that reliance on technological balance between enemies is fragile at best and dangerously unstable at worst remains and that there is no technological substitute, however seductive, for openness, accountability and diplomacy.

 

 

The Dark Knight Rises: bloated film seizes on Western anxieties to deliver a politically conservative message that undermines idealism

Christopher Nolan, “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)

Eight years after the events of “The Dark Knight”, Gotham City enjoys peace thanks to the Dent Act, named after Gotham City Chief Attorney Harvey Dent, which has allowed Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) to bust the power of crime gangs and clean up the city’s corruption. He’s invited to a function at Wayne Manor on Harvey Dent Day and has a speech ready but at the last minute declines to read from the speech (because it is an admission that he and Gotham City have been living a lie which is that Dent died heroically and not as a fallen criminal). A US senator is kidnapped at the function so Gordon later leads a team of police that includes rookie cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to find him; Gordon goes into the city sewers but falls into the hands of arch-criminal Bane (Tom Hardy) who takes Gordon’s speech off him. Gordon manages to escape and is recovered by Blake and hospitalised.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has been living a reclusive life in Wayne Manor, allowing it and his company Wayne Enterprises to crumble since he invested in a clean energy project that was to harness fusion power but shut it down after learning the nuclear core could easily be converted into a bomb. Wayne comes to believe that one of his Board Directors, Daggett, has hired Bane to help mount a take-over of Wayne Enterprises. One of the other Board Directors, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) is put in charge of the energy project along with Board Chairman Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). He decides to return to Gotham City as Batman, at which news Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) walks out on him. While preparing to leave, Pennyworth tells Wayne that his old love Rachel had decided to leave him for Harvey Dent before she died.

Tracking down cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) who nicked his mother’s pearl necklace while in disguise as a maid at the Harvey Dent Act function, Wayne as Batman meets Bane who tells him he (Bane) has assumed leadership of the League of Shadows after the death of Ra’s al Ghul. Bane has just stolen the contents of the Applied Science Division of Wayne Enterprises through a heist on Gotham City’s bourse and proceeds to cripple Batman and put him away in Ra’s al Ghul’s prison. There, Wayne learns the story of a mercenary who fell in love with his warlord employer’s daughter and fathered a child with her. He’s thrown into the prison but is later discharged, not knowing that the daughter took his place instead. The daughter gave birth to the child and was later killed by the inmates; the child survives only because one prisoner protected it. The child is later able to escape the prison but its protector was attacked by the inmates. Wayne assumes the child is the young Bane.

Back at the GC ranch, Bane has tricked GC’s finest into an underground sewer trap labyrinth and taken over the city under the pretence of reclaiming it for the city inhabitants. The nuclear core of the energy project is turned into a time-bomb. Gordon goes underground and contacts Blake. Bane reveals the truth about Dent publicly by reading Gordon’s speech before TV cameras. The prisoners Gordon had put away under the Dent Act are released. Various prominent GC movers and shakers, among them the right-hand man of Daggett (Daggett having been killed earlier), are subjected to show trials and either killed or forced to walk across the thin ice of Gotham river.

After several months recuperating and retraining, Wayne escapes Ra’s al Ghul’s prison and returns to GC where he joins with Lucius Fox, Gordon, Blake and Kyle to reclaim GC and stop the time-bomb from detonating and destroying the city. As Batman, Wayne meets Bane again and the two fight: Batman nearly defeats Bane but is cut off by Miranda Tate who reveals herself as Talia al Ghul, the grand-daughter of Ra’s al Ghul who escaped the prison as the child; Bane is revealed as her protector. In the meantime, Gordon has cut off Tate’s remote control to the bomb. Kyle arrives in the nick of time to kill Bane while Batman sets off after Tate who is determined to take manual control of the bomb.

The film is more unified than its predecessor and less dependent on silly skits but still histrionic and heavy-handed in its treatment of its themes. Terrorism as a topic is treated rather simplistically though this is due to the movie format: Daggett, representing big business, works together with the rogue Bane, a catch-all figure for shadowy charismatic terrorists and mercenaries, to subvert the GC elite but Bane through superior cunning subverts Daggett’s ambitions and becomes GC’s warlord. He seizes on the cultural Zeitgeist with its loathing for political corruption and its socialite sycophancy and institutes a Reign of Terror to satisfy the hoi polloi’s desire for vengeance on its leaders. On a more personal level, Wayne learns how to properly use his wealth to benefit the people of GC and discovers physical and existential freedom and redemption; his burden of championing the weak and vulnerable passes onto Blake whose real first name is revealed to be … ha! Robin.

There are little connections with Nolan’s previous flick “Inception”: a cafe scene earlier in “The Dark Knight Rises” repeats at the end of the film in such a way that it can be interpreted as a dream and there is a message about breaking out of a rut and striking out on one’s own. The myth about Harvey Dent which Batman and Gordon had colluded on in the belief that GC would be unable to cope with the idea of Dent as a criminal, and blown by Bane, is accepted as false by GC citizens without too much ado or the chaos and despair that Gordon had feared would happen. Whether the GC people can kill off a myth only by replacing it with a new myth – which might say something “fundamental” about human societies (that no society can function without believing in lies: a Straussian philosophical influence is felt here) – depends on how viewers interpret the second cafe scene.

For guys as careful as Nolan and his co-screenwriter brother Jonathan are in constructing narrative architectures,  they can’t hope to cover everything so it’s inevitable that incongruities should occur: how could Wayne not realise that Tate is Talia al Ghul and how did she manage to inveigle herself and Bane into the GC elite? how is it that Wayne survives having his back put out? why does Bane spare his life? what happens to Jonathan Crane / Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) who pops up as Bane’s judge and jury of the GC elite? The ending is too pat and tidy with GC finally taking its place among squeaky-clean utopias, Gordon being redeemed by his heroic derring-do in helping to defuse the bomb and Blake finding his true role in life as defender of helpless and vulnerable city orphans.

Like other bloated Hollywood block-busters, “The Dark Knight Rises” suffers from too many pyrotechnics, stock film tropes like a spectacular opening sequence in which Bane and his myrmidons kidnap the Russian inventor of the project nuclear core, unbearably melodramatic orchestral music, and an essentially conservative message about how billionaires really are good guys at heart and how individuals of different classes and backgrounds can band together to defeat a common enemy and save their city after the Federal government has abandoned it. The Nolan brothers enlist the Occupy message and people’s outrage against crooked banksters and mafia banks to suggest these can be corrupted and made to serve selfish individual agendas that lead to mob rule and the kind of terror that once existed in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and in China during the Cultural Revolution (and even in parts of the southern and western United States from 1880 to the 1960s with lynchings of mostly black people, though some white people and a Jew were also lynched); some reviewers will obviously take that as a cynical move on the brothers’ part.

It is unfortunately true that idealism can be subverted by forceful and charismatic individuals whose real motives are sinister. Especially if outrage at institutions and networks that perpetuate class hierarchies can be directed against particular individuals who are then demonised and forced to suffer punishment for the crimes of many; this of course means that the institutions themselves never undergo re-examination and can survive intact with new leaders. Messengers are shot but the message itself is lost in the changeover from old leaders to new leaders. Structures and the attitudes and values associated with them and which maintain them stay in place to corrupt a new generation of leaders. The Batman trilogy’s outlook is cynical about the prospect for social improvement and change, and the message is: don’t question the system / if it ain’t broke, why reinvent the wheel?

The film is loosely based on a three-story series that began with “Knightfall” and continued through “Knightquest” and KnightsEnd”, released by DC Comics in the early 1990s. References to the series and to “Knightfall” particularly in the film include scenes in the sewers where initially Bane has his hideout and an early line about crocodiles living there also (a reference to Batman villain Killer Croc), Bane breaking Batman’s back and Bane’s release of the GC prisoners. “Knightfall” has a theme about Batman realising that he can’t fight underground crime on his own and needs the help of others such as Nightwing, the Huntress and Oracle and her Birds of Prey to clean up corruption wherever it occurs; this idea is present also in “The Dark Knight Rises”. Unfortunately this third and final installment in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is no great advance on the mythos of the vigilante masked crusader begun by Bob Kane during the Depression years some eighty years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

Cyberpunk trio of shorts proves substance still triumphs over style

Marcio E Gonçalves, “Rendering Lisa” (2010)

Mehmet Can Koçak, “Perspective” (2011)

Jesus Orellana, “Rosa” (2011)

A homage to cyberpunk sci-fi writers William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson, “Rendering Lisa” is a short home-made film about the pitfalls of entering virtual reality. Some time before the events of “Rendering Lisa”, a young man steals money from an eco-terrorist group and explodes a bomb in a park, killing himself and his girlfriend Lisa. The young man’s surviving brother Michael (Kenny Leu) is strong-armed by eco-terrorist group member Harry (Shahaub Roudbari) into hacking into a computer program that contains the details of the bank account where the brother put the money. Problem is, once Michael’s in the program, he must speak to an avatar to access the account details and the avatar turns out to be Lisa (Jennifer Vo Le) who only wants to talk about the brother and a past romance the real Lisa had with Michael. After several attempts, Michael finally convinces Lisa to hand over details of the account and the relationship they had looks to be reviving until something unexpected happens …

It’s a pithy little short in which Michael realises the thin line between reality and virtuality is wafer-thin indeed, and at the end of the film he’s tempted to revive that lost romance with “Lisa” in spite of all that’s happened. Roudbari and Leu over-act their parts but as they’re not professional actors (though Leu looks like Cantopop romeo material), their histrionic efforts can be forgiven. The action is crisp and fast and editing is very well done. The stuttering electronic music is annoying and Gonçalves could have done without it entirely. The opening and closing credits are wonderfully done by Gonçalves and perhaps if he had more money, he could have added more special effects to make his virtual world look more realistic and colourful than the real world, so much so that Kenny could have been tempted to stay there with Lisa and never return to Harry.

“Perspective” is a clever Turkish cyberpunk short by Koçak who stars as the nameless hobo in a futuristic dystopian city. He pays money to a pimp who hands him some software and then enters a derelict building and goes up to an empty room where he finds a computer keyboard. He plugs the software into the keyboard, jacks into it by plugging a wire into a portal in his head (in the manner of the hero of William Gibson’s novel “Neuromancer”) and using his retinas as a computer screen, pursues a red-haired girl in the software. He is interrupted by an intruder who turns out to be a mirror image of himself. Or is the stranger really an image? Horrified, Koçak ‘s character challenges the avatar to a duel with predictably disastrous results.

This is a highly intriguing film with a well developed concept and everything in the short working together: the film’s ambience is grimy and oppressive in a way reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and the sharp-edged music, used sparingly, suits the dark tone of the short. The use of hand-held camera conveys claustrophobia and comes into its own when the hobo meets his double and there’s a delicious twist when he reaches out to touch what he expects should be a mirror. The animation is cleverly inserted into the short and viewers get a real sense of first-person perspective with the clever use of the viewing screen as the hobo’s eyes which double as the computer screen.

Not quite so clever though versatile nevertheless is Orellana’s “Rosa”, set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia in which a female android fights for survival against two other androids in an endless post-industrial labyrinth. Although the animation is beautiful and Gothic in appearance and ambience, the plot features too much superhero fighting, jumping and other unbelievable hi-jinx, and no actual story is told. We never find out why the male android and a second female android, in appearance the clone of the protagonist, are so hostile towards her or why the original female bleeds blood that turns into roses when the other female android doesn’t have the same effect on her surroundings when bloodied. Pity really because Orellana did everything himself and the details of the building’s backgrounds and the near-religious associations and nostalgia they evoke are stunning and Romantic: “Rosa” is a real work of love as well as labour on Orellana’s part.

I hazard that Orellana originally wanted to make something different from what’s actually realised but his bosses at Hollywood insisted on the short being “accessible” to the lowest common couch-potato public denominator so that meant having to include a lot of tiresome martial arts faffing and flailing about. The short might have worked better if the androids had fought, then faced a common enemy so they reconcile their differences to defeat the foe, and maybe as they’re deciding whether to live and work together or resume their petty grievances, the film cuts out.

Best of the trio is “Perspective” for its clever story with a twist done on a limited budget.

Family Plot: skilfully made comedy thriller that deconstructs familiar Hitchcock motifs and themes for laughs

Alfred Hitchcock, “Family Plot” (1976)

Considering that the famous British director was in bad health when he made this film, I find “Family Plot” to be a light-hearted and entertaining comedy thriller about two con-artist couples engaged in deception of one form or another – and trying to outwit each other. An elderly lady (Cathleen Nesbitt), remorseful over the way she treated her unmarried sister and the sister’s baby son years ago, consults phony psychic Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris) to find out what happened to the nephew. Blanche scents that a huge sum of money may be in the balance and she and her cab-driver boyfriend George Lumley (Bruce Dern) try to figure out a way to get it; they find themselves on the trail of one Edward Shoebridge who may or may not be dead. They find out during the course of the film that he certainly is NOT dead; what takes them most of the film’s running time to discover is that Shoebridge is also Arthur Adamson (William Devane), a jeweller who is also a thief, a kidnapper and extortionist, and who with his girlfriend Fran (Karen Black) and partner-in-crime Joe Maloney (Ed Lauter) is trying to shake off Blanche and George who are determined to investigate exactly what happened to Shoebridge. Hilariously, Shoebridge / Adamson turns out to be the nephew of the elderly lady.

The film is very much character-driven though the casting seems rather uneven: Harris and Dern as the amateur detectives totally out of their depth in a danger-filled investigation are hilarious (though Harris looks old-fashioned in her Doris Day get-up and is required to overdo the slapstick) while Black and Devane seem miscast and mismatched as partners in both crime and romance. Black is too nice to be a villainous vixen and Devane, very 1970s clean-cut and all flashing white teeth, looks a caricatured oleaginous and smarmy snake-oil dealer for a role that calls for him to be amoral and brutal (his back-story among other things includes his having locked his parents up in their bedroom and then burning the house down). Everything revolves around these couples so it’s just as well that in spite of their clean-cut looks, the actors acquit themselves adequately to well in a vehicle that combines light comedy and slapstick with quite dark and sinister themes in a highly improbable plot. For all his stereotyped moustachioed look, Devane pulls off a difficult role of appearing suave and sophisticated while being really malevolent without a redeeming bone in his body.

Admittedly the film looks dated – it looks more late 1960s than late 1970s in spite of the fashions the actors wear – due to the filming techniques used and the curious mix of dramatic orchestral music that was typical of 1960s Hollywood flicks and the harpsichord-toned soundtrack of the sort that became popular in the 1970s. (The music is the work of the famous Hollywood music composer John Williams.) The pace is slow to begin with but after the first half-hour, it starts to move more briskly and becomes enjoyable. Hitch is not averse to throwing in scenes that might remind viewers of “Vertigo”, “North by Northwest” and “To Catch a Thief”: for heaven’s sake there’s even a silly and over-long runaway car scene reminiscent of the car chases of “North …” and ” To Catch a Thief”. Indeed, Hitch seems keen on deconstructing beloved motifs of his: the cool blonde lady in the first 20 minutes is really only wearing a wig; Blanche and George emerge from their wrecked car looking clean and tidy; the idea of opposed twins, represented this time by the scheming couples, bumbling amateurs pitted against intelligent professionals, is played for laughs; and the rocky path to romance, usually strewn with danger, death and the odd psycho killer, is more wacky than spine-chilling.

Hitch knew that he’d been left behind by a new generation of film directors, represented by Martin Scorsese and Stephen Spielberg, and that he himself didn’t have much time left in the world so it’s rather fitting that he revisits familiar themes, plot ideas and motifs in a light-hearted deconstructive way that allows him to say goodbye to over fifty years of directing films. “Family Plot” may not rank among his best films but it is competent in execution and for all its aged looks and the miscasting, it has a zest that’s a bit slow to get going … but once it does, it makes the film fun to watch.