Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Invaders from Mars

Technically, I didn't really watch this film, engaged as I was having my hair dyed at Salon de Kim. But scenes from this film have stuck with me as much as those from my latest cinema outing, I have loved you for so long. So how does a 1953 alien invader film have this sort of impact?

One stormy night, young David sees a flying saucer land in the sandpits near his home. His scientist father goes to investigate and disappears, returning later, not quite the loving dad he once was: cold, rigid and hostile, with a mysterious mark on the back of his neck. David comes to realise that his dad isn't the only one acting strangely... Aliens from Mars are taking over the bodies of the town folk, under the control of a mysterious tentacled head - a silent being in a glass dome, with eyes that unceasingly roll and twitch. When appearances can't be trusted, who can you turn to for help? David joins up with a sexy lady doctor and a brilliant local scientist and the trio soon encounter the aliens from the sandpit, in a network of tunnels running under the peaceful town.

Invaders from Mars belongs to a particular genre of films that deals with infiltration in an extremely paranoid way (see It came from outer space 1953; Invasion of the body snatchers 1956; The brain eaters 1958). This genre is often said to reflect social anxiety about Communism in the Macarthy era. Mankind is threatened, not by external forces, but by subversion of society from within. Typically set in small town America, it is the next door neighbour, the little girl down the road and the friendly policeman that pose the threat. The alien infiltrators are awkward and robotic, raising questions about the difference between a real human and an impostor: what quality sets us apart? In these films there is not always the reassurance that authority figures (government, military) will fight and triumph on the side of humanity. (Check out Bob Mitchell's essay for discussion of 1950s American science fiction films and the Cold War)

There are a number of things that make this film so memorable. Firstly, having a child as a main character heightens the sense of powerlessness. Authority figures become sinister. There's that horrible nightmarish desperation to to tell people something urgent - people who simply will not listen to you. And when the enemy is friend and family, who can you trust? Sinisterly, the aliens are in some way passive, relying on their human agents to betray others and lead them to their doom. The ending is particularly surprising: David wakes up (yay! it was just a dream!), then you hear the sound of a space ship landing (uh-oh!). Was it all a dream? a premonition? or a recurring nightmare from which we can never escape? (Interestingly, the European release re-filmed key scenes to give it an oh-it-was-just-a-dream happy ending.)

Director William Cameron Menzies was an Oscar winning art director (Gone with the wind and The thief of Bagdad for instance) and the sets here are remarkable. The outdoor scenes look extremely fake - almost hyper real - with great use of background mattes. (Apparently the colours are remarkably garish - but I'm sure I saw this in black and white. Given that I no longer notice what language a film is in I think we'll just gloss over this bit.) The path that climbs out through the bare trees to the sand dunes is reminiscent of the German Expressionism of The cabinet of Doctor Caligari. There is some pretty freaky spatial distortion going on here. Scientific equipment towers, both impressively large and menacingly efficient. The police station appears oversized, furniture looms and the prison cell dwarfs young David. These forced perspectives are so heightened as to emphasise just how fragile and powerless tiny David is in an adult world in crisis. (Though the evidence is unclear, it has been suggested that the movie was originally planned to be filmed in 3D, and so the sets were constructed accordingly. Whatever the intention, the effect is disconcerting.)

Super spooky is the music - lots of choral 'ah ah ah's quavering up and down the scale. It's extremely loud too and its discordancy is disturbing. This is just one of the many things that contribute to the film's sense of dislocation. Yes, the film is B grade. Production values are low and even the most sophisticated techniques of the time are bound to appear hokey to current audiences. This campness can be appealing in itself, but I believe you need to show respect and watch these films in the spirit in which they were made (which makes me a bit of a killjoy at Cinematheque). In this case the low budget features only add to the oddness of the film. Sure you can see the zips on the alien costumes but consider these images: a hilltop of sinking sand in which people disappear, telltale marks of alien infiltration on the back of victim's necks, oversized furniture in the police station, a silent alien leader with restless eyes, bewildering catacombs beneath the town, friends you can no longer trust.

This is a strange, haunting film. At one level all B grade 50's schlock - and at another, an eerily off centre, unnervingly surreal experience.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Congratulations and be prosperous!

Kung hei fat choy! It's the first day of Chinese New Year! I'm hoping that there will be a dumpling outing later in the week. I am also considering alerting Kim to the tradition that considers it bad luck to clean the house during the New Year. I wouldn't want to vacuum up all the good luck. But, sadly, in my house it is also Wo de you tiao zao! Which is bad Cantonese for 'my cat has fleas'. Official flea sightings stand at two but I am suffering from imaginary fleas, which make one just as fidgety. We also seem to cursed with a plague of caterpillars, from tiny little specks with an outrageous appetite, to fat green ones and the skinny brown ones that masquerade as twigs. They all share a taste for the sprightly young growth of the plants in our garden. There was also the Unexplained Death of a Tomato Plant, that saw the brightest and best of the vegie patch cut down in its prime. The plant was mysteriously flattened, just like a spooky alien crop circle! Apparently the origins of the Chinese New Year spring from just such a circumstance. From the bible of stuff comes this:

According to tales and legends, the beginning of Chinese New Year started with the fight against a mythical beast called the Nian or "Year" in Chinese. Nian would come on the first day of New Year to devour livestock, crops, and even villagers, especially children. To protect themselves, the villagers would put food in front of their doors at the beginning of every year. It was believed that after the Nian ate the food they prepared, it wouldn't attack any more people. One time, people saw that the Nian was scared away by a little child wearing red. The villagers then understood that the Nian was afraid of the colour red. Hence, every time when the New Year was about to come, the villagers would hang red lanterns and red spring scrolls on windows and doors. People also used firecrackers to frighten away the Nian. From then on, the Nian never came to the village again.

So all we need is some firecracker action! I love Chinese New Year. Love the dragon, though I'm always too shy to touch it for luck. Love the lion eating bundles of lettuce. Love the noise of the crackers and the red banners with auspicious characters in gold. Love the red envelopes. Love that the Chinatown celebration here is filled with stalls of tax agents. Love any festival with such a focus on food. And this year is my year! I am an Ox, a symbol of quiet strength and kindness (and modesty).

I have loved you for so long, pt 2

It is disconcerting to wipe the tears from your eyes and leave the darkened cinema, to find yourself in the 30 degree sunshine of a summer afternoon. Like finding your sea legs don't quite support you on land. So when Penny, my film companion, commented on how odd it had been to hear a character speaking English in a French film, the most I could manage was a vague 'Mmm, yeah...' It was only when I got home that I thought about it. There was a scene in English? How did I miss that? In the context it should have been jarring and dislocating, showing the isolation of the character from those around her. But, until a few hours ago, I would have sworn no such thing ever happened.

So, just to show I was paying attention I will tell you something else about the film: Claudel begins most scenes in the middle of a scene. Pretty much every single one. So you join characters at the wine and cigarette point of an evening spent together, at the closing stage of an interview, at the time when the dishes are ready to be put away after washing, at the vein popping stage of an argument. How's that for economy and sparseness in storytelling? And I was paying attention.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

I have loved you for so long

My first trip to The Cinema, to see I have loved you for so long. A beautiful, delicate debut by Phillipe Claudel.

We begin with Juliette, without makeup, dressed in grey, chain smoking in the impersonal surrounds of an airport. She is met by her much younger sister Lea, bright, generous and lively. This is a reunion after 15 years apart, years that Juliette spent in jail, for a crime so horrific nobody can bring themselves to mention it. I'm reluctant to reveal too much of the plot, as the film is crafted around quiet revelations - that could read like melodrama if stated baldly. Claudel manages the threads in his story with great dexterity and economy. So much of it is about watching, quietly observing the interactions between Juliette and the other characters. It is the small details that reveal so much: the putting out of a cigarette, making a bed, reading to a child. Says Claudel, of his approach to film: “it’s important to learn over again waiting, patience and even seeing.” Elsa Zylberstein as Lea is impressive. The nervous relationship between the two sisters is entrancing. But it is the breathtaking performance of Kristen Scott Thomas, as Juliette, that will have you spellbound. This is truly a magnificent performance of a complicated character. A quiet and humane film.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The mysterious affair of the rotten actress

Agatha Christie in the '50s
When things get a bit trying the only thing to do is re-read an old favourite, preferably in the bath. So given that I’ve been unwell this week and today I almost poisoned one of the cats (Lyle, he’s ok, just feeling a bit sorry for himself. And apparently my typing is disturbing his sleep because I just got A Look), with things not being too rosy what I needed was a dose of some of my favourites: Agatha Christie or Georgette Heyer. I must have been pretty sick because I didn’t even feel like reading. So I settled myself on the sofa with a rug, a cup of tea and some fruit toast, and Lyle and I snuggled down to watch one of my latest library finds: a Miss Marple dvd from a 1980s television series. A series I had never seen before! My childhood television was pretty much confined to British series. My entire world view was based on episodes of All creatures great and small. I grew up dreaming of milking cows, walking on the village green and gathering tussie mussies. How come I don’t remember this series?

Now I must say that Agatha has a firm place in my heart. I spent most every weekend at my grandparents, sitting in their jacaranda tree, reading my nana’s Christie collection while my grandad brought me cups of tea and shortbread (with 'extra rations' for my ‘brother in the army’ – is it any wonder I feel I’m still living in the 40s?). So I have extremely FIRM VIEWS on how these books should be portrayed on screen. As far as Miss Marple goes, things so far have been disastrous.

Margaret Rutherford. Looks like a horse. Wouldn’t be surprised if she smoked a pipe. Christie tells us in every second paragraph that Miss M is 'fluffy'. Miss Rutherford is as fluffy as a Rottweiler.

Geraldine McEwan. Waspish. Really, she’s such a bitch. But worse – they COMPLETELY CHANGED THE STORIES. Now this series has been much lauded and yes, the frocks are lovely, but the changes! It’s a travesty! And we’re not just talking little changes. We are talking the guy who dunnit is now the lesbian couple who dunnit. Apart from the fact that this is just WRONG dear Agatha never did lesbians. Yes, there are ladies who lived together. This is an accurate depiction of an historical situation. These are women of a certain age. They would have lived through the First World War. Now a fair number of men were killed in this war. There was a man shortage! (You can read about this in …) For many women, the future was grim. Work choices were limited. Spinsterhood loomed. The only opportunity to gain some independence from family was to pool resources with a similarly situated friend and set up house together. In any case, one of Christie’s endearing qualities is her complete confusion about such things. You can see it in her later books of the 60s when she simply doesn’t know what to make of long-haired boys in bohemian dress. ‘Peacocks’ she calls them. The mistrust is evident. You can be sure that these characters will be bad uns. You can almost hear her sniffing ‘drugs!’ as she describes these suspiciously effeminate youths. This series is a crime.

So now I have Joan Hickson. Christie once saw her on the stage and declared her to BE Miss Marple. She’s not bad at the fluffy but she tends to overplay the whole thing and winds up looking a bit fey. There are lots of shots of her looking off into space (ah, we say, she is THINKING). This actually makes her seem a touch psychotic. Apart from a mad main character, the series is plagued by woeful production values. The whole thing is a bit stagy and it all looks like the 1980s. I got all pedantic looking at the clothes and hairstyles. (And where were the ration books?) To top it off, the music is hilarious. Elizabethan lute music for scenes in the old ancestral home, crashing organ music for the business man. It put me in mind of the music from Psycho.

So. Series abandoned. Discovered that what I really needed to do when I was feeling sick was have a rant.