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Saturday, 27 October 2012


A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH





"This is the story of two worlds, the one we know and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war", adding "Any resemblance to any other world known or unknown is purely coincidental". 


This is perhaps my favourite movie of all time. It was made by the British production team of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger  in 1946 and is arguably one of their most stylish and sophisticated achievements, and incidentally, Powell's own personal favourite.  This is part fantasy, part romance, part surrealist courtroom drama. 

David Niven plays Peter Carter, a British Royal Air Force pilot trying to fly a badly damaged Lancaster bomber home after a mission over Germany. He has his crew bail out safely, realising that it is the end for him as there in no parachute left for himself. During his last moments alive he decides to talk to anyone out there who might be at the other end of the radio, and finds to June, a young American woman working for the USAAF. They are immediately attracted to each other. 
Peter jumps from his plane rather than burn to death and wakes up in the surf. We soon learn  from Conductor 71, played by the magnificent Marius Goring who quite simply steals the movie, that Peter should have died at this point. Conductor 71 is the guide sent to escort him to the 'Other World'. The problem is that the conductor missed him in the thick fog over the English channel. 

By the time the Conductor catches up with him 20 hours later, Peter and June have met and fallen in love. Conductor 71 stops time to spell out he predicament to Peter and urge him to accept his death and accompany him to the 'Other World '. However, Peter demands that the whole situation be appealed  as his life hangs in the balance through no fault of his own. He appears before a celestial court to plea for a second chance at life, with the always excellent Raymond Massey, an English-loathing American revolutionary, as the prosecuting council.

The cinematography by Jack Cardiff is truly stunning. Particularly impressive is the inspired contrast from the monochromatic textures given to the scenes played in heaven, and the coloured ones when the scenes come back to earth ( completely reversing the contrast of colour and black & white in 'The Wizard of Oz'.)  The black and white sequence that involves the long staircase to 'the other world' is often regarded as landmark in movie production.The cast, led by the magnificent David Niven, provide a tour-de-force in acting.

In an interesting side-note - Powell & Pressburger consciously never referred to "the other world" as heaven, as they felt that was too restrictive and limiting. The explicit statement at the beginning of the film ( & at the top of this page) only adds to the ambiguity of whether the other world portrayed is part of the world we know or part of Peter's hallucinations.
Ironically, when the film was distributed in the USA was renamed 'Stairway to Heaven' .The distributor believed that American audiences would not want to see a film with the word "Death" in the title, especially just after World War II. As a consequence, the ambiguity that Powell & Pressburger wanted for the destination of life after death was lost.

The movie is a classic of British cinema - a true gem. Below is the whole film split into 2 segments - if you have the time, enjoy this marvellous Fantasy film.




Part one







Part two

Sunday, 21 October 2012



LA JETEE




The French short movie that inspired Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, Chris Marker's La jetée is a watershed of science-fiction film making, a 28-minute masterpiece told almost entirely in still frames. 

"The victors stood guard over an empire of rats."

Set in the near future, the Earth has barely survived an all encompassing nuclear holocaust, which has driven the remnants of humanity underground. The division between victor and vanquished is rather meaningless under these circumstances, yet there are those who subjugate others. With minimal resources, scientists entombed beneath the ruins of Paris are searching for salvation through the single avenue left open - Time. 

"His is the story of a man, marked by an image from his childhood. The violent scene that upsets him, and whose meaning he was to grasp only years later, happened on the main jetty at Orly, the Paris airport, sometime before the outbreak of World War III." 


The film goes on to tell the story of an unnamed man whose vivid childhood recollections of witnessing an unknown man die on an airport jetty and finding himself gazing into the entrancing face of a young woman, make him the perfect guinea pig for an experiment in time travel. 


"He was frightened. He had heard about the Head Experimenter. He was prepared to meet Dr. Frankenstein, or the Mad Scientist. Instead, he met a reasonable man who explained calmly that the human race was doomed. Space was off-limits. The only hope for survival lay in Time. A loophole in Time, and then maybe it would be possible to reach food, medicine, sources of energy."


After a lengthy and nightmarish period of conditioning at he hands of his subjugators, he is sent into the past, where he falls in love with the woman whom he once saw on the Jetty.
 At the experiment's successful conclusion After his successful passages to the past, the experimenters attempt to send him into the far future. In a brief meeting with the technologically advanced people of the future, he is given a power unit sufficient to regenerate his own destroyed society.


"Sometime after his return, he was transferred to another part of the camp. He knew that his jailers would not spare him. He had been a tool in their hands, his childhood image had been used as bait to condition him, he had lived up to their expectations, he had played his part. Now he only waited to be liquidated with, somewhere inside him, the memory of a twice-lived fragment of time."


Upon his return, with his mission accomplished, he discerns that he is to be executed by his jailers. He is visited by an advanced race, who offer him the opportunity to journey into their future world, but he instead requests that they send him permanently into the past, where he can remain with the woman of his dreams. He is returned and does find her, on the jetty at the airport. However, as he rushes to her, he notices an agent of his jailers who has followed him and realises the agent is about to kill him.


"Once again the main jetty at Orly, in the middle of this warm pre-war Sunday afternoon where he could not stay, he though in a confused way that the child he had been was due to be there too, watching the planes."


 In his final moments, he comes to understand that the incident which he witnessed as a child, which has tormented him for his whole life, was his own death.



Le Jetee - the full movie






The first time I saw this movie it was hidden away on some obscure cable channel. I was in my mid 20’s and it made an ineradicable impression which has never left. In fact it would be safe to say that La Jetee has become something of an obsession, a piece of art that I find myself returning to an a regular basis. It never fails to move me in its powerful depiction of the end of the world, human love and memory. 
In the original, the French narration adds to the poetic subtlety and drama. The version on here is the best quality available online, but with English narration. Hopefully, the original French version with English subtitles will be made available, as it seems to add a little more to the overall ambiance and feel of the movie. It certainly doesn't mean that the English translation for this version spoils the experience in any way.



I have heard it mentioned more than once that this film would be best described as avante-gard in nature. To me that description is disingenuous because it is actually a foremost example of how science fiction and drama can be constructed with style and fine distinctions, instead of a reliance on special effects.


This, then, is the La Jetée, a masterpiece of simple visual art. If you've never seen this movie, I implore you to watch the 2 parts above which form together to produce this classic of science fiction.





Friday, 19 October 2012

THE TWILIGHT ZONE


Without doubt, a classic of a television series ran from 1959 to 1964. It has been much copied and while some have come close, never equaled in it's use of  sci-fi/fantasy fables which examine all our deep seated ( and in some cases, not so deep seated) desires, fears, prides and bigotries.


The Twilight Zone regularly featured a who's who of established and soon to be established character actors such William Shatner, Dennis Hopper, Carol Burnett, James Coburn, Burgess Meredith and Buster Keaton.

The series was re-made in the latte 1980's to mixed results and reviews, as was the much vaunted movie adaptation in 1983 produced by Steven Spielberg and John Landis.  But it's the inventive and often daring original series that originally blew my mind and in many respects still does today.

So here, in no particular order, are my top 5 episodes of this classic television series



1) Nightmare at 20,000 feet. (Season 5)



 Ok, so i fibbed a little - this my all time number one favourite TZ episode….

It features a terrific performance from William Shatner ( who just MAY pop up in the odd future blog or two). He plays a man who has just been released from a mental hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown and is flying home with his wife. Things begin normally enough on the flight but he but soon discovers that there’s some thing on the wing of the plane, and it seems to be trying to bring the flight down!. A beautifully played episode shows how fragile sanity can be, especially in those moments when you're trying to convince everybody that you're in the right and instead they think you're going coo coo ( not a strict psychological term I may add….).



2) Time enough at last. (Season 1)





Henry Bemis has just one wish in life, to spend his time reading, but in a world ( along with his wide and employer) that constantly demands his attention and which doesn't understand his love for reading, he can never seem to find the time.  Safely secured in a bank vault, Bemis is protected from a devastating nuclear blast that appears to annihilate the human race. Now Bemis has all the time he needs to read anything and everything
This story is an absolute classic personification of loneliness and heartbreak with another stand-out leading performance, this time from that great character actor,  Burgess Meredith). A twist near the ending of this episode means that you have no choice in watching  it for yourself.



3) Nick of Time. (Season 2)







This is the 2nd second episode to feature a pre-Star Trek William Shatner. This time he appears as one half of a newly-wed couple, who are on their way by car  to the city of New York. Their car breaks down, and while waiting at a local diner, they find a small fortune telling device on their table that will bestow predictions for a penny. This being the Twilight Zone, the predictions come true, and the couple  must battle with the temptations of knowing the future, and how that knowledge can impact on their own future choices . The two eventually leave, defying the will of the fortune teller, while another couple takes their place, and seemingly at its will until the end of time.
Its a another excellent story dealing with the notion of freewill, obsession and our never ending quest for answers about the meaning of life. (the answer to which is 42, but more about that in a future blog!).




4) It's a good life. (Season 3)







A monster has laid siege to a small town, cutting it off from the outside world. Residents are so petrified that they do nothing but feign happiness in an attempt to please the monster, who can read their every thought and emotion. If the monster is displeased, he grotesquely disfigures the residents or sends them into the cornfield, where their fate is unclear….but terrible. 
Soon we meet this monster, who turns out to be he is a blue-eyed, angelic looking young boy called Anthony. On a personal level, this episode is a close to a horror story that TZ ever produced. A near perfect example in how to scare a viewer with things simply left unseen, or unsaid. We never learn what is in the terrifying cornfield or what exactly the boy Anthony has done to make the entire population of the town fearful of his mere presence. Rather, it’s the look of horror on the faces of the townspeople at the prospect of someone upsetting Anthony that tells the entire story. A classic analogy of the power that real life figures of authority can induce.




5) A stop at Willoughby. (Season 1)




Gart Williams, a 38 year old businessman, is distressed by his job pressured by his wife. In short, he is on the edge of complete despair.. His only time of calm takes place on his daily train ride home, where he wakes up one day with the carriage transformed into one from the 1800s, pulled up at Willoughby. This is not a town with which he's familiar. It's certainly not a stop on his commuter trip from hell to hell each day. But one look out the window mesmerises him, softens him, appeals to him. A band concert is playing in the town oval. People are enjoying leisurely strolls. Boys are carrying fishing poles on the way to the local pond. It's idyllic. 
As things progressively worsen at home and at work, his stops become longer, tempting him to step off the train and into a more peaceful era. Eventually after having a meltdown at the office and irreconcilable differences with his wife, he takes the final step, and climbs out of the train at Willoughby, dropping his briefcase and being embraced by the inhabitants. The scene then cuts to a train conductor standing over his body on the side of the rails, saying that he yelled something about Willoughby before jumping from the cart. With that, his body is loaded into a stretcher, and taken to Willoughby & Son Funeral Home.
As in the best of the TZ episodes, it both taps into all our dreams from time to time of a more idyllic place to live, while also providing us a moment of revelation in the end with a dash of ambiguity that some might call tragic while others might see it as hopeful.




EPILOGUE


The Twilight Zone" brought a complexity and maturity to television that had never existed before and probably hasn't been seen since. The stories were nearly always ironic, inventive, and fascinating, and they often came with a moral lesson without ever preaching to the audience.The writers, Rod Sterling, Beaumont, and Matheson, were the best of their ( and many other) era.