Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Friday Club (12): Bad Beginnings

Before we end in dogma, I'd like us to begin in heresy--or at least outrage--which may be the virtue inside heresies. As bad as a beginning may be, we should consider it generously--with caution if you like, even fear, but without malice. Because--when I'm being very brave--I know one must "test his mettle / In a crooked ol' world"--even though I also know that one can become reconciled with heresy, forgive it its mess and smoke, and gain strength along the way, as tenuous as that strength may be.

So in this spirit of outrage tempered by amity--and I know that sounds pretty limp, but (at least for watching movies) it'll do--let's spend a week with dubious origins, and lay our hands on the palpitating machine that drives us forward into the past.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Oh, Stanley. You (re-)tell a simple tale: The first step toward humanity is murder. In the opening section of 2001, "The Dawn of Man," Kubrick pastes fab fur on lithe dancers and lets them Raise Cain--with the help of a big square open piece of black, like an idiot robot's mouth opening, inexplicably--but relentlessly--hungry. And as the howling Lucys of the film masticate prehistoric tapirs and bludgeon their own for a waterhole, we feel we do not have to blame ourselves--it is food and water, after all--but in that act of, if not forgiveness at least understanding, we set ourselves up for a "billion-year spree" that takes only a moment to cross but infinity ("and Beyond") to understand. And even then we're stymied, as the curve of the Earth is matched by the curve of the Star-Child, and the same music swells, an echo-cry from the satiated throats of the hominids we still are.

Alien (1979)

More horrible appetites, as Ridley Scott takes it like a man--literally, in a movie obsessed with misogynistic body-terror. All orifices contain teeth here--and then protrude, with more teeth--and the feast is promiscuous--and prodigious--in its appetites. Every five minutes someone's slipping in or out of something (un)comfortable, or spraying something all over everyone, or in turn being drenched with something viscid, as Some Thing waits. And where? In the deepest crevice of male unease: birth, here presented as sentence and means of execution to John Hurt's Kane (hmm), so eager to drop into the hole and peer into the wet opening. In this movie, the origin of species is indeed heretical, life-denying as it purports to bring forth life, boring like acid down down down to the frightened core.

Frankenstein (1931)

Karloff is almost nothing but a frame and a face--but what a look he gives us: as much a wounded child as a vengeful ghost, a brute with a pianist's hands. His "New Prometheus" not only cringes from fire but curses humanity--wordlessly, with those watery eyes shining like quicksilver. At its best, James Whale's movie still hearkens to the silent era (only five years gone) in its breathless stare--with jump-cut--at the Monster's face, willing to traumatize Little Rascals across the Depression, quiet as dawn--but without any promise. It is a Thing born in hysteria--watch Colin Clive's Bad Doctor as he flings himself against the Monster, claiming to know what it's like to be God. And maybe he does, if only because of the misery and sacrifice the making brings.

Altered States (1980)

When William Hurt's Professor Eddie Jessup descends into the waters of the isolation tank, you know it is a burial, almost at sea. And even though the film propels the moment into birth, from the start a menace hangs over the proceedings--except, unlike Universal Studios' Deco graveyards and Metroplis-a-poppin' labs, Jessup's Castle Frankenstein is shiny and air-conditioned, grant-funded and cool. But that does not save him from Frankenstein's curse--nor even the Monster's, since Jessup is both: creator and creature, the Thing that pursues and is pursued. And as Jessup travels farther along the evolutionary road, he moves further within--then back, at Ken Russell-patented fever pitch, the search for the beginning a sickness and addiction, with a will of its own. His "altered state" is merely a return--but of course unnatural, the clock's hands snapping as they're forced backward.

Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)/Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

When I was a kid, I read Burroughs' books as well as saw the movies--the latter as one is supposed to: on Sunday mornings, the Sugar Pops (which were Tops!) floating uneaten as stock-footage elephant stampedes saved the day from White Hunters with pencil-thin mustaches. I still love these movies--and fondly recollect the books--although their incipient (and too-often outright) racism began to disturb me somewhere around age twelve. [1] Still, what caused me the most unease was Tarzan's beginning, the infant Lord Greystoke lost in the jungle with his doomed parents, alone in the makeshift cabin, found by the apes--genuinely scary in the books (again, as memory serves--and it surely does)--and swept into the trees. It was with relief that I turned away from Tarzan's infancy, grateful to see Johnny Weismuller's confident smile and steady footing, comfortable in the jungle. Because he began in abandonment, imminent danger averted only within the rasping fur of a gorilla. For me, there was nothing adventurous about that. Just a terror to be forgotten. I did, however, admire the knife he retrieved from the cabin, and the glint of "civilization" it provided in Deepest Darkest.

Quartermass and the Pit/Five Million Years to Earth (American release title) (1967)/X-Files: Fight the Future (1998)

Professor Quartermass and his science-fiction/horror adventures have been a British pop culture staple--on TV, radio and film--for half a century. Unfortunately, none of the three major films in the series (The Creeping Unknown/1955, Enemy from Space/1957--both American release titles--and the above-mentioned title) are currently available on Netflix. However, if you want a pretty accurate representation of the uneasy path Quartermass negotiated, you could do worse than the X-Files movie. [2] Both deal with aliens who arrived on Earth a long time ago, and who since prehistory have exerted enormous physical and psychic power over us--and both even leak terrible goo when punctured. Discovered under "Hobbs Lane" ("Old Hob," aka the Devil, you know), the alien ship and the remains within not only wreak havoc, but prove to be the source of much of our primeval anxieties over the dark holes into which all our fears descend, taking us with them, wide-eyed and transfixed. Like The X-Files, this film posits an external source for these fears. Unlike Kubrick's pre-humans, whose nervously shifting glances were earned by sheer exposure to predators, in Five Million Years to Earth we have been infected with our fears, which use us as a conductor of energies that are not only dismaying but destructive.

Batman Begins (2005)

How admirable is a Batman movie that takes its time getting to Batman? I know the movie's title, but I still appreciate the conviction in carefully, often compellingly, mapping out for us the phobic source of Batman's persona, and the moral weight he had to shift to squeeze from under the fears that compelled him. Like Tarzan, Batman begins as an orphan; and in his perceived abandonment he ruthlessly carves away his past--until it stands next to him--no, swoops down, dry wings against his stricken face, pinching him with little rodent claws and lifting him upright. Christian Bale's mouth and jaw, so often undecided whether to clench or quiver, serve him well as he faces Batman's violent, sad start--as well as his pulp code of justice through terror, with enough regret to allow him to peel off the Batsuit every once in a while, so that he can try to be a good son.

[1] And if you'd like to be discomfited yourself, just read Jungle Tales of Tarzan, in which we are treated to the interspecies attractions and voyeuristic gazes of the young Tarzan, who hated "Mbonga's black savages" but (fruitlessly, thank goodness) loved Teeka, a particularly fetching she-ape among "the sullen bulls and the snarling cows of the tribe of Kerchak, the great ape." Not the best of literary diets for an adolescent. But compelling.

[2] Stephen King's The Tommyknockers owes an even greater debt to Five Million Years to Earth. It is a maliciously funny book, a Creepshow whose notion of just desserts is distinctly rancid.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Tarzan books are available online at What a world!I devoured them at about age 11, but had no interest in the movies, which of course were not true enough to the books for a snobbish purist like me. But in my sunny innocence, the odd sexual stuff discomfited me no more than the doings of zoo animals.

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