Robin Pen's

Apparatus Arcanus


He entered the ruined monastery - its terminals all gone to silicon dust, destroyed during the Great Beginning - and pressed an icon on the hilt of his katana. Its readout told him what he knew already: a high level of magic pervaded this place of power, atop the black cliffs, over-looking the Persevering Sea where the coelacanthi frolicked in the surf. Beyond the rotting matrices and the crumbling Pillars of Flagellation lay a chamber seemingly still intact. The entrance was half-concealed by a spun polycotton web - the work of industrious sockworms - and as he cut through the membrane he wondered idly whether the light he let in would activate a defense grid of deadly darklight lasers, or simply send the Canaster Crabs scurrying back into their dank crevices, their eerily familiar clicking sounds like lost D-day Marines. D-day Marines; something from a world long gone or never been - he didn't know whether to believe those hoary old men who called themselves "Your Host for this Evening", as no one knew where they'd came from, and they never seemed to shut up long enough for anyone to ask.

He suddenly realised he'd been deliberately distracted; by a desensitizing beam, or perhaps a lapse-spell. Whatever the cause, he had temporarily lost spatio-consciousness but, with his sensorium back in real time, he realised something had entered the chamber. There was a new sound in the chill koinóbion, a static hum, separate from the rising and falling buzz of the prosthetic moths - those moths that now watched for no one, had not since the Mediagod Medroth was stripped of his ability to interface and was cast into the Televoid of terminal feedback (only to reappear from behind sheets of static at moments of great portent to murmur "the Horror, the Horror").

Distracted again! He shook his head, concentrating on the flicker of movement behind the far wall, and suddenly realised it was not a wall of stone at all but a wall of suspended smoke. In its shadow a figure sat, floating in a hover chair, but the katana's systems showed only the chair; the large white occupant with the long white ears was completely transparent to its meta-Kirlian sensors. And as the hover-chair broke through the still smoke, the occupant spoke.

"Hello Benzidrene," it said.

Benzidrene raised the katana before him. "I'm afraid you have the advantage of me sir," he replied. "I do not know your name."

"Is there a name you like?" the white figure asked.

Benzidrene paused. "Well, I've always been fond of Harvey."

"What a coincidence. Harvey is my name."

"How do you do, Harvey?"

"How do you do, Benzidrene? Now then, I believe you have a question for me."

QUESTION: Is Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves a fantasy? What a good question. And is there a good answer? That too is a good question. Now, let's see here - no dragons, no monsters, no magic, no fairies or gnomes; not even a shape-changer. Nothing like that at all. So, it can't be a fantasy; there's no fantasy in it! Besides, the film quite clearly stipulates that it is set during the late eleven-hundreds; the time of the Crusades and jolly King Richard. So then, it's definitely not a fantasy; it's a historical period adventure romance.

But hark, what is this word that appears before me? Sounds like the political machinations of a species of large South American snake. That's it: Anachronism. My that's a big word, and according to my handy little OED it means "chronological error; thing out of harmony with period" (can you say "continuity fuck-up", kiddies?). Fancy that. What's more, it has important connotations for the film we're talking about. Huh? Where were the anachronisms in Prince of Thieves?

Ah yes; where to begin? For a start, the timekeeping devices of the period were really rather primitive; certainly not accurate enough to determine the "10:30" and "10:45" that the Sheriff specified in his instructions to those two wenches. Crusading knights wore red crosses on white tunics, not white on red. Shiny steel swords were a real no-no. Not even noble-fellows could get hold of pretty swords like that in those days of yore. And furthermore, the Moor's scimitar was simply unavailable until several centuries later. Barring seven-league boots, you simply cannot walk from the White Cliffs of Dover to Nottingham in a single day (it's 280km as the crow flies) and neither place was anywhere near Hadrian's Wall. There were no pine plantations in England at the time but this Sherwood Forest is crammed full of the giant Scandinavian weed. Caesarian birth was not unknown, but I don't believe the procedure was used on horses as the Moor claimed, and nobody heals that fast, even when the wounds are small. In fact death from infection was very likely; penicillin and Mercurochrome were a long way off yet. At the time the film's supposedly set Richard I was not free in France but a prisoner in Austria, and while it may have been cute to have the marvellously aging Sean Connery show up as the returning King, Richard was around thirty to thirty five when he returned from the Crusades, and died in his early forties. And finally, where the hell did all that friggin' gun powder come from?

But if you didn't know any of that would it make "a rat's arse diff" to whether Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is a historical period adventure romance? Probably not. So what's the problem?

Well, there isn't one really. It's just that if you're aware of all these careless and perhaps "unimportant" inaccuracies, then Prince of Thieves shifts further and further into the realms of fantasy. In short, though there may be no distinctive fantasy icons - no two-headed fire-chucking dragons or geriatric spell throwing shapechangers - Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is set in a fantasy world; a setting purpose-built for rollicking romance adventure, for entertainment for profit. Indeed, though it may be based on a historical place and time Prince of Thieves was never intended as an accurate depiction of same, and it certainly avoids accuracy with some aplomb. The film-makers borrowed a few familiar elements we normally associate with the period and concocted the rest from their own commercially sensitive little minds.

So then, the subjective fantasticity of Prince of Thieves is determined principally by the perceptions and knowledge of its audience. Fantasy depends as much on the eye of the beholder as it does on the intention of the creator; the more inaccuracy you recognise in a film, the likelier you are, consciously or sub-consciously, to classify it as fantasy. Who could really believe that a film in which everyone thinks, speaks and acts like terminal residents of the Twentieth Century was actually taking place in the Twelfth? I mean, the portrayal of the Celts alone was enough to convince me that the realms of reality were some considerable distance away.

All the above criticism has, of course, no bearing whatsoever on whether or not I actually liked Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Indeed, one of my favourite films of recent years was constructed in the same fashion; it took familiar elements, elements associated by tradition with a particular non-fantasy genre, and built with them a totally fictional world. In the case of Miller's Crossing those elements were the icons of the gangster movie. The use of accepted motif was so effective in Miller's Crossing that few amongst its audience paused to consider the where and when of the world, let alone how it operated. But then, all that was actually quite irrelevant; the world of Miller's Crossing was, and needed to be, nothing more than what the audience saw and the characters encountered. The film is a beautiful and exceedingly clever character drama set in a pseudo-thirties crime world as fictitious as the world of Dick Tracy, if perhaps a more convincing and realistic one - a fantasy more suited to the story it told.

Now some of this may sound contradictory but, stated simply, all I'm claiming is that simply because something is cut from the cloth of reality (be it a contemporary or a "period" reality), it does not follow that that thing cannot be pure fantasy. "Fantasy" need not mean "fanciful". Apocalypse Now, a stunning fantasy film, is a portrayal of the mythological journey of the hero through a world created entirely of imagery from the very real Vietnam War. Luc Besson's Nikita stands as one of the best fantasy thrillers for some time; its setting - hard-edged, secret, virtual futurism - is a France that simply never was and never will be. All of Besson's films - The Last Battle, Subway, The Big Blue and Nikita - are fictional constructs built from contemporary icons and, in the case of The Big Blue, chunks of history. This latter tells, structurally at least, the non-fictional story of French diver Jacques Mayol, but, like Apocalypse Now, it is told in such a fashion that it transcends contemporary boundaries in its attempt to create a new experience. In this, the film is not unsuccessful.

Before proceeding further, it's important to establish that my concept of Fantasy in "non-fantasy" film does not encompass that which might be termed "poetic licence". For instance, when the producers of Memphis Belle made use of a British fighter that would not enter the war for a year beyond the temporal setting of the film, for no other reason than that the historically appropriate aircraft was no longer available in a usable state, this was not fantasy. Again in Memphis Belle, when the complete military career histories of the crew were concentrated into one mission, the film-makers were nevertheless, in spirit and within reason, re-telling the factual adventures of a group of young airmen in World War Two. This sort of thing occurs in almost every dramatised account of historical events, and such "poetic licence" is perhaps more aptly termed "focussed reality". To include this in the discussion at hand would simply reduce my argument to a dull re-stating of the quintessentially obvious and hallowed truism that

It must be stated that numerous films, films that can rightfully be classified as "mainstream" cinema, use elements of fantasy to enhance the emotional impact of the story or to subtly alter the focus on a perfectly realistic scenario. Yet such films are not out to alter the picture of the world as we know it, let alone to create a purely fantastic one.

Consider the use of a nonexistent technology, namely a silent submarine drive, in The Hunt for Red October, which allowed the military and political implications of such a device to be explored in a real-world setting. (The overly large bridge and remarkable visibility under water can reasonably be categorised as the aforementioned "poetic licence".) Curiously, The Hunt for Red October has a more pervasive "hi-tech/hardware" feel to it than most "true SF" movies.

Another example comes in the intentional portrayal of Hannibal Lector (The Silence of the Lambs), not as the socio-psychopath we're introduced to, but as a modern incarnation of the Boris Karloff Leering Monster (though Anthony Hopkins' performance in the role is admirable). Yet that should come as no surprise; it's safer to look into the eyes of a clearly fictitious (rubber-suit) monster than to find yourself face-to-face with something which represents the darkest aspects of human nature. (It's worth noting that the fantasy monsters created by the likes of Karloff were Cinema's way of substituting for the real psychos during a period when those real-life creatures were considered inappropriate entertainment for the general public.)

Then there's the ambitious portrayal of fire as a living, almost sentient being in the visually arresting, if melodramatic and ultimately shallow, Backdraft. The film is finally little more than an occasionally interesting attempt to mythologise the relationship between man's psyche and a colourful thermo-chemical reaction. Am I perhaps stretching the point? Consider: who can say they found it easy to watch the giant, roaring plumes without unconsciously imbuing the flames with a hint of active antagonism; a glimpse of "the beast" - a malicious adversary with hellfire in its soul?

Finally, that Man of Pictures, Ridley ("pray he'll always be out there") Scott, gives us a film that ventures as close as possible towards the fantastic while managing to stay just on this side of the border. Thelma and Louise relates a vision of an American mid-west that arguably may not exist. In the film, Scott treats oil-well pumps like bizarre alien mechanisms and lights giant mesas (using massive lamps, I can tell you) in the rocky desert to create a surreal dreamscape. And perhaps the realisation of dreams, of desires, fears and regrets, is what makes Thelma and Louise so effective. In externalising the shifting states-of-mind of its central characters, as the two women flee further and further from the world they cannot escape yet can never return to, the film presents the "normal" environment around them with entirely new levels of perception. Their landscape becomes a place where reality is altering with a hopeless inevitability, becoming conceptually alien and subject to different rules of perception and different laws of emotional survival. The visual impact of Thelma and Louise could be likened to that of a comic-book illustrated by the Seventeenth Century landscape painter Turner, an innovator in the use of colour; sure the story is good - nice narrative, dialogue and characterisation - but gee, the overwhelming expression in the artwork gives the story emotional and intuitive meaning far deeper and more profound than the story itself. No matter how faint their application, fantasy stylistics, used appropriately, tend to have this effect.

Now whether you accept all of this as the legitimate application of fantasy depends entirely on your own perception of the fantastiquè. But remember; you apply this same perception to the Comedy, the Musical, to Dance Movies, Action/Adventures, Westerns, Martial Art Films, and to Imperial Roman, Ancient Greek and Biblical Epics. Certainly the very same brain you use to build up an internal model of the artificial worlds in these "non-fantasy" films, you utilise to construct a mental picture of the fantastic filmworld. The only difference, then, between the perception of the fantasy/SF flick and the real-world period piece is the unconscious consumption and digestion of certain distinct icons we recognise as being solely "of the fantastic".

What was the magic word we just used? Was it . . . "Icon" perhaps? My handy big Readers Digest declaims: "image; [as] of a sacred personage, itself regarded as sacred". Bow down to the almighty icon! Indeed, those who avidly follow the cinematic genres of fantasy and science fiction must, to some degree, be seen as icon junkies. "Oh look darling, its a Wet-Nosed Computer Warbler, and it's doing a charming little bower-dance outside that cinema billing the Star Wars trilogy. My, isn't he cute. Now don't get too close darling - you might catch something and start buying magazines for a rare glimpse of a new Federation starship." (Now, I'm not chuckling from a great distance and, given the publication you're reading this in, you should probably consider your own position before laughing too loudly.)

Of course, although the process of mental world-building may be the same, a greater intensity of that good ol' suspension-of-disbelief is required when dealing with fantasy. Extra effort's required to accommodate the fantastic into a consistent internal worldview; Millenium Falcons, inflatable Batman costumes, million-dollar starscapes and beautiful Go-Motion dragons all have to be consumed, processed and slotted into a viable mind-state in order to produce a charge big enough to satisfy the SF/Fantasy junkie's carnal desire for strange flesh, and The Icon adds extra boost to achieve escape velocity (something like salting potatoes or rubbing cocaine across the teeth).

And in a film like Hardware it's principally the hi-tech icons that junkies sink their teeth into. Hardware is all retro-fit set design; machine decks fitted together in a deliberately compressed fashion, dressed up with smoke, steam, harsh shadows and misty shafts of light through half-drawn blinds. Its images are disjointed; deliberate distractions like glaring back-lighting, heavy washes of red-tinted fill lighting and endless arrays of monitors pumping video static, computer graphics and out of focus images in quick succession, horizontal hold gone to the dogs. And in the midst of all this, directional lighting reveals blood, sweat, grease and painstakingly accidental beads of water on large, exposed sections of human skin - sort of designer streak marks if you will.

Hardware should bear a label saying "Derivative Concentrate: Dilute For Deconstruction". This film attempts to cram so many pop-sub-cult icons down its cinematic trousers that, ultimately, it can't help but become bulgingly iconoclastic. It borrows visual aspects from Cyberpunk literature (especially stories like Gibson's "Burning Chrome"), and from dark-future comics (especially 2000AD), perhaps partially by way of post-civilisation cinema (ala Mad Max 2) but principally via the (patent pending) Ridley Scott Techniques showcased so gloriously in those visual watersheds Alien and Blade Runner. Hardware is a collection of that advertising and video-clip imagery which is becoming the trademark of British sensationalist cinema, trotted out to display the audio/visual iconography of the techno-futurists, the drug culture, the post-punkers (Iggy Pop appears as a background DJ), the Goths, Headbangers (Lemmy of Motorhead played the floating-cab driver), New Wave Horror freaks and, no doubt, a whole swag of other sub-groups that I missed, forgot or failed to interpret. The entire film is a rabid juxtaposition of contrived cinemantics, aimed at forcing terminal sensory overload.

The critical reaction to this barrage of self-conscious post-modernism, surrealist imagery and faddish pseudo-science was as, if not more interesting than the film itself. Jaded icon junkies seem to find this culture-clasher a sort of cheap but momentarily quite satisfying blast up the increasingly desensitized cerebral sinuses. However, from a clear-headed, "just-say-no" perspective, Hardware is rather ordinary and unoriginal. It has a story that's not worth space talking about and is largely cobbled together from standard Horror clichés. More than half the film's hundred minutes is expended on setting up for the inevitable: the characters being dispatched in various contrived ways in various confined spaces by the Mark 13 (a cute Biblical reference, incidentally), a killer machine that's sort of a K-Mart Mecha-Alien - a semi-supernatural creature made of junk, topped off with a Terminator's skull in stars-and-stripes (a subtle pointer towards the iconoclastic tendencies of the picture). The film courts credibility with an embarrassing moralisation about the dangers of rampant technology that's handled no less platitudinously than "look both ways before you cross the street", and which actually shows considerable naïveté about the legitimate dangers of computer technology. In the end, the Mark 13 fails to become "the beast", or even simply a callous machine; it's nothing more than an inconsistently executed plot device that out-stays its welcome even before its beady red eyes begin to glow.

Though Hardware is totally derivative, it is no more guilty of stealing / borrowing / making homage / adapting / improving / focusing than any other icon-drenched SF movie, but it is more guilty of making no effort to hide it. In fact, the last thing I would accuse its director Richard Stanley of is serious pretension. On the contrary, it's reasonable to conclude that he's actually taking the piss out of the cult-enshrined hallmarks of SF cinéma-nécessité. On those grounds Hardware is rather admirable and enjoyable; a laid-back techno-freak equivalent of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2. Indeed like Raimi, though perhaps lacking much of his innovation and humour, Stanley's main focus in Hardware was on style.

Yet if stylishness is what Hardware tries to achieve, it occasionally comes a cropper in its attempt to marry a self-conscious technique with an intuitive plot progression, becoming confused and losing direction. The plot gaps eventually widen too far to bridge without further distancing the creator from his audience. In fact, it was often far too easy to remain coldly objective while watching Hardware although, to be fair, there were sequences that possessed a certain dynamic cohesion. Hardware was an interesting stab at creating a stylish synthesis of eroticism, psycho-sexuality, deformity and post-humanism. It's just a pity it didn't work.

Finally, Hardware was most successful as a kaleidoscopic rush of audio-visual sensation; a sub-cult "experience" in the safety of your own cinema. If it owned a story, it would have serious staying power: After all, its indulgent superficiality provided enough emotive power/subjective trip capacity to entertain pseudo-intellectual onanists trying to read more into it than it was ever intended to contain (you don't have to push too hard, just in the right direction, to be categorized as effective by the art/communication set). In the end - and of this its makers can be justly proud - Hardware was produced for very little money and made a lot of money back. In this regard, if in no other, its objectives were met with complete success and the film deserves the praise it has received.

"Does that answer your question?" asked the white figure.

"I can't even remember what the question was now," replied Benzidrene.

"That does not matter. So long as you have learned."

"Oh I have," said Benzidrene. "I've learned that when going through life you have to be Oh So Clever."

"Yes," said the figure, his white ears twitching. "But there is a time to be Oh So Pleasant."

As Benzidrene left the Pooka in the chamber he glanced up at a sky turned the colour of a television tuned to a dead channel, and wondered if it had been like that all along. Settling down at the cliff's edge to peer and wonder at the piscine gaiety below, he realised suddenly that what he really felt like was a nice, quiet drink.

Originally appeared in Eidolon 6,October 1991.
Copyright © 1991 Robin Pen. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author.