Robin Pen's
CRITICAL
EMBUGGERANCE


The Post-Modern Prometheus

I am the captain of my pain.
Nick Cave

The sky is turning grey, clouds moving in to prepare for a long night of hard rain. The Big Guy is set into relief by the sun low behind the city, his sharp silhouette broken only by a bright line of reflection across his gnarly hide and the fractal-like ridge down his back to the tip of his long, swaying tail. With cries that only a kaiju can perform, he smashes and flames various tall buildings, turning their architectural pretensions into rubble, lovely rubble. He doesn't need mirror-shades: he's as cool as they come. Some say he's a symbol of a vengeful Gaia Earth Mother, but I'm sure he'd agree that he just likes to smash things that try to defy change. He's chaos with a philosophy. What doesn't kill me makes me stronger ; Nietzche said it, the Big Guy lives it. I find security in knowing he's out there, lumbering about in regal slow-mo, lowering inflated real estate values. For all I care, so long as he never treads on me or my loved ones - which I know he won't - he can merrily destroy the parts of this dark city I've never been to (and now never will). I want him to continue - ad infinitum - with his specialized approach to social commentary; his own semi-textual critique of life, human progress and inner-city development. And, of course, his own type of film criticism. After all, he is the sensei in the dojo of cinema ephemera.

But he's there all the time, so the view isn't that special. Not at the moment anyway. I keep shuffling along a seemingly-abandoned street. A street where the occasional loose sheet from a film script flutters by on imperceptibly tiny eddies, where no one who passes seems to have a face. At least, not a face that could be recognised as belonging to a real person.

Soon I too contribute to the abandonment of the street, by entering a cafe. My cafe; the cafe there for me. A pseudo-Italian cafe buried in the city's backwater, a seedy little joint that needs a fresh coat of paint, needs its heavily-scratched windows replaced and its tiredly "comfortable" booths re-upholstered. But that will never happen because this is my cafe: a quiet cafe, except for the distant rumble of crumbling towers and the nattering of voices in these here dusty corners. Voices from two young and arrogant film critics - Hampton, wearing his Cyber-Gumby T-shirt, and Fancher, who remains faithful to Lord Fighting Commander Gus Grissom. Both boring farts. I get on well with them.

Near them, only is the ten foot long aquarium, gurgling as the genetically engineered micro-coelacanths (because it's only a small cafe) Benzedrine and Harvey frolic, occasionally leaping up out of the water for the pleasure of no one in particular. Above the piscine gaiety is an ancient TV - more ancient than the fish - showing silently juxtaposed images of screaming masses and giant aphids hell-bent on sucking the American Bible-Belt dry. Good on 'em. I just hope they finish it before the TV-stand collapses and we have prehistoric fish sandwiches with our relentless and superfluous dialectic debates on the similarities between Gamera (Friend Of Children) and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. God, not more boring debates!

I sigh, as I often do for no particular reason, and sit myself down in my permanently-reserved booth. Hampton and Fancher give me a nod between rants; they know all too well that if I don't go over to them, then they'd better not come over to me. They know when I'm in no mood to discuss crap, even if it is my favourite topic.

Paris, the cafe's pseudo-Italian head waiter, promptly delivers my Brazillian flat-white and, just as promptly, withdraws from whence he came, not uttering a word. He knows too. I sigh again, pull out my notebook and pen, and proceed to doodle around the notes for my half-formed theory of Post-Brechtian Contra-Dynamics. I have a thought - something to do with the sexual aloofness shared by Godzilla and Mr Spock and their piercingly intelligent eyes - and am about to add it to my theory when I hear a chuckle from the table opposite. And there she is again, that young Lauren Bacall look-alike in the black-n-white outfit. She's appeared without warning (though I've never actually seen her appear; it's more like the world alters to accommodate her presence, as if she was always there) and shakes my cinematic viewpoint when it needs a good shaking. She's the person who helped me discover that unreal films are as real as real ones - but that's another story. Suffice it to say, she appears when it's time for her to. I guess it must be time.

She shows me a red-lacquered-lips smile and raises her pristine, plucked eyebrows above those monochrome eyes, but before she can deliver one of her clichés (she always speaks in clichés, but she says that's all we ever do), I tell her with a gesture that I'm about to spew forth my pent-up angst. She maintains the smile and settles in for the session. She doesn't find it rude that I expect to expound my thoughts without letting her have her two-cents worth. She is here to listen after all. And I'm here for her to listen to. So she listens as I speak. And as usual I speak bullshit - or of bullshit.

The Shadow sucks the big one. Boy, what a disappointment. Other than a few minutes of nice cinematography, it's a complete waste of time. Not just because of its incoherent structure or pathetic story, but because no one involved in the making of it - and I mean absolutely no one - seemed to have any idea what-so-ever as to what it should have been about. It was supposed to be about The Shadow, aka Lamont Cranston, and all that implies (do your homework if you don't know, you ignorant savages). Well, the names were there, but what they stood for was thrown to the ravening dog-pack that's Hollywood. I've always thought - since I first heard Orson Welles say "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows." followed by that deliciously evil laughter - that The Shadow as a big budget production was only a matter of time. And if done properly, something to be eagerly awaited. So why take the name and then virtually nothing else? Why, why, why? For the answer, take a quick look at Batman, and how they screwed that concept up (the Tim Burton versions, not the superb animated Batman). The studios have a term for it: "name recognition". A well-known title to lure you into the theatre, and what happens after that is your problem. Witness The Flintstones, The Brady Bunch, The Beverly Hillbillies and Tank Girl, to name a few recent offenders.

At least The Shadow is destined to be forgotten, so somebody in the near future may well be able to give it another go. But I fear that Stupid Studios Inc. will likely think that it was the subject matter of The Shadow, rather than their treatment of it, that was the cause of its inevitable failure. On the other hand, Batman was a hit almost entirely because of the name (and the massive promotional campaign that went with it), so maybe those bastards are right. By the way, if you want an excellent mindless-shout-of-rage and spewing-forth-of-bile on The Shadow then seek out Harlan Ellison's three-part review in Fantasy and Science Fiction (and, while we're on the subject of other people's film views, I cannot recommend too highly Paul T. Riddell's "Jurassic Fart: Movie Industry 3,492 - Literate SF 0" in Science Fiction Eye #13).

Stargate. Yes, I saw Stargate. In fact, I'm sure I did. I remember that I went and saw it. Remembering the actual film is a different matter. But I do remember my principal thought when I walked out of the cinema: I thought, "well, it could have been worse". Strangely enough, I thought the same of Star Trek: Generations (though it's not what I thought of the Star Trek: Voyager pilot). Stargate and Star Trek: Generations have a bit in common, other than being the only two spacey movies in ages (and Stargate only barely). Watching both was a lot like watching high-tech pantomimes: maybe there should have been more songs and clown-tricks to beef them up. In fact that sort of thing may not have been particularly out of place in certain scenes in Generations. But Generations is Star Trek and there isn't much more you can say about it without being cruel. It would be like kicking little old ladies; all too easy and of little entertainment value. Unless you turned it into a sport. But not here.

Sorry: back to Stargate.

Stargate is a Von Danikenesque adventure story with a few parlour tricks, a few mirrors and a lot of dust. Full of hokum and contrivance and omitting facts or common sense that might get in the way of the bubble-gum story, Stargate is essentially a low-budget, low-concept script given the 70 million dollar treatment. And, because that's the case, Stargate is a film large in scale but very small in scope. Some (including the film's producers) have described this movie as Lawrence of Arabia meets Star Wars. It's actually more like Cecil B DeMille's second unit meets any two-reeler, back-lot western; an eight-page script and a cast of thousands. It was not uninteresting while it flickered against a wall in the theatre, which brings to mind the phrase "beggars can't be choosers". If you're really thirsting for a space adventure kinda movie then a dirty glass of stagnant pond water is better than nothing at all (and the same can be said for Generations). Though Stargate was mildly enjoyable, it contained nothing startling, nothing new, nothing that hadn't already been done to death by 1951 (see some of the '40s SF serials sometime) and nothing that could be considered science fiction on any level but pre-juvenile. The film is very silly, other than in the first thirty minutes when it's just a bit silly. However, it was this silliness that gave it whatever entertainment value it had; entertaining like the Kevin Conner/Doug McClure Burroughsian actioneers, but without their sense of the ridiculous, their lack of pretension, the cute monsters and the action scenes (Stargate is a bit too stolid to be called an action film). In the end, I didn't dislike Stargate. I was happy to watch it while it was being projected, but it was a film of the moment as well (much like Mask), and the moment was over before the film. I might see Stargate again one day, just to look at some of the design-work, but for science fiction adventure The Transformers Movie has more intelligent content and, therefore, value.

I enjoyed Escape From Absolom a little more than Stargate. I think I liked Absolom for its nice scenery and the nice photography of the nice scenery; and I liked the decent cast who were clearly enjoying their roles, but I mainly enjoyed it just because I did. It's difficult to describe Absolom as a great movie; difficult, because it isn't great. It's competent, just as Stargate and Generations were competent (The Shadow - not), but there wasn't anything special to warm me up beyond the natural background radiation. So why should I like Absolom that little bit more? Possibly it has to do with something you cannot entirely see on screen. While watching Absolom I was aware that this was a low-budget, tongue-in-cheek, nothing-but-fun little actioneer, much in the tradition of '50s Roger Corman flicks (a man I admire for all the wonderful crap he gave us). I enjoyed this dumb little movie in much the same way I enjoyed the mediocre Fortress and Time Cop. I appreciated the way they used a low budget and how much of that budget the filmmakers managed to use for story and entertainment, rather than the stroking of egos. I appreciated them all the more after seeing True Lies, which cost over a hundred and twenty million, and was only more enjoyable than Absolom and Time Cop when the special effects were up and running.

I wish more people appreciated the art of filmmaking on a small budget; especially science fiction and fantasy filmmaking (on this level at least, Aliens is a towering achievement). But I suspect that the only way this would ever happen is in a manner that the studios and theatres would never allow. A film-goer pays a standardized ticket price, regardless of how much money has been invested in the product they are about to see. It's as if we were able to buy a Ford Laser or a BMW sedan for the same low price, and consequently judged the two cars on that basis. If ticket prices were adjusted to reflect the cost of the film, as they are for stage-plays, concerts and cars, I wonder how a film-goer would feel then? How would you feel if a ticket for Escape From Absolom cost $12.00 and one for True Lies cost $144.00? The question will only be meaningful to you if you've seen both films, but there are many appropriate substitutes, such as the hugely expensive Total Recall vs the low-budget Freejack, or The Lion King vs any episode of Kimba the White Lion.

The best example of this can be seen when comparing Terminator 2 to the surprisingly satisfying Cyborg 2. Terminator 2 is a plodding remake of its entertaining low-budget predecessor (the one without the number after it) that uses huge sums of cash to stage some ridiculously large action sequences, some quickly-dated morphing effects (why do you think Lucasfilm sold them off rather than exploit the CGI effects themselves?) and to bring back their highly bankable star of no fixed accent. It offers little for its huge bank-roll other than bigger explosions and more shattered knees. There is nothing there that is better than the original in any respect (and certainly not story or performance). In contrast, Cyborg 2 - flaws and all - ends up being one of the more quirky, mature and amusing sci-fi flicks to have come along in quite awhile. It has interesting characterization, interesting dialogue and an interesting angle on things. It would have been a service to have omitted the links to the paltry first film: it stands up fine without any reference to that rather sad representative of '80s kitsch SF. I recommend Cyborg 2 for all the right reasons (including some very good low-budget model work), and for Jack Palance, who steals the movie. He's a joy to behold as he rasps exuberant ad-libs from open to close.

And, speaking of budgetary restraints not affecting the quality or worth of a film, Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures is a magnificent contribution to the craft of innovative cinema. Peter Jackson has never failed to delight me with his perverted imaginings. Heavenly Creatures is not just Jackson's finest and most insightful work to date, it's one of the best films of the year and one of the best fantasies for several years. Though the film isn't generic fantasy, it is significant as an exercise in narrative technique for its depiction of the dreams and imaginings of the human psyche. (The same can be said, to a lesser degree, for the striking fabulations of Natural Born Killers.) And on top of all that, Creatures is one of very few films to use computer morphing effects in a manner that is directly relevant to the narrative elements of the film (The Shadow - not). Heavenly Creatures is a film that deserves those insightful quality critiques I hope somebody, somewhere, is actually writing.

There are Gothic and Romantic-fantasy elements to Heavenly Creatures - granted, they are mixed in with Orson Welles and Mario Lanza - which link it aesthetically to the wave of period-adventures and Gothic fantasies that have recently been flung into our theatres like tennis balls from an air-cannon. And it must be said that the overall quality of these movies has been relatively high. Coppola's Dracula launched the current spate of Gothic fantasies and should probably take the blame, or credit, for much of it.

Interview With The Vampire is one such film, and a very loyal adaptation of the Anne Rice novel (so you don't have to read it to be in with the in crowd any more). As such, it is a valuable contribution to vampire genre cinema. There is very little wrong with the film, other than some slight inconsistencies and lack of follow-up on certain plot points. To be frank, how you feel about Interview With The Vampire will probably be based more on personal taste than on any objective criticism. From the first frame to the last, it is a gorgeous film to look at. It is well-performed by the entire ensemble and well-executed by all members of the production team, but the most important feature of Interview is that it's new. Here we have a movie doing new things. Maybe not in narrative technique (though I didn't mind Lestat disappearing for a major part of the film), but in its telling a tale, a fantasy tale, from a fresh perspective (though that might be more to Rice's credit, who may also be responsible for the silly coffins that plague the film). Interview With The Vampire is a suitable companion to Neil Jordan's other fantasy take on a Gothic icon, The Company of Wolves.

Wolf on the other hand, adds nothing to the werewolf genre than dollars and names. Actually, it seems to be a big step backwards for the contemporary portrayal of ancient fears. Why did Mike Nichols choose to direct a "big budget, big stars" horror movie about werewolves and then do the whole thing like he was really embarrassed to be making a silly monster movie, rather than something about the real world . . . like Working Girl? For all its slickness, production values, decent performances and cute one-liners, the attitude taken by its creators in creating it makes Wolf irrelevant to the current Modern Gothic/Romantic movement.

The best of these neo-Goth flicks, though possibly fatally flawed, is Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein. Before we go into any detail it should be said that this version of the classic (but hip) Shelley tale is the first to be loyal to the intent of the 19th century writer, and is therefore a significant contribution regardless of any criticisms that can be laid against it. Even where it veers from the true path, I would hazard a guess that Mary wouldn't have minded very much, though she might think it a bit too scary and gory for her antiquated (but hip) tastes - but then, we'll never know.

It would have been easy for the makers of Frankenstein to have pandered to certain critics and constructed the film along the lines of Dracula: a composite of the James Whale and Terence Fisher versions with pseudo-intellectual references to the novel, all dressed up in harshly-pretentious fake Gothic arches and elaborate costumes in bright purples and reds. Gothique : The Designer Label. Personally, I'm quite relieved not to have guest stars as fat burgermeisters, or the "flaming parapets finale" between creator and creation, where the villagers watch on with torches as the Monster falls to a tragic death and Mrs Frank embraces Mr Frank who has thus corrected his misguided-but-essentially-good deed. In the end, all Branagh's version took from the cine-past was its references to the creation of the monster (the novel makes no mention of the creation process for "fear that the reader may try to copy this dangerous experiment").

Unlike previous versions, this new approach was not about the creation of a monster but the creation of a man (as is the novel). This version is the telling of a horrific and tragic tale, and not the self-aware salute to the history of horror that I suspect was what critics and a few unenlightened audience members expected and felt a right to demand. They wanted Young Frankenstein played straight, with Keanu Reeves as Baron Von Frankenstein and Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Unstoppable Monster (Frankenstein 2: I'll Be Back! ) They wanted mock-horror, a side-show ghost-train. Imagine their disappointment when they were confronted with a film about the horror of the real world and the tragedy of not taking responsibility for what you do in it. Branagh's Frankenstein is an attempt to tell a real story and not a farcical, pretentious and clichéd children's play.

Yes, the narrative flow is miscalculated. The first quarter of the film feels like the longest trailer ever made. But once you settle down to its hectic pace, it becomes a compelling, character-driven drama about the true and tragic meaning of pathetic. Tchaikovsky's "Pathetic Symphony" wasn't called that because he thought it sucked. Rather, he intended it to evoke compassion: the true meaning of the word. Pathetic is the best way to describe the sad and undeserved fate of "the monster", a man given no life, no love and no resting place - a tormented figure who lashes out in anger at the injustices of a cruel and callous world (except when he turns into Freddy Krueger).

Frankenstein doesn't do everything right - for one thing, I wish I could have turned that bloody music off - but it succeeds well enough, and is a worthy story. Dracula and Interview With The Vampire are not narratively flawed, as Frankenstein to some degree is, but they haven't got stories that matter all that much, despite being perfectly entertaining yarns. Frankenstein is not perfect, but it intelligently, sincerely and passionately renders a classic tale that should resonate deep in the psyches of many viewers, who have a responsibility to pass that down to future generations. Frankenstein has the distinction of being one of the few films that seek to pass on cultural myths to a contemporary audience. It is a valuable service.

Most of the above has been about good and bad films of an F & SF generic bent. I haven't really been going on about the F & SF in the movies themselves. As I think you can guess, there is little that's worthy of any special mention. It's the rule that ideas in fantastic cinema lack much that is original, or not thoroughly explored (and exploited) in other media (Heavenly Creatures is amongst the few exceptions worthy of inspection for its innovative fantasy treatment. The Shadow - not). However, I would like to mention a few recent films that I think are worth a glance for their science fictional content.

Fatherland, though uncompromising, is a not entirely satisfying cable-production based on the Robert Harris novel. Although it doesn't go into nearly as much depth as the book (and how could it?) it still supplies some intriguing images of a successful Nazi regime in the '60s. Not totally convincing - I'm sure they would have redesigned a few things, like the uniforms - and ending up wanting more background detail, but as a depiction of an alternative history it is a more sound attempt than most. Another conjecture-piece done for cable is the adept Roswell (The Roswell Incident on video): a straightforward, proficient telling of actual events of 1947 and the irrational theories that sprang from them. These theories have largely been about flying saucers and alien occupants, and Roswell depicts the stories without forcing sides to be taken. Other than the actual incident, which contains no mention of extra-terrestrials, all is treated as hearsay. This is a respectable telling supported by decent performances, (particularly Kyle MacLachlan and Martin Sheen), and it's one of the very few UFO-based productions worth a look.

Although Fatherland and Roswell are novel, making use of less-abused concepts, they are, like the rest of the SF films mentioned above, not truly significant as works of progressive science fiction. However, I have encountered one film recently that I consider to be one of the very best SF films I have seen. Not surprisingly, it's animated and it's Japanese, as many of my favourites are. The hard social-SF ideas put forward in Patlabor 2 only serve to make this remarkable production all the more impressive in scale, scope and execution. The scenes in the military control rooms are tight, with well-controlled suspense, and the attack on Tokyo is a tour-de-force of animation that lives up to the meaning of verisimilitude. Patlabor 2 is not really a military story, but its analysis of the security of international relations is sobering, and relegates films like Clear And Present Danger to their proper place as "Boys Own" adventures. I usually avoid talking here about anime (and Hong Kong fantasy), as I try to concentrate on material that is readily available, but Patlabor 2 compels me to make a special point of it. Not just for its forthright and knowledgeable approach to serious SF concepts, but for its proficient story-telling which swings adeptly from beautifully haunting understatement, to cool and calculated twists in logic, to astonishing and powerful sequences of violence and action. It is the most intelligent and most enthralling science fiction film I've seen since . . . well since Patlabor The Movie, another highly recommended production.

And then there's Die Hard With A Vengeance, which isn't all that bad although it still doesn't come up to the first -

"Yes, but so what?" she asks.

"Pardon?"

"So, what of it?" she asks again, maintaining her ever-so-pleasant smile.

I am flabbergasted. I was about to propel myself into another head-long tirade of subjective criticism when she has me floundering with a simple question. I am dumbfounded, which I think is her intention. I want to answer, but my mouth can't get around it, and my brain isn't giving any assistance. My mind has gone blank, empty, bereft of any useful information or opinion. She broadens her ever-so-lovely smile, raises a perfect eye-brow and gives me a "now I think you might understand" look. She vanishes in silence, like an old camera trick. And for a while I stare at nothing, my cafe out-of-focus around me.

I stare at nothing for a bit longer. Hampton and Fancher glance over at me, but it's not long before they're arguing all over again about whether Deckard is a replicant or not. Splash! Harvey and Benzedrine wake me from my mindless state. My focus comes back, optically, if not mentally. The aphids are still doing their thing on the TV. My coffee is cold: I haven't touched a drop; Paris will be heart-broken.

I stand up and go to leave the guys, the fish and the aphids behind. I walk out of my cafe and into darkness and rain. Bleak darkness, heavy rain and an ever-louder rumbling and crashing of masonry. I look out across the dark city and there is the Big Guy still doing his thing. But he's doing it twice as big as before. Christ! He's coming this way! In fact, he's heading directly towards me and my cafe. He's trashing the part of the city he's never come to before. Coming to my part, coming to my cafe. Coming here, to destroy, to level it, to make it as though my city never was.

And I know why. Because it's time. There's nothing left here any more that deserves to be standing. He's coming to make a change, to renew. A wise man once said, Nothing is constant except change. Except him, for he is change. He is inevitable change.

Now I need to consider change. I look back at my cafe. The light inside is bright through the heavily-scratched windows. Everything is the same in there, it never has looked different. It never will, unless it's obliterated by inevitability. No one in the cafe will mind. Not Hampton, not Harvey, not Paris. They're not real. She certainly won't mind.

I look back at the Big Guy. Jesus, he's almost here already. The rain deadens the thumping of his feet, the crushing of cars and commuters, and the sound of their paltry screams. Paltry compared to his call, his shattering call of glorious annihilation. What a guy! He knees a building into kibble, he flames a radio tower that bends like a meccano set under a blow torch, hissing and steaming as the rain hits it. Shit, this would look great on the big screen.

He takes another step towards me. I don't move, even as people flee, the faceless, terrorized populous of no-fixed-abode. He's oblivious to them all. He's oblivious to me. He doesn't acknowledge transitory statements. Soon he'll pass over me and continue on in his unstoppable, indestructible yet creative fashion. As I watch him loom above me, the rain falling in streaks like stars passing at light-speed, I make my decision. Change cannot be fought, and cannot be avoided.

When time, light and matter connect with this guy, fates are determined; altered to new courses, never the same. That's the beauty of him, of his philosophy of chaos. I see his eyes, down-turned and full of strength, of coolly-controlled rage. I see his teeth, huge and arranged in a permanent smile like he knows something we don't and never will. And he's right. For he's the destroyer and the creator, a cinematic Shiva, the wiper of slates, the purger of souls, the stomper of critical crap. He is the king of movie monsters. He is Gojiro.

He's almost upon me now. I turn to him and stretch out my arms for his absolute embrace. He towers above me as he calls to the gods, daring them to do anything, but knowing they cower, powerless, in mortal minds. Before he takes his next giant step he looks down to where I stand. I do not know if he sees me, or if he cares if he does. I try to look up, but am forced to close my eyes as the rains falls hard on my face.

Godzilla and the rain.

Clearing all in their domain.

He raises his foot, and the rain stops hitting my face. My eyes remain closed, knowing he is suspended above me; the changer of paths, about to change mine.

I feel a rush of air about me and everything becomes dark, yet I am unafraid. I am grateful. He is giving me honour, he who is to be honoured. For he is sensei; he is Kaiju.

And I am free.

Thanks to Jeremy Byrne, Chris Dickenson, Martin Livings, Keira McKenzie, Richard Scriven, Scot Snow, Jonathan Strahan & Chris Stronach for their assistance over the last five years.
— Robin.




Originally appeared pp. 148-157, Eidolon 17/18, June 1995.
Copyright © 1995 Robin Pen.
Reprinted by kind permission of Robin Pen.


[EMAIL] [INFO] [HOME] [BACK]