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Now of course, if we are going to talk about famous auteur comedians, then the place to start is surely with Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin is a curiously ambiguous figure these days: he remains possibly the single most recognisable person in history (while in his Tramp rig, anyway), and is still considered one of the greatest artists in the history of cinema, but his films have – generally speaking – fallen out of favour and are little-watched these days. All this was really presaged in Chaplin’s lifetime, with his immense popularity in the early part of the last century declining to the point where he was essentially obliged to leave the country at the beginning of the 1950s.

With hindsight, the moment of Chaplin’s peak commercial and critical success was also one in which the seeds of his fall from grace were visible. I’m talking about his 1940 film The Great Dictator, which was his biggest hit at the box-office, and is one of his best-regarded films these days, possibly because of the subject matter. At the same time, though, it’s one which demands you keep its historical context in mind.

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An opening caption informs the audience that the film is set between the two world wars, a period in which ‘Insanity cut loose… and humanity was kicked around somewhat’. From here we go straight into a lengthy, quite lavish sequence depicting the final hours of the First World War, and the exploits of a hapless soldier fighting in the army of Tomainia (played by Chaplin himself, clearly as a variation on the Tramp character). After various misadventures he ends up being sent to a veterans’ hospital with amnesia.

Twenty years pass and Tomainia falls under the control of the dictator Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin again, making the most of his passing resemblance to Adolf Hitler), who institutes a regime of vicious oppression against his Jewish citizens. When the soldier, now revealed to be an unnamed Jewish barber, is discharged from hospital, he is shocked to discover what has befallen the country.

What follows is basically a film with two main plotlines – one concerning the barber, his romance with a local woman (Chaplin’s then-soon-to-be-ex-wife Paulette Goddard), and their attempts to live some kind of life in the ghetto, which mainly consists of sentimental melodrama and slapstick comedy, and one focusing on happenings within Hynkel’s palace. This is mostly farcical satire, with lots more slapstick in the mix. In the end the two storylines come together, with the fact that Hynkel and the barber are identical crucial to the denouement, but there’s never a moment where someone says ‘You know what, you look just like him!’ – the similarity is never commented upon prior to the moment it becomes central to the narrative.

I think that before you decide about your opinion of The Great Dictator, you really do have to remember that this is a film made at a particular moment in time: in 1940, to be precise. Why is this significant? Well, for one thing it is important to remember that this was a full year before the USA entered the Second World War, and the two countries were still technically at peace; for Chaplin to make a film which so openly ridicules both Hitler, Mussolini, and various other senior Nazi figures was a bold choice (after Hitler saw the movie he put Chaplin on a death list, or so the story goes).

But there’s more than this. These days you sit down to watch The Great Dictator in expectations of a timeless masterpiece in the modern sense. In the opening minutes what you get is a sequence in which Chaplin is in charge of firing a piece of artillery: he pulls the ignition cord, the gun goes off with a big bang, Chaplin falls over and waggles his legs in the air. Enemy planes attack the area and so Chaplin mans an anti-aircraft gun; frantically spinning the wheel that controls its direction and angle of fire, he ends up whirling around uselessly like a man on a fairground ride. Assigned to help a group of infantry, he is given a hand grenade; having pulled the pin, the grenade drops down his sleeve and ends up in his trousers. And so on.

In short, this is very broad slapstick, and not especially distinguished as such (later sequences in the film make it quite clear what an astonishingly accomplished and capable physical performer Chaplin was, even in his fifties). To a modern viewer there is something inescapably out-of-kilter about this sort of thing appearing in a film about Hitler and the Nazis. But it persists as the film continues: Goering and Goebbels are lampooned as Herring and Garbitsch (pronounced as a homophone of ‘garbage’), Mussolini is played as a cartoon Italian gangster (it is somewhat eye-opening that the performer, Jack Oakie, was Oscar-nominated for the role); and yet in the same film there are scenes of Jews being beaten and robbed by Hynkel’s stormtroopers, having their homes burnt to the ground, eventually shot… this is not the stuff of comedy, by any sane metric. It is an uneasy juxtaposition.

But, as I say, you have to remember this is a film from 1940 and the full scale of Nazi atrocities had yet to become clear. Over twenty years later Chaplin himself wrote that …had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator, I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.’ Which is fair enough, I suppose. But the film is still uncomfortable to watch in parts.

Apparently, Hitler was under the impression that Chaplin himself was Jewish, and if this had been the case it would have explained the film-maker’s decision to lampoon the dictator with quite such asperity. But he wasn’t, and – beyond simple moral outrage – there doesn’t seem to have been a particular reason for him to make this film, although he himself observed that ‘one doesn’t have to be a Jew to be anti-Nazi, just a decent normal human being.’ Then again, apparently Hitler held a strange fascination for Chaplin, the two men having so much in common – they were born within days of each other, both rose from backgrounds of extreme poverty to immense fame and power, and so on. ‘[Hitler]’s copying your act,’ observes Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks in Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin; perhaps Chaplin felt the need to return the favour in some form.

Whatever the reason, The Great Dictator is clearly a heartfelt piece, and this is never more clear than in the concluding sequence, in which the barber (now pretending to be Hynkel) addresses his followers. Chaplin is speaking straight into the camera, in a monologue that goes on for nearly five minutes, calling for peace, brotherhood, freedom and democracy. Some people think it is beautiful and uplifting, others that it is overly earnest and quite simply preachy (it has been identified as the moment at which Chaplin’s personal politics began to impact upon his public image, to his eventual detriment). Personally, I can only agree with Chaplin’s sentiments, I just don’t think this is the stuff of good film-making.

But then The Great Dictator is not really traditional film-making, in the sense that this is not primarily entertainment – Chaplin’s intention seems to have been to use his popularity, especially as the Tramp character, to attract audiences to a film with an overtly political purpose. Chaplin’s physical performance is terrific, and there are some very funny scenes (such as the one with the puddings filled with coins). But that’s never quite the point. Judging The Great Dictator as entertainment kind of misses the point of it. As a piece of political satire, though, I have to find its intentions admirable even if the execution often makes me rather uneasy.

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I used to be a fairly regular participant in the great British tradition of the pub quiz, back before the institution was effectively killed off by the rise of the smartphone and hand-held search engines. One of the methods by which the proprietors of these events tried to limit people’s ability to cheat was by introducing things like music and picture rounds, where you couldn’t just google for the answers. There was usually an interesting mixture of difficulties on display.

I recall on one occasion being heads-down with the rest of the team poring over some of the more challenging pictures we were being asked to identify: 1970s football managers, obscure cousins to the queen, and so on. And there was one photo of a middle-aged man in a shapeless hat and a raincoat, smoking a pipe, with a rather peculiar expression on his face.

‘Is that Eric Morecambe without his glasses?’ wondered one of the team, aloud.

‘No it’s not. Maybe it’s Harold Wilson,’ said another, prompting an instinctive and visceral hiss from the members of the team who also belonged to the local Conservative Club (one can’t always freely pick one’s pub quiz team-mates).

Something was stirring in the back of my brain, as the machinery back there (which I have given up trying to understand) quivered and buzzed and finally coughed up an answer.

‘I… I think that’s Jacques Tati,’ I said.

They stared at me a lot, torn between lack of comprehension at what I was on about and bemusement that I actually appeared to know the answer. For myself, I was astonished that a picture of a French comedian from the middle of the last century had turned up in a pub quiz picture round in the north-west of England, and also that I was able to recognise him despite never actually having seen one of his films.

I mean, come on, it’s French comedy: our cousins across the channel are famous for their wine, their cuisine, their sense of style, and the sense of humility which they take with them whenever they travel abroad, but French comedy is (generally speaking) down the list beneath their pop music when it comes to les grandes realisations de la France.

Then again, there are exceptions to everything, and if there is a French comedian with a claim to international recognition it is Jacques Tati, acclaimed as one of the greatest auteurs and film directors of all time by people who should actually know about that sort of thing.

Well, as I say, I’d heard of Tati (and clearly seen a picture of him at some point), but had never seen one of his movies until recently when a stack of films passed on to me by a friend happened to include Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle (even I, who didn’t even take GCSE French, can figure out that this means My Uncle).

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With a title like that it sounds like some sort of sentimental, family-themed romp, but (and to be honest you had best get used to this) Mon Oncle defies – or, perhaps, ignores – expectations. Tati plays his most famous creation, Monsieur Hulot, a carefree, easy-going gentleman of middle years, residing in a chaotic Parisian neighbourhood at the top of a ramshackle apartment block.

This is quite at odds with the lifestyle of his sister (Adrienne Servantie), who along with her husband Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola) has relocated to an ultra-modern home in the suburbs, with all kinds of modern fixtures and conveniences. Despite all of this, their son (Alain Becourt) seems much happier spending time with his uncle, Hulot. This is a source of much chagrin to the Arpels, who view Hulot as a feckless embarrassment and seemingly spend most of their time trying to get him to adopt a more ‘appropriate’ lifestyle – working in Arpel’s factory, and so on.

There is, it must be said, not much more in the way of plot when it comes to Mon Oncle, mainly just a succession of set-pieces which usually depict Monsieur Hulot unintentionally wreaking havoc upon the ordered existence and plans of the Arpels. Your sympathies are intended to be with Hulot throughout, not because he is a particularly engaging or identifiable figure, but because the lifestyle of the Arpels is depicted as phoney and dehumanised: their home is a sterile environment depicted in a palette of dull greys, the most distinctive feature a fairly ugly fountain (which Mme Arpel hurries to switch on whenever they receive an important guest).

This extends to the film’s view of the factory and the consumerist lifestyle which the Arpels have enthusiastically adopted: rows of grey cars trundling in perfect unison between grey boxes. The contrast with the slightly shambolic, but always warm and vibrant neighbourhood in which Hulot resides could not be much more clear. Points are obviously being made, and there’s a certain sense in which Mon Oncle would be a good double-bill companion piece to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, for they are both obviously very seriously-intentioned satires of consumerism – indeed, Mon Oncle occasionally seems almost reactionary in its suspicion of modern technology.

Satire isn’t an exact synonym for comedy, of course, which I suppose is my way of delicately raising the issue of whether this famous comedy film is actually funny or not. I suppose it is, but this feels like the kind of comedy which is meant to be taken very seriously – in other words, it is Art. As you admire the conception, composition, art direction and performances of each scene, it almost seems disrespectful to laugh at the film: an approving, serious nod feels like a much more appropriate response.

It’s not really the style of comedy you expect, either. Monsieur Hulot is clearly part of a tradition of clowning which – in cinematic terms at least – goes back at least to Chaplin’s Tramp and continues on to characters like Mr Bean (Rowan Atkinson has acknowledged Tati’s influence on his work). But the difference is that with the Tramp or Bean, you are always watching a star vehicle – they are always centre stage, the comedy built around them. In Mon Oncle, on the other hand, many of the scenes are filmed in long shot, with Hulot just one figure in a crowd of other characters (if he is present at all). He is a major character, but the film does not revolve solely around him.

I should probably also observe that there is an abrasive element to Anglophone clowning which seems to be almost entirely absent here. There is a lot less falling-over, slapstick, and comic violence than you might expect – there’s a fairly lengthy sequence about an automatic garage door opening mechanism which eventually causes the Arpels a lot of trouble after their dachshund starts to accidentally trigger the mechanism. I was anticipating the moment where someone either gets hit by the door or entangled in the works and whisked out of sight; it never happens and it almost feels like a scene without a pay-off. There are many other almost-throwaway moments of visual inspiration.

So I have to conclude that while Mon Oncle is clearly a well-made film and the product of a distinct creative sensibility, it didn’t actually make me laugh very much. Then again, it seems to be a film about ideas and the changes in French society in the late 1950s at least as much as it is a comedy; the conclusion (Hulot is banished to the provinces to become a sales rep) seemed to me to be genuinely affecting and rather sad. Still, an interesting film, though definitely the product of a rather different comedic tradition.

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It has become almost facile to point out that the demise of the traditional western – as a significant part of the cinema landscape, anyway – occurred almost simultaneously with the rise of science fiction and fantasy films to the position of box office dominance they enjoy to this day. The conclusion to be drawn is very nearly as straightforward – it’s not quite that SF movies have simply replaced westerns, but that both genres meet the same need and appeal to the same audience. Or, to put it another way, there’s a certain type of action-SF movie which is basically a western in disguise.

The disguise is seldom as perfunctory as in Peter Hyams’ 1981 film Outland, however. Hmm, you may be thinking, where is this Outland place and why did they decide to make a film about it? Well, I have to tell you that this seems to be an example of film-makers not being able to agree on a good title and reaching a consensus on a duff one instead. The film was made under the title Io, which as any fule kno is a volcanically-active moon of Jupiter, but apparently the big brains of the production were concerned that non-astronomically-savvy audiences might read the title as either 10 or Lo, hence the change.

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I will happily agree that Io is not a great title, but at least it’s accurate (personally I would have called the movie High Moon, because sometimes you just can’t be crashingly obvious enough). The film is set in one of those non-specific not-all-that-distant futures where the outer reaches of the solar system are being explored and exploited; people apparently go for many years without ever visiting Earth (the journey from the Jovian region to Earth apparently takes a year in cryo). Io is being mined for titanium and the story takes place in one of the mining outposts, mostly concerning the chief lawman of the place, Marshall (or Marshal, depending on where you look) Bill O’Niel (Sean Connery).

O’Niel has only recently taken up his post and is still receiving apparently mock-stern lectures from the outpost’s manager, Sheppard (Peter Boyle), about how he needs to be flexible in his approach to the job and cut the hard-working miners some slack. To begin with O’Niel is more preoccupied by the fact that his wife can’t hack rattling around yet another space outpost and has left him to go back to Earth, but his cop instincts are triggered when he comes across a string of suspicious deaths – workers cutting open their spacesuits while outside, or not even bothering to wear them.

(Outland is notable for its enthusiastic championing of the notion that if you go into a hard vacuum without a spacesuit, either your head or your torso will explode. Apparently this is just one of those myths, but it does allow the special effects department some fun. One of the people whose head explodes is John Ratzenberger, best known for playing Cliff in Cheers, but eminently spottable in small parts in many famous late 70s and early 80s films, thanks to a stint based in London.)

Normally the remains of these ‘accidents’ are quietly disposed of, but O’Niel eventually manages to lay his hands on the body of a worker who apparently goes mad. With the help of the outpost’s medic, Dr Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), O’Niel discovers that all the dead men had been taking high-powered amphetamines, allowing them to work longer and harder but eventually frying their brains.

It transpires that Sheppard and even some of O’Niel’s own men are in on the racket – the drugs increase productivity, which is all Sheppard and his bosses really care about. Their assumption is that O’Niel, like his predecessor, can be bought off, because only a fool would risk his life by taking on Sheppard and the men behind him. But this does not sit well with O’Niel, who finds himself compelled to hang onto his principles and take a stand (or, this being a Connery movie after all, a shtand).

One day someone will write about Outland and not draw comparisons between it and Alien. But that day has clearly not yet dawned. The aesthetic of the two films is almost identical, to the point where they could quite easily share a continuity: the mining outpost is a grimy, cramped, industrial warren of corridors, controlled by faceless and uncaring corporations.

The setting of Outland is important as it’s the only thing which gives it its SF credentials. The story itself is that of one principled man attempting to put an end to drug racketeering despite the odds being stacked against him – it could really be set anywhere. Even the drug racketeering is on one level just plot fluff, setting up the central conflict of the movie, which is not so much Connery versus the drug dealers as Connery’s sense of self-preservation versus his stubbornly principled streak. What is he really hoping to achieve? Nobody would blame him for taking bribes or running away…

This owes, of course, a big debt to High Noon, although Outland only really closely resembles the earlier movie for a chunk of its second half: a far-from-subtle digital countdown indicates how long before the space shuttle carrying professional killers will arrive at the outpost.

To be honest, though, I found these scenes and the eventual fight between Connery and the hitmen to be rather laborious, though fairly well-mounted; much more interesting are the earlier scenes in which O’Niel uncovers the extent of the corruption around him and realises just what a sticky spot he’s in. There is some really good material here, including some top-class moral outrage, and Connery plays it for all that it’s worth. I find that in a lot of Sean Connery’s later appearances, his tendency is just to play it very broad and just do the same lovable twinkly performance, but this is a proper acting job from the big man.

His main support comes from Sternhagen as the grumpy doctor, and she is also very good. This is a well-played film throughout, to be honest, and a reasonably well-written one. The film’s visual effects and model work are pretty good, but you can tell that the director and the screenwriter are also working hard to keep the film focused and credible.

I first saw Outland on TV in the late 80s and do recall that I wasn’t especially impressed by it: good production designs, but a bit dull. I think I would revise that opinion now – this is a solid film with a compelling central story and performance, but let down slightly  by its climax. And I do think it’s telling that Hyams admitted later that he only really wanted to make a western – the outer-space setting was just the only one that the studio felt was commercially viable. You can tell that none of the major talent involved was really that interested in making a science-fiction film, because in a very real sense they didn’t. Nevertheless, this is a watchable thriller with some distinctive elements.

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Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger’s Black Narcissus was released in 1947. With some films, mostly recently ones, the date of release is just another bit of hopefully-useful information. But, the world being as it is today, in the case of Black Narcissus you do have to bear in mind the context in which it was made. I have no doubt that some modern viewers will find this movie to be highly offensive and objectionable, without much of interest to offer; nevertheless, it still made it into a list of the top fifty British films ever made in a BFI poll at the end of the 20th century.

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It’s a little hard to be sure, but there’s nothing to suggest that Black Narcissus is not intended to be set in the period it was made (and some have suggested this would be thematically appropriate). The story concerns a group of nuns who are sent to open a school and hospital in a wind-swept former seraglio, high atop a cliff in the Himalayas. In charge is Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), who is young, confident, and ambitious – her (mother) superior is concerned she is not yet ready for this demanding role, but allows the appointment to go ahead regardless.

The sisters find their new home to be a demanding place to live, to say the least: the local villagers have to be paid to visit the school and dispensary, while the local English agent, Dean (David Farrar), makes his feelings on the subject quite clear – this is no place for a nunnery, and the undertaking is doomed to failure,

Stresses slowly build up both around and within the old palace. Sister Clodagh finds it impossible to entirely forget a failed love affair which led to her joining the order, while one of the other nuns, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), develops a fixation on Dean himself. The path between religious devotion and a life in the world proves to be a hazardous one.

The first problem that some modern audiences may have with Black Narcissus is that it is a seriously-intentioned film about nuns. Commercial films about nuns nowadays are rarely serious: they tend to fall into two groups, those that are knockabout mainstream comedies (I am thinking of Nuns on the Run and Sister Act), and those aimed at – how shall one put it? – a more niche audience. Exploitation films, in other words. (Given that a new horror movie actually called The Nun is doing the rounds, I suppose we must mention this as well.)

But back in the 1940s it was perfectly acceptable to take nuns seriously and make serious films about them, even when the nuns wore extraordinary wimples like the ones in Black Narcissus. It was also okay to make films about the British Empire in which the Empire itself was presented quite neutrally, as a matter of fact rather than the source of retroactive breast-beating – Black Narcissus isn’t an explicitly imperial film, but it is shot through with the values and attitudes of empire. ‘They’re like children,’ is how the local people are described; they are also apparently ‘primitive’ and one character comments that ‘they all look the same’.

If this wasn’t enough to outrage the sensibilities of a modern young progressive, this is a film with an Indian setting in which most of the Indian performers only appear as extras (hired from the docks in Rotherhithe, apparently). Of the key Indian roles, one is played by Sabu Dastigir, while the others are played by Europeans wearing heavy make-up (one of these is an early role for Jean Simmons).

And if all this, coupled to the fact that this is a film concerned with an unfashionable moral idea (self-denial), is enough to make you dismiss it as a hideous exemplar of outdated attitudes, notable only as a warning from history – well, I can hardly stop you from having an opinion. The 1940s were different to the modern world, certainly – but personally I don’t think this is in and of itself sufficient reason to dismiss a film from this period out of hand.

If nothing else there is the film’s technical achievement to consider. The first few times I watched Black Narcissus I could only marvel at the ability of Powell and Pressberger to shoot a film on location in the Himalayas in the late 40s, let alone make it look so good. Of course, I now know better: most of the sweeping mountain vistas are there courtesy of back projection and matte paintings, the production not going further from Pinewood Studios than Sussex. And yet it has a tremendous atmosphere and sense of place to it.

Much of this comes from Jack Cardiff’s justly celebrated cinematography, filling the screen with vibrant colours; it’s a feast for the eyes. And here we come to what the film is really about. I find it hard to think of Black Narcissus as the ‘erotic’ film which so many others find it to be – the word carries too many connotations these days – but it is certainly one which is sensuous and heady with passion, especially as it goes on.

The central irony of the story is that it concerns a group of women who have chosen to devote themselves to lives of strict self-discipline, who find themselves living in a palace formerly occupied by the pleasure-girls of a bygone age. They are meant to be in the world but not of it, according to the charter of their order – neither the ascetic Indian holy man who makes his hermitage just a bit too close for Sister Clodagh’s liking, nor Dean’s dissolute hedonist, but somewhere in between the two.

And the story is about showing what a hard road they have picked for themselves. Quite apart from Sister Clodagh’s issues with her own past, the others find it hard to keep their emotions under control. A sympathetic sister gives medicine to a sick child, inadvertently placing the whole community in danger. The nun in charge of the garden can’t resist planting flowers instead of vegetables, seduced by their colour and beauty. And, centrally, Sister Ruth cannot control her desire for Dean.

Most of Black Narcissus is carried by very solid performances by Deborah Kerr and David Farrar, but it is Kathleen Byron’s remarkable turn as the unhinged Sister Ruth that lingers in the mind and really makes the climax of the film work. The film has quietly tacked between drama and melodrama until now, with occasional moments of gentle comedy, but as Ruth loses her mind it threatens to transform into full-on psychological horror, with the lapsed nun plotting murderous violence against the woman she perceives as rival.

I suppose it’s all quite symbolic: the nuns live halfway up a mountain, midway between the pure and airy vaults of the heavens and the colourful, earthy world below. The trick is to find a way of staying there. Sister Ruth succumbs to the attraction of worldly pleasures, and, well, falls off the mountain as a consequence.

The question is whether the mountainside is a tenable place to live in the first place. The film suggests not, but an ending that should feel sombre and downbeat is also quite muted: the rains come to the mountain valley, the land is revitalised, the cycle of life goes on, with or without the presence of the holy women. Perhaps retreat (in both senses of the word) is the only option for the sisters – but if they are mistaken in their ambitions, the film is at least sympathetic to them. Whatever else it is, this is a thoughtful, beautifully made film from one of the UK’s greatest cinematic partnerships.

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Donald Cammell’s reputation as a film director rests on two movies: Performance, a cult movie from 1970 about a gangster undergoing a psychedelic identity crisis, and Demon Seed, a sci-fi horror film from 1977 (also with something of a cult following), based on a novel by the prolific author Dean Koontz (Koontz is so prolific he actually published Demon Seed twice, in two radically different versions). Demon Seed is one of those movies in which… well, the plot, such as it is, is fairly obvious and straightforward, but in terms of what the film is actually about

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Fritz Weaver plays Alex Harrison, one of those brilliant scientists whose hubris, you just know, is sure to catch up with him. He is a successful but also quite cold man – his marriage to his wife Susan (Julie Christie) is coming to an end, but he is much more preoccupied by his work. This takes the form of a pioneering new kind of super-computer, more akin to a living brain, which he has named Proteus Four. Proteus is the greatest pure intelligence in the history of the planet, coming up with a cure for leukemia after only a few days’ thought: the possibilities, Harris believes, are dazzling.

Of course, this being a 70s sci-fi movie very much in the wake of 2001, Proteus has ideas of its own, refusing to work on new methods of despoiling the planet for big business and demanding to be allowed to do its own research into the human condition. Its creators refuse.

Well, it just so happens that Harris has had his own home filled with all the latest electronic conveniences, with a computer controlling all the functions, and a handy link to the lab where Proteus is based installed in the basement. (The film has a sort of near-future setting, which is indicated by things like cars having gull-wing doors and computers being programmed by floppy discs the size of old LP records.) It is the work of only a few seconds for Proteus to hack the house where Susan is living and basically make her a captive there.

Is Proteus just another of those mad, evil computers that pop up in pulp SF movies? Apparently not. Proteus is seeking to transcend its condition as a synthetic intelligence and achieve a different kind of immortality – by having a child! And Susan, of course, will be fairly integral to the computer’s project, whether she likes it or not…

Demon Seed is one of those movies which clearly shares concerns and themes with many others from about the same period without being particularly influenced by any of them. Like any other high-minded SF film of the 1970s, its makers seem to have been under the impression that a trippy montage sequence was absolutely essential for the film to succeed, and one duly turns up here near the start of the final act, while the softly-spoken computer terrorising the human characters owes such an obvious debt to HAL 9000 it barely warrants mentioning. But despite these influences, and other themes it shares with films like The Forbin Project and The Stepford Wives, Demon Seed always retains its own identity.

Part of this, to a modern audience at least, is that this is a problematically icky movie about a computer wanting to rape the main female character. You can’t really fault Julie Christie’s performance but she is basically playing a passive victim throughout most of the film, at the mercy of Proteus. The scene in which she is basically strapped to a table by the computer, has most of her clothes cut off, and is subjected to a fairly comprehensive medical exam – well, leery and exploitative are the words which leap to mind.

The other thing which occurs to you is that this is all a bit improbable, given that Proteus basically just has access to a motorised wheelchair with a clunky-looking robotic arm attached to it. And yet with this it is able to not only manipulate Julie Christie’s person in all sorts of intimate ways, but also construct the more sophisticated robotic avatars and pieces of technology which appear as the film goes on.

But the fact that this is a film about a computer wanting to have a baby should have tipped you off to it being one you have to cut some slack in key departments, mainly when it comes to plotting. Some of the mid-film incident comes from a hapless computer tech (Gerrit Graham) wandering into the middle of the situation between Susan and Proteus, and the plot requires that this guy vanish without nobody noticing for about a month. It’s already been established that Proteus is a dab hand at faking phone calls, but this is still pushing credibility rather too far.

On the other hand, it’s quite clear that Cammell is much more interested in the film as a kind of impressionistic experience than as a conventional narrative, for visually it gets increasingly extravagant and surreal as it proceeds: Proteus’ avatar in the house eventually resembles a giant bronze version of Rubik’s Snake, there is the previously-mentioned trippy montage sequence, the appearance of a rather disturbing cyborg baby (performed by Felix Silla, who also played the annoying robot Twiki on Buck Rogers) who eventually turns out to be… well, this is perhaps a spoiler, although the plot point involved is rather cryptic.

Most of the movie is basically a two-hander between Julie Christie and the disembodied voice of the computer, and to be honest Demon Seed‘s star turn is Robert Vaughn, who gives a stellar vocal performance as Proteus, easily up there with Douglas Rain’s turn as Hal in the Odyssey movies. Between them they keep the film accessible even as what it’s really all about becomes increasingly oblique. It’s clearly much more than just another film about technophobia, though there is of course an element of that; the obvious conclusion is that it is somehow about the fusion of pure reason and intellect (represented by Proteus) with emotion and compassion (some care is taken to establish Susan’s credentials as a humane and caring psychotherapist). Their eventual offspring is presumably a synthesis of the best parts of both.

Though, then again, Cammell is far from explicit about this and the film is never far from a moment of cod profundity. Do you ever really forget that this is a film with a rather icky premise, though? Well, no; it’s the main thing that makes Demon Seed memorable and distinctive. Any film about a computer wanting to get it on with a terrorised woman is inevitably going to seem a bit problematic, if not downright exploitative, and Demon Seed in no way dodges this particular bullet. There are a few other ways in which this is arguably quite a bad movie, too. But, on the other hand, there are not many bad movies which are quite as interesting, both visually and thematically, as this one.

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We have apparently lived through some sort of mini-Golden Age of the Documentary Feature – don’t tell me you missed it! – with films like Searching for Sugar Man, Project Nim, Man on Wire, and The Imposter all drawing serious attention from audiences not usually noted for their interest in non-fictitious times. Given this embarrassment of riches, it’s not really surprising that the odd really interesting film managed to sneak through without getting the profile it possibly deserved.

I’m thinking at the moment of Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, which came out in 2012. On reflection, perhaps it’s understandable that this is a film with more niche appeal – most of the ones mentioned at the top of the review were based around taking a fascinating but little-known true story and bringing it to life for a new audience. Room 237 is not this kind of film. This is a film for, let’s be honest, movie nerds, and people who are interested in movie nerdery.

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There have been lots of good movies made about the making of other movies, some semi-fictional, some not. Room 237 is about Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining (in which Jack Nicholson moves himself and his family into an isolated hotel for the winter and comes down with the hammiest case of writer’s block in movie history). It is not, however, a film about the making of The Shining. It is a film in which various obscure movie nerds give their opinions as to what was going through Stanley Kubrick’s head when he was making The Shining.

Now, I have to be honest and admit the following: I’ve only ever seen The Shining once, over twenty years ago, and it’s one of those films I came away from wondering what all the fuss was about – it was curious, engaging, obviously made by someone with a very particular storytelling sensibility – but it wasn’t, you know, particularly frightening, which is surely the sine qua non of any self-respecting horror film (which, being based on an early Stephen King novel, this surely is).

Not knowing The Shining particularly well makes watching Room 237 (the title is drawn from a key location in the story) a rather curious experience. I have no particularly strongly-held beliefs about what this film is secretly about. I am not even sure I subscribe to the view that it even contains a secret message of any kind. However, Room 237 is populated by people who are absolutely certain that beneath its tale of psychological breakdown and (possibly) malevolent spectres, Kubrick had a very particular message that he wanted to send to the audience. The really weird thing is that none of them can agree on what it is.

One contributor is utterly convinced that the film is an allegory for the near-genocide of Native Americans by colonists to America (evidence: dialogue about the hotel being built on an Indian burial ground, the presence of Native American art throughout the film, a particular brand of tinned good being prominently featured). Then along comes someone else and reveals it is actually about the Nazi holocaust (evidence: Nicholson uses a certain brand of typewriter, a particular number is a motif in the script, and there is a suggestive dissolve between two scenes at one point). But it turns out they’re both wrong, because here comes a third commentator who reveals the whole story has some kind of connection of the legend of the Minotaur (evidence: a poster sort of looks a bit like a minotaur, there’s a couple of mazes in the story, and Nicholson looks a bit like a bull at one point).

Possibly the best-known thesis given an airing here is that of Jay Weidner, who argues that The Shining is Kubrick’s coded admission of his role in the faking of the Apollo moon landings (for which 2001: A Space Odyssey was basically the cover story). Like all his colleagues, Weidner is obviously sincere and obviously completely certain that what he is saying is true: the message is coded into almost every significant element of the movie, and also some things that are apparently insignificant (the pattern of the hotel carpet is apparently a dead giveaway). All the changes between the novel of The Shining and the film (which apparently ticked off author Stephen King so royally) are there solely to facilitate the film’s secret message.

The rabbit hole starts to yawn wide. It’s clear that Weidner not only thinks that the faked Apollo moon landings are connected to The Shining – he thinks that in a very crucial sense, it’s impossible to make sense of and really understand the film unless you approach it with this in mind. Which, of course, can’t be the case, because it is also obviously about the Holocaust, genocide, the legend of the Minotaur, and various other things.

At least these theories are based on a relatively conventional viewing of the movie. One person featured in Room 237 has gone to the trouble of carefully watching the movie and making maps of the hotel, in the process discovering that, architecturally, the place can’t exist – there are windows where no window can possibly be, for instance, and rooms overlap with each other. Was this a creative choice by Kubrick to indicate the Overlook somehow exists beyond conventional space? Or just dud continuity? Someone else has actually spent time watching two versions of The Shining playing simultaneously, one of them backwards, and discovered various apparently significant consonances. Does he honestly believe Kubrick did this intentionally, in the expectation anyone would watch the film this way?

Sometimes there really is an intentional subtext to a movie that can be uncovered by looking at it a little more closely: to choose a very obvious example, the original Dawn of the Dead works on two levels, as a brilliantly-accomplished action-horror movie and as a darkly funny satire on consumerism. But if you look too closely at a movie, there’s a danger you start to see things that just aren’t intentional. Not every prop and piece of set dressing is intended to send a message to the canny viewer. The fact that so many people have spent so many hours examining The Shining and come away with such widely disparate conclusions is surely proof that there can’t be one correct interpretation of the film. Their beliefs tell us little about Kubrick or his film, but a lot about them.

Well, perhaps that’s a bit harsh. Most of Room 237 is composed of extracts from The Shining (some scenes are repeated multiple times), along with clips from other Kubrick movies and a few others (Capricorn One makes a not entirely surprising appearance, for example, as does An American Werewolf in London), and you do come away with a fuller appreciation of Kubrick’s visual sense, if nothing else. The man made very beautiful, occasionally very enigmatic films. Room 237 is about obsession, but it’s also about loving movies – even if it is just a bit too much. A curious but very engaging film.

 

 

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(How’s About This For Unfinished Business Dept.: No word of a lie – while getting ready for the current odyssey I unearthed from a dark corner of my luggage two sheets of aged, crinkled paper. They turned out to be a review actually written in Kyrgyzstan at some point in the spring of 2009, which I never got around to typing up and submitting to h2g2 (many possible reasons for this, none of which I care to dwell on). So here we are, better late than never – and it’s oddly reassuring to see that the core focus of my film criticism has remained unchanged in the last nine years…)

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column which proves that the words ‘unmissable release’ have become sadly devalued. As with our previous instalment, caveat lector – I’m talking about a movie I saw in a language I only have an elementary grasp of. That said…

In terms of being a tough movie to get a sequel out of, I suspect Beneath the Planet of the Apes still leads the field, concluding as it does with said planet vaporised along with every single character (or so it appears). I would have put 2006’s Crank somewhere on the same list, though, due to the ending featuring the fatally-poisoned main character falling two miles out of a helicopter into the centre of Los Angeles (thoughtfully phoning up his girlfriend to apologise on the way down).

There were of course three further sequels to Beneath the Planet of the Apes, along with two TV series and various other ephemera. The prospect of Crank becoming a similar multi-media institution strikes me as rather unlikely (not to mention deeply disturbing), but a sequel has duly appeared in the form of Crank: High Voltage, directed as before by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor.

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Straight after hitting the ground, crazed psychotic Chev Chelios (perennial favourite hereabouts and Greatest Living Englishman candidate Lord Jason of Statham) is scraped off the pavement and slung in the back of a van by some Chinese gangsters. Impressed by his resistance to the adrenaline poison (the plot device driving the first film), they have decided to harvest his organs. Upon learning this, Chev responds in typically forthright style, but it’s too late: his heart has already been extracted for transplant into an ageing crime lord (David Carradine) and replaced with a battery-powered artificial one. The battery is wont to run low at the most inopportune moments, which only makes Chev’s quest to retrieve his heart even trickier…

By any even moderately civilised standards, the Crank movies are jaw-droppingly horrible – not actually badly made, just amoral, obscene, hugely violent, tasteless, profane, and thoroughly offensive. Crank: High Voltage is very much in the same vein as the original in that it is largely one headlong display of carnage and depravity on the streets of Los Angeles.

Any hopes of increased maturity this time round were dispelled by an early sequence in which Chev interrogates a somewhat-obese bad guy by inserting a lubricated shotgun barrel where the sun don’t shine. I am on record in these pages as disliking the Kill Bill films, in particular, for exactly this sort of thing, which makes my (guilty) enjoyment of Crank rather embarrassing.

So, how to defend it? Well, in addition to all the things previously mentioned, Crank: High Voltage is frenetic, ludicrous and bizarre (it’s even got Geri Halliwell in it), but it’s also frequently very funny (the great man shows signs of a comic touch that could probably be rewardingly utilised in the right role) and never, ever pretentious or under the illusion it’s anything other than junk entertainment. It’s consistently inventive and surprising in its storytelling, which is never confused (I particularly enjoyed the sequence in which Jason Statham turns into Godzilla. Honestly).

The directors deftly handle what turns into a fairly complicated story – the main thread concerns Chev and the increasingly improbable methods he uses to keep his heart going, but whirling around it like demented satellites are subplots featuring Chev’s girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart) who’s now a pole dancer, a rather excitable Chinese prostitute who’s also in love with him (Bai Ling), the twin of Chev’s original sidekick, who is also transsexual but, additionally, suffers from whole-body Tourette’s syndrome (Efren Ramirez)… you get the general idea.

As you may have surmised, this isn’t really a venue for nuanced acting, but everyone seems to do what’s required of them (well, I have my doubts about Ginger Spice, but that’s a matter of principle) and the great man does a nice job of making Chev distinct from his other franchise character, Frank Martin. (Though an in-joke where an old woman complains that she’s been molested by someone who looks like the guy from The Transporter had me rolling my eyes a bit.)

I couldn’t honestly recommend either of the Crank movies to anyone I didn’t know very well, but I hope I’ve given you some idea of what to expect should you decide to take the plunge. It will almost certainly exceed your expectations, though probably not in a good way. I wait with some trepidation the next sequel, which I note the film-makers’ have made much easier to arrange, though quite how they can sustain the concept for another full movie I shudder to think.

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