Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Ten TV What-Ifs

Whether X-treme short form like The Forbidden Files or epic like Lost there's an edge that the fantastic holds for me that draws me to it without fail. What can fail is the execution which speaks for most. It is a tough call getting any new material onto a small screen that mostly illuminates only for the well proven let alone a series of stretchy concepts. History will always favour the bold in this case so while the original Star Trek is treasured but Land of the Giants is at best recalled with vague fondness.I've chosen tv rather than cinema here because it can stretch from the miniature to the mountainous to varying purposes. This isn't trying to be comprehensive. Like most of my list posts, it's what occured to me at the time. Happy to read anyone's favourites.

Twlilight Zone: Five years worth of short-form fantastic fiction shot like contemporary cinema and cast with veteran character actors as well as an impressive list of future stars, Rod Serling's brainchild still delights. I bought the entire set on dvd a few years back and slowly went through them over a year. There are certainly a few turkeys there but there would be with that much screen time. Interestingly, most of the longer fifty-minute episode season 4 is consistently below par; this is one series that knew its limitations (well, after it broke them). But overall such sharp and flavoursome scenaric punch is only rarely to be found in one place. I screened a few at Shadows to pretty much unanimous enthusiasm. I can only imagine what it felt like to find this kind of strangeness coming from a gluey little blue screen with rounded edges. It had to overreach with some of its performances and writing but, you know, it still cuts through. So does the Season 2 and onward theme tune which is still quoted in conversation as aural shorthand for weirdness.
Favourite ep: And When the Sky Did Open. A test crew pilot is visited in hospital by a crewmate. They have survived a crash from a spaceflight in an experimental craft. Problem is that the guy in the hospital has no memory of the third crew member who seems to have been erased from the previous day's newspaper headline.

Twin Peaks: Direct ancestor of all that is deep and strong about current US cable tv which thinks nothing of incorporating undeclared dreamscapes, experimental sound mixing or under-explained endings and is even celebrated for such. Lynch and Frost wanted the central murder investigation to become a MaGuffin for the dark undercurrents in the small logging town. Such were the times that the US network ABC forced the revelation of the murderer and, while that provided some fine headspinning moments, it was almost all downhill from there as irritating quirkiness and mainstream blandness crept into the dark and goofed about until what was available to wrest from the swell of failure was distilled into a forced if intriguing finale. But that first season and a good quarter of the second really did haunt its viewers. The cinemagraphic style and grownup music score set the bar for the decades to come.
Favourite ep: S02E01 Coop's on the floor of his hotel room from taking a bullet in the Season 1 cliffhanger and has a chat with "the world's most decrepit waiter" and then a whispering giant. Just gets better from that point.

The Forbidden Files/Les Documents Interdits: A series of twelve bitesized falls into weirdness quietly consolidated the found footage genre that would take root at the end of the decade with The Las Broadcast and The Blair Witch Project. Grainy small format film or home standard video images with glitchy sound and sometimes troubling edits and commentary beneath commentary provided some unnerving moments at a time when everything else was getting slicked up. I would tape Eat Carpet on SBS which featured these shorts while gallivanting on Saturday night and watch it the next morning, hungover and vulnerable. Sometimes this was a mistake. The first one I saw, The Ferguson Case, involved a reporter investigating a distress call for a gimmicky soft news show. He and the crew drive out to a huge mansion and roam through the house looking for the owner, going deeper and deeper until the live feed dies and all that's left on screen is static. I carried that around for days. Then there was the one about the witch..... I showed these, often with Twilight Zone eps, before the features at Shadows. They never failed to intrigue.
Favourite ep: The Ferguson Case (described o'erhead.)

The Stone Tape (1972): Almost a can of worms to even mention UK tv in this list as for three decades no other national tv industry provided us with more intriguing and tasty ideas that the British. I have to be very picky here but I think this one extends to all Kneale's fantastical work, anyway. Industrial scientists move into an old manse to set up the search for the new audio medium and find infinitely more than they dared expect. Clear thinking portrayal of the research underworld and its politics as well as a string of typically wow ideas from this master of them. Made in the day when this could be produced for broadcast on boxing day; reheated plum pudding and ghosts as you've never known them. Extraordinary at every turn. See also Quatermas (any of the stories) and the tv version of The Woman in Black (1985).

This video is an ad for the box set but it's funny.

Lost: The most sustained tease in tv history, Lost began as a sprawling weird tale that could inject a shot of weirder just as it started feeling soapy. The trouble was that it had to start outdoing itself and began to spin out of control. By the time the time zones were competing for our attention Lost lost mine. I watched the home stretch out of habit and shrugged at the finale. In successfully innoculating itself against Twin Peaks syndrome the constant new mysteries that were offered as diversions to unanswered questions robbed the thing of substance. Would that have happened to Twin Peaks if it hadn't have been forced to reveal the killer so early? Hard to say but I don't think at that time that it would have been any better than the quirk 'n' jerk that we got. The ever more intricate devices on show in Lost started feeling like plugging a cracked dam with blutac but for a while there ...
Favourite ep: Pilot. the plane has crashed and everyone's on the beach or wandering back to it from the jungle. It's not just any island.

Star Trek: I'm going to limit myself to the original series. The first time I saw this it was in repeat on local tv and I was a child. I considered it a great adventure series and missed most of the subtlety and metaphor. The second time I saw a string of episodes was as a young adult. I saw concepts that I'd missed and a great amount of irony, also missed the first time. Just before I went on holidays I bought a box set of the original series on blu-ray and luxuriated in the restoration. Also, I have been marvelling at a lot of depth in the writing and performances that I'd never registered before. I used to think of Spock the same way that Dr McCoy does, as a kind of moral dart board but seeing Nimoy's performance again and finding out that Spock is restraining himself from emotions rather than being unable to express them. I always kind of knew that he and McCoy were two sides of humanity that reached their completion in the Kirkian godhead but didn't know how much Spock was actually holding back which goes even further toward his difference from McCoy. 'Part from that the stories are by and large not just hamfisted allegories as I remembered but hold subtlety and are far more genuinely sci-fi than I remembered. Ace! If you're iffy about it or revisiting get the blu-ray set and opt out of the rejigged effects (nice that they aren't imposed but optional). You'll dig it.
Favourite ep: The Naked Time. A kind of sci fi folktale where an alien catalyst has a kind of Walpurgisnacht effect on the crew. Worth it for Sulu's turn as a shirtless, sword wielding swashbuckler.

The X-Files: The two aspects of this one I was meant to like were the unrealised sexual tension between the two leads and the alien conspiracy arc but I couldn't care about either. Lost successfully kept its tease going through some really fancy footwork on the mystery ambush. Just when you thought things were getting soapy bam, the guy you thought was a busker from Ohio suddenly has the power to transform into a shoe. The alien arc tried something like this but it ended up being too samey: this guy is going to be treacherous, that granny is really a CIA black ops chief, someone trusted is going to betray Mulder, if you can't explain it it's aliens and the senior FBI comptroller of missions is really working for the secret government nd so weiter und so weiter .... But the strength of the X-Files was telling barefaced monster tales, what ifs that whispered from shadows or big bold weird monsters like Tooms the Mr Stretcho of Pittsburg. The moody Canada for USA forests and condensed breath morning scenes showed an America that existed in a darkness concealed within its own light. Whether it was the allegorical aspects of the liver fluke man or the self-parody Jose Chung's From Outer Space weren't accidents, the show for most of its nine season run maintained a strong atmosphere and developed an intriguing relationship between its leads (not just Scully and Mulder but the later Reyes and Doggett as well) and maintained a healthy connection to the zeitgeist. Favourite ep: Oubliette. Scully and Mulder investigate an abduction but find the victim of an old case with the same MO doesn't want to help. Finding out why leads to a gutwrenching answer. Really really powerful forty plus minutes of tv.

Dr. Who: Hard to leave this one off but also hard to include it as we're talking about several decades of mostly impressive imaginative fiction. Though the more recent series have been light action sequences and cuteness that without the bloated orchestral scoring wouldn't be half as exciting but with it just feel overdone the majority of this character's long run has been distinguished by ideas and suspense that benefited from slower and deeper exercise of fantastical thinking. There were many stories that borrowed heavily from other sci fi, the fx and acting of the earliest episodes might be offputting to the new contemporary viewer but a little relaxation will allow the ideas through and all shall be well. And that theme tune, originally created with basic technology and giant minds will get you every time.

Les Revenants: The title is often translated to mean ghosts in English but the folk who walk back into their hometown years after their deaths are substantial enough. They walk and talk, eat normal food and remember everything except their own deaths. Variously welcomed, rejected or guarded against, they try to catch up with life that does not quite know how to deal with them. They appear one by one until the secret of their existance can no longer be kept by which time there is a horde of them shuffling into town. Other events that I won't spoil converge with this to create one of the eeriest final scenes in any tv show I've seen since Twin Peaks. If it's parent company can allow it to unfold at its own pace it will outstrip US cable fare like True Blood with ease. The score by Scottish post-rockers Mogwai is superb. If SBS shows it this year, do yourself a favour.
Favourite ep: La Horde, the finale of season 1 there's just no way of getting there until it happens in front of you.

VR.5: This is a dimming memory but the concept was a pace ahead of its time (if the tech was a pace behind). Lori Singer plays the young brains 'n' beauty Sydney Bloom, daughter of virtual reality pioneer Dr Joseph Bloom who disappeared while she was still a lassie. She has continued her own work in the field as a hobby but it's good enough to come to the attention of the mysterious Committee who recruits her to advance her work. This leads to some fine trippy invasions of other people's brains through the phone lines and while the episodes can be hit and miss this is one case where the complicated arc is actually interesting. Made at a time when the term cyberpunk crossed from hip to mainstream but shows with too much conceptual scaffolding didn't get past their first seasons (they weren't all good @AmericanGothic) and fanatically loved by a small fanbase who tried to petition its makers into continuing it or at least turning it into a movie. That continued to fail and it's one of those titles that seem destined never to appear in public again. Pity. It probably just looks hokey and silly now ... but pity.
Favourite ep: Had to go into an antique episode guide for this but I'll say Simon's Choice is one I recall having a strong effect at the time.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Review: HER: Intimacy and Saturation

It's the near future and it's all glass and pastel. A very clean Joaquin Phoenix gazes out at us and tells what he loves about us and how he can't wait until he sees us again. He closes off with the word, "print", and we pull back to find him dictating romantic letters like everyone around him who croon the same kind of stuff into their wood panelled workstations. The print out comes out on the kind of coloured paper we used to use for intimate letters, the font looks like longhand with a randomiser. He tosses envelopes into a post box on his way out of the office. It's a nice place, this future.

Once home, Theodore (Phoenix) idles his evening with a holographic game and signs into an online sex date service that is instantly gratifying but also potentially too weird to be erotic. It doesn't help him sleep. It brings on more memories of his ex. He is dithering over signing the divorce papers. 1st world and 1%, sure, but he is in trouble.

The new hip operating system features learning technology fronted by a voice of choice. This is where the film reaches it's coup. The original voice was the highly capable Samantha Morton. Spike Jonze recast it with Scarlett Johanson. The buzz about this film makes a lot of this and how it means that Johanson won't be up for a film-long performance because she's there in voice only. But it also means that we have no trouble at all in visualising the Sodastream Girl and while we can comfortably predict from their first dialogue that these two will fall in love without the visualisation when we do have it the effect is instant. As soon as we hear and "see" her Samantha, the name the OS gives herself, is Johanson and she's in the cast.

The core narrative of this film is a familiar one. Recent outings like Lars and the Real Girl and Ruby Sparks play on love outside the norm have played out tensions between a central relationship and the community of the living/real/human/etc partner. Relationships with technologically created lovers are as old as Greek myth, through ETA Hoffmann and Twilight Zone and Star Trek. Ruby Sparks was about control and Lars about acceptance. What does Her put on the table?

While there is some initial awkwardness that prevents Theodore admitting that he's in love with an OS he eventually does and rides any resulting ridicule. We've already seen his alarm at online sex and then we follow him on a date that starts beautifully but turns very weird at the kiss goodnight moment. He craves intimacy, even maintains a career in celebration of it, but he sucks at it.

At first we think his ease with the developing romance between himself and Samantha the OS will lead him on to rejecting the ease of having a partner who trains herself to meet his needs but we are to be disappointed of that smugness. He is, rather, excited by the discovery offered him by a partner who learns faster than he can and is happy to accept a subordinate role. When the inevitable machine-that-feels moments come up this power relation sends him scurrying back to the comfort of the third dimension.

The third act is all about learning and a return to our initial expectations of the logical progression of the pairing and we are dealt a surprise so quietly delivered it feels like the memory of a hangover. I'm not going to spoil it here but it's good.

Performances are strong across the board in this talk-heavy film. Phoenix takes us on his shoulders as the emotional centre. Johanson's sprightly vocal gymnastics give a powerful indication of what it must sound like to discover, practice and perfect human emotions starting from zero. At one point she adopts a robot monotone as a joke which reminds us of the problem of creating a synthesised voice would be for real and then to the question of how much of what Theodore hears is illusion or should more properly be considered primary experience. With a less able pair of tonsils we might have been in trouble (though, as an admirer, I'd love to hear what Samantha Morton had made of it). The performance that never seems to get a mention is Amy Adams. Having subtled down her weird intensity from The Master to American Hustle she chooses here to channel Sandy Dennis and the nerdy brittleness that old stager brought to her Robert Altman roles, a kind of brittle nerdiness. Under sung but screen warming nevertheless.

However, as much as I can praise Her I have to say that the sheer repetition of issues and motifs starts feeling like saturation rather than completeness and that what at heart is a half hour Twilight Zone episode (there were several like it back in the 60s) has been stretched to at least half an hour over its proper length for the hell of it. Jonze is no stranger to handling esoterica with great flare and can put perfectly timed comedy into anything. Here he loosens the creative belt in the same way that Michel Gondry did in his first outing past Charlie Kaufmann (The Science of Sleep) and Kaufmann's first without either Gondry or Jonze (Synecdoche, New York) and the result is not so much creativity gone wild as a flabby lack of restraint. There are great moments here but they risk sinking out of sight as we wonder how long we've been sitting there looking at this.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Timecapsules reopening

Timecapsules, the film night that begat Shadows, is back. Yes, Dean has responded to demand and found a new venue and will set up shop from February 2nd. Yes!

Why you should be smiling:

The Melbourne arthouse scene was already ailing when he set up Timecapsules in the first place but now the smoke from its cremation is a sense memory beyond nostalgia. You need to see things that the mainstream discourages. Don't know where to start? Try here.

Dean curates this program, it's not just a series of cool flicks guaranteed to appeal. Don't expect good taste because that's just consumable group think; try what Dean brings to the table: EXPERIENCE AND CARE. Look at the program and tell me I'm wrong.

Said program  is a stunner. From some intriguing pieces from the rich garden of post-war Japan to documentaries on the Cuban revolution and the darkness that visited Vietnam and the celebrated satire Death of a Bureaucrat there's a wealth on offer. You will encounter the unfamiliar and the rewarding. It's for you.

I'm delighted to report that I've only seen one of these is the Shadows favourite Face of Another from the always fascinating Hiroshi Teshigahara. One of a series of tight collaborations between a writer, a director and a composer this film builds on what might have begun as a folktale and fashions from it a palace of cinexperience. Realist cinematography in one scene and an ambush of theatrical lighting design in the next, a music score like no other and a unique approach to the expression of extreme states which births images of eerie beauty, humor and good ol' WTF invention. All that and the opening dialogue delivered in x-ray.

That's just the one I've seen.

Click on the links here and find it on Facebook. Central location served by one of the longest reaching tramlines on the grid.

If you loved Shadows love this. Go ye!

Thursday, January 2, 2014


Maths lets you comprehend infinity. Chess lets you play with it. I'm hopeless at maths and with chess my skill ends at enjoying moving the pieces around. Andrew Bujalski, I suspect, knows something of both. He is inclined to show science as magic but it feels like that's for the rest of us.

It's 1983 and the infancy of computers as everyday objects has begun. Teams from the universities and their big bucks backers have gathered in a mid-west hotel for a chess tournament only this time it's machine versus machine. Hey wake up! Ok, you're not being helped with that. We open on one of the driest panel discussions imaginable as the members talk with ingrown voices about what they expect of the the contest. Sportsnight this aint. But nor is it a high-calorie science fest either. We're hearing about concepts that the general public lived without. 

The image is made of the condensed grey light of Sony's U-matic video standard. It was used for over a decade for news gathering and anything on tv that wasn't film (ie most of it). Think old Dr Who episodes and you've got it except that this is also black and white which makes the opening discussion (like the film's opening gambit) a love or leave affair. I would suggest learning to love it because if you do you will get yourself through one of the most enjoyably original movies you are likely to see in the next year.

First, let's ditch the competition. This is not a triumph of the genius story so the playing is left over the shoulders of the participants in a room crowded with outsize technology and casually dressed boffins who look as though they sweat essence of manilla folder. There will be no race to the ribbon here and even an apparent loss of narrative altogether. There is, however, something far better.

One of the programs is acting strangely. Peter, one of its developers describes it as suicidal. He isn't getting any sleep because the problem won't let him. When he tries an experiment with a rival team's machine he discovers something eerie. This is later corroborated in odd fashion by one of his fellow team members who had a very odd encounter with the software at an earlier stage of development.

Meanwhile, reporter Mike Papageorge whose booking for the tournament seems to have been nabbed by one of the hotel's many cats moves around looking for a place for sleep and after hours fun like an animated chessman. His adventures are variously funny and tiring.

Meanwhile, a group of ageing touchyfeely neo-hippies have booked into one of the main conference rooms also dibbed by the tournament. Their inevitable encounters with the developers range from hilarious to creepy.

And then instead of a big finish with a winner and losers we get some very strange and quiet wow moments. Whoever it was who compared this to Kubrick wasn't talking about the production values, he (think it was a he) had his eye on some very compelling concepts that have to do with the way we relate to our machines and how we only dreamed we could decades ago.

The spooky hooker who appears like a vague trick of the light outside the hotel foyeur is a case in point. Her fro-perm guzzles the light as she passes beneath it and for tiny moments she seems as golden as anyone in black and white is going to get. This would work all by itself but there are plans for the figure in the same way that a really intriguing novel has plans.

Bujalski whose enjoyable mumblecore fests Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation delighted me with their energy and non-cloying whimsy. Here he has extended himself beyond anything I would have imagined from those earlier films. This is great sci fi the way that Primer is great sci fi (and how Upstream Color just might be). To the Kubrick comparison I'd add an easy Cronenberg (Peter Bishop even looks like a teenage D.C.)  So you have to dig a little deep to find it but you will find it.