Friday, August 18, 2006

Fragile Geometry

DON’T LOOK NOW (1973)

John aimlessly clutches Christine in the harrowing opening to the film.

ARGUABLY the most commercial and, in many respects, completely satisfying films by the erratically brilliant Nicolas Roeg, this provocative work has lost little of its power to challenge, shock, and amaze. Roeg is one of Britain’s most adventurous directors, stretching the potential of cinema through a masterly montage of raw emotions, complex time-leaps and splintered narratives, and examining characters forced into a journey of self-exploration when cut adrift from their usual moral and physical milieu. Based on a story by Daphne Du Maurier, DON’T LOOK NOW is a beautifully sensual and restrained horror film, yet it also suggests a world that is perilous, cruel and out of control. Superficially calm, it is an eerie labyrinth that gets under your skin and stays there, underpinned by a constant sense of foreboding that erupts into bloody violence only at the climax; it is a love story with only one love scene, and a study of grief during which nobody cries. This makes the work characteristic of the same peculiar Englishness which informs films as different as BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945) and THE INNOCENTS (1961).

Beginning with every parent’s nightmare – the tragic death of a child – DON’T LOOK NOW examines how grief can overpower emotion, but is cautiously optimistic in its portrayal of how love can transcend death. In the perfectly edited opening sequence, art restorer John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) find their idyllic English country afternoon shattered by the accidental drowning of their young daughter, Christine (Sharon Williams). John experiences an unsettling psychic vision during the tragedy that proves to be a portent of things to come. During lunch at a restaurant in Venice, where John has been brought in to work on a precious holy fresco in the city, the couple are approached by a blind English medium, Heather (Hilary Mason), who informs the
m that their daughter is expressing happiness and messages of reassurance from the afterlife. During this time the streets of Venice are haunted by a series of gruesome murders - the bodies found drifting in the canals – and John's further visions may be related to a strange figure in a red coat.

Sharon Williams gives a brief, yet memorable, performance as doomed Christine Baxter.

The opening drowning takes place with almost unbearable force and intense awareness, a series of cuts that contain all the keys to the remainder of the film. Roeg's image system is all important, and this sequence introduces the key motifs of the picture; water, both as a source of life and death and as something which needs to be crossed if two people are to be connected; separation, literal or metaphorical, based on geography, belief or simply the way of seeing things; breaking glass, a potent symbol of an accident; scepticism and belief, how one's refusal to believe what's happening can be a fatal mistake; the difference between appearance and reality, as when John says "Nothing is what it seems"; and, perhaps most memorably, the colour red, whether as a harbinger of danger or a way of focusing the attention on something significant.

Until DON’T LOOK NOW, Venice was always used in films to symbolise romance and passion. But here, Roeg unsettles the viewer right from the start, and the whole movie is suffused with shrouded fog and subliminal clues. The transition from Hertfordshire to the cold, autumnal Venice is achieved with a brilliant jump cut from Laura's scream to the whine of a drill, link
ing the past to the impending horror of the present. Indeed, Venice, similar to the Victorian London in Alan Moore’s From Hell (1988-98), is turned into a character itself; gloomy, and almost totally other. It clouds John's consciousness, rendering him unable to see exactly what is happening as the maze of streets seems to have been designed specifically in order to make the unwary tourist lose their way. The Eternal City seemed to offer comfort and the hope of redemption from the awful feelings of loss but to John Baxter, it provides only terrifying glimpses of a fate which can be delayed but never avoided. Water is everywhere, acting as a reminder of his daughter, and an unavoidable obstacle to getting where he wants to go.

Possessing a star quality and physical presence rare in British cinema, Julie Christie has survived being the representative of a new generation into political activism and grand dame-hood.

DON’T LOOK NOW is a romantic ghost story, but on a deeper level it is also a meditation on perception and fate, where human destiny can be thwarted by a simple misreading of the signs hidden in everyday reality. The film explores what are too fleetingly only referred to as “coincidences,” yet are defining moments of life. The use of colour is especially notable, with all but red being muted and icy blues and greys becoming prominent as John’s search becomes more frustrating. When Baxter pursues the small red-garbed figure at the end of the film, Roeg offers an unforgettable echo back to Prospero’s pursuit of the Red Death in Roger Corman’s THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964), a picture in which Roeg acted as cinematographer. Although the film is about death, it is also about love, making it more than just a clever Gothic puzzle. In the performances of Christie and Sutherland, we can believe in the ongoing passion of these two adults for each other. The famous love scene, with its non-linear cutting of the couple dressing for dinner, is not played for the usual cinematic effect of seduction or titilation. Rather, it is a natural scene notable for its candour, and for the fact that it seems to communicate love and not just sexual attraction. Without this scene, the story would seem less engaging and the interim between the Baxter’s last devoted moments together and their subsequent alienation would be left unexplored.

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

War in His World

The Artistic Legacy of H.G. Wells

Chris Moore’s stunning cover to Gollancz Press’ SF Masterworks 24, which collects Wells’ two most popular books – The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds.

NOVELIST, analyst of society, amateur of science and populariser of ideas, H.G. Wells’ astonishing literary career exhibits the guiding passion of a single-minded personality. He believed, above all, in shaping the progress of mankind, and in the destruction that awaited us in the absence of such control. The simple fact is that his mind and vision became so completely possessed by the sense of a crisis in human affairs, that Wells lost patience and more than once decided to give up writing fiction altogether. It was plain, he argued, that social planning on a planetary scale was essential, and that we needed to form a single world community and order. In support of that belief came a flow of words, a torrent of ideas, a mounting spate of enthusiasms from year to year that formed the mental climate of his times, and that made the word Wellsian almost a household term of criticism. Today we can realise how much more than mere fantasies his Scientific Romances were, and how his imagination was excited by the new vistas opened up by scientific conquest.

All too often, Science Fiction writers are misread as prophets, and are judged by predictive success or failure rather than literary accomplishment – yet Wells excelled in all areas. His first true influence on SF literature was The Man of the Year Million (1893), which introduced that potent image of a hyper-evolved man with overdeveloped head, eyes and brain, an impact most famously echoed in Dan Dare’s foe The Mekon. In a technological sense The World Set Free (1914) imagines the use of atomic power in war and peace, but the most remarkable Wells prediction was of tank warfare, long before the outbreak of World War I, in The Land Ironclads (1903). The Ironclads tracked each target in a camera obscura and fire with what we’d now call a joystick. Here, the author anticipated not only today’s remote-controlled slaughter but also the interface of a million computer games.

A Dell edition of The First Men in the Moon, a novel first published in 1901. This work introduces the gravity-shielding material Cavorite, Wells’ most powerful influence on the fringes of science. This incidental device - which allows a low-budget Moon expedition in fiction – led to the establishment of an actual Gravity Research Foundation.

Wells’ genuinely great achievement was to use the apparatus of science to take a long, bleak view of the human condition, and to show how small we appear through the grandeur of the Universe. The real hero of The Time Machine (1895) is not the traveller or his device, but the concept itself – hundreds of thousands of years in which humanity is warped and divided by evolutionary pressures into a class system of effete Eloi and sinister Morlocks, and then billions of years more before that unforgettable vision of Earth’s last crab-like inhabitants on a barren shore under a blood-red dying Sun. The docile Eloi are prototype flower-children, forerunners of the hippie counterculture then seventy year distant, while the whip-wielding, ape-like Morlocks feed off the Eloi in the most literal way. This then-subversive notion that humanity is not the pinnacle of evolution but perhaps just another passing phase was more delicately finessed a year later in The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896). Here, the Doctor’s experiments to “uplift” animals to human form and intelligence in The House of Pain is underpinned by a disquieting sense that – given the story’s premise – the gulf between animal and man cannot be very great. Worshipped with extreme fear by his Manimal subjects, Moreau is the ultimate example of the mad scientist as self-appointed God, a malignant deity given to acts of Old Testament-style wrath and retribution. His relationship to the Beast Folk is a deliberate parody of the Christian conception of God; Moreau is capricious to the Manimals as, in Wells’ view, God is cruel to Man. The Doctor’s attempts to supersede evolution may be abhorrent, but Wells’ intended Moreau to be the hero of the novel, who constructs a rational code of morality to meet the complex requirements of life.

Our chronic delusions of superiority are satirised in Griffin, the megalomaniac antihero of The Invisible Man (1897). Despite its paranoia and grotesquerie, the novel ultimately provides comfort by showing, in miniature, the fate of a would-be fascist dictator when common people unite against him. Wells then gave the British a contrasting shock in The War of the Worlds (1898), in which the fondly cherished Victorian mandate to colonise and civilise the world is inverted. On the surface, The War of the Worlds is an invasion story, but the worries of the late Victorians are expressed through its symbolism and themes, concerns of an end to Empire and a weakening of the national will. His imperialist Martians – “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic” – set about Earth without regard for its natives, debunking the complacency that assumed the superiority of British firepower, and demonstrating an exhilarating penchant for property damage (a metaphor for Wells’ ruthlessness toward humanity). Another potent Wellsian influence can be detected in these invaders, who are physically feeble and powerful only when linked, cyborg-fashion, with their war machines, thus anticipating everyone’s favourite creatures from DOCTOR WHO, The Daleks.

A portrait of H. G. Wells. The author questioned society’s chances for survival in a world in which technological advances outpaced intellectual development.

The content of all great Science Fiction is partially eclipsed by the “fun stuff.” The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds are magical works, and are as thrilling as anything in Haggard or Kipling. Wells wrote to warn and transform, and his spirit (evoked in such recursive fictions as Michael Moorcock’s The War Lord of the Air (1971) and Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships (1995)) remain an inspiring presence. But given that Wells touched on just about every major SF theme – with the exception of the alternate reality story – during his prolific career, its arguable that subsequent Science Fiction has simply followed in his wake, updating, reworking and subverting basic genres with varying degrees of accomplishment.