Friday, April 24, 2009

Too twisted titans, and an unforgettable lensman

1. The unforgettable lensman

Jack Cardiff is readily and rightly remembered for his work in Michael Powell's
Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948) (though arguably their most enchanting collaboration is the lesser-known A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

One mark of a cinematographer, though, is the quality of his work in less than ideal circumstances. Thus:

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) is a racist piece of ordure but Cardiff's lenses help transform the jungle captured in above photo into a wonderland of oiled and polished greenery, where fat leeches thrive on naked flesh (before being bloodily flicked away by oversized knives), and Vietcong officers stand helplessly out in the open only to burst into balls of orange flame.

His work in John Irvin's The Dogs of War (1980), about mercenaries staging the overthrow of a small African regime, is some of the finest, Greene-est imagery I've ever seen in a major production. Scenes such as the one above (Christopher Walken, framed by a grimy window, aims what he calls an 'XM-18 grenade launcher') possess a documentary realism and understated style that evokes the corruption, the grinding poverty of a developing country far more effectively, I think, than the flashier filmmaking of more recent directors.

2. One twisted titan

With a tribute site as thorough and well maintained as that, I doubt if I can add much more that's original to his better-known works.

But I think something crucial, something iconic, something perhaps like the crystallized essence of the man can be found in an early work, The Crystal World. Easily the most original of his three end-of-the-world novels (arguably the most original of any apocalyptic fiction, anywhere), here Ballard posits a world slowly being destroyed not by fire, not by ice, but by crystals, a literal hardening and solidifying of flesh into faceted form.

Of course we still have the classic Ballard obsessions--beautiful writing, externalized psychology, an almost blithe unconcern for the standard priorities of a disaster novel both literal and literary. The protagonist, Sanders, is barely characterized; he's mainly a two-legged video camera programmed to wander about and capture as many of the fantastical images Ballard creates as possible--survival is a secondary priority.

What's so fascinating about this--it reads more like a prose poem than conventional fiction (or several ornate poems hung on an arbitrary narrative skeleton)--this work is the way Ballard manages to extend his metaphor (crystallization as death/fulfillment) to almost all aspects of existence. Musing on what's happening all around him, Sanders speculates that an effect of gemstones drawing light into themselves is the focusing--or compression--of time; when that light is released, so are these stored packets of time: "Perhaps it was this gift of time which accounted for the eternal appeal of precious gems, as well as of all baroque painting and architecture." He believes that the intricate lines of baroque design, its quality of "occupying more than (its) volume of space," provides admirers with an "unmistakable premonition of immortality." He also muses that the leprosy virus with its crystalline structure is possibly yet another manifestation of this disease in time.

If crystallization is the result of super-saturation in a solution (and everything that occurs in the novel a result of super-saturation of matter over time), it may be argued that The Crystal World suffers--or soars, depending on your response--from a super-saturation of Ballard's prose. Certainly many of Ballard's works give us other extremes--techno-porn in Crash, the profound psychological and sociological effects of architecture in High Rise, the autobiographical source of much of his surrealism in Empire of the Sun--but in The Crystal World you get the sense that Ballard has no other concept to develop, no other agenda to push other than to render the world in crystalline terms, in cold, brilliant words. I like to think of the novel as Ballard in amber--all his desires, his nightmares, his dreams hanging in mid-space, frozen, slowly turning in the light for all of us to see. The Crystal World is about the very opposite of moderation, restraint, dilution, mediocrity. It's Ballard at his most concentrated.

3. Too twisted titan

Ballard has his shocking moments (check out his short story "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan"), but he is a timid boy scout compared to Philip Jose Farmer. As Harlan Ellison in his SF anthology Dangerous Visions once put it, Farmer "has doggedly gone after one dangerous vision after another." We've heard about how Farmer's The Lovers was a seminal work on sexuality in science fiction; what we haven't heard as often is how in Blown he has a man receive oral sex from a decapitated head, or how in Lord Tyger a woman makes love to a freshly butchered baboon heart, still beating. Farmer is best known for his Riverworld series, and for bringing sex and sexuality to science fiction; what's less known is how he's brought extreme sexual perversion and outlandish violence--both often yoked together, like the proverbial 'beast with two backs'--to the genre (in A Feast Unknown, Lord Grandrith, Farmer's Tarzan stand-in, is at one point raped, at another point manages to slaughter a roomful of men) .

Not to mention an unfettered, outsized imagination (see the Riverworld books). The World of Tiers series takes place in a 'pocket cosmos,' an artificial universe containing only three astronomical objects: the World of Tiers, its small moon, and its small sun. The World of Tiers is a gigantic structure, a series of stepped plateaus with entire worlds and peoples of different times and nations spread out on each plateau; at one point the series' hero, Lord Kickaha, battles across the Lavalite World, where the earth heaves and sinks and swells and separates and floats about and violently re-combines like the heated oil-and-liquid mixture in a lava lamp. Bad enough to have characters winking in and out of different universes (possibly Roger Zelazny had to force himself not to imitate this in his later (and to my mind, far less colorful) Chronicles of Amber novels), but for the very earth to reform, every few hours! It's enough to drive a man insane, and you can't help but wonder how Farmer was able to live with his bubbling cauldron of a subconscious all the time.

In The Unreasoning Mask (science fiction editor David Pringle's favorite amongst his works), Farmer proposes that the multiverse--the series of universes that make up our reality--are really the cells of an unconscious, unthinking child or fetus (hence the book's title). A deadly antibody the size of a small moon flits about the various universes, killing the viruses afflicting the fetus--namely intelligent beings, or us; Hud Ramstan, the Muslim captain of a living ship must find a way to fight this monster, save the multiverse. Metaphysical hijinks ensue.

Farmer rarely reeks of literature--his novels move fast, and are never dull. But unlike entertainment writers of lesser metal, he has an unflinching view of humanity and of the various cruelties (and heroic sacrifices) we are capable of, and he records them in clear, unambiguous language. He's a unique read, definitely not for everyone; I've seen echoes of his writings here, there. Some of the more shocking atrocities in Farmer's Image of the Beast and Blown seem to have inspired Brett Easton Ellis in creating Patrick Bateman's rampages in American Psycho; I've mentioned the World of Tiers' tidal pull on later fantasies such as Zelazny's Amber series; and Farmer's influence was openly acknowledged by Robert Heinlein in writing his famous counter-culture novel Stranger in a Strange Land.

Pringle did note an escapist element in Farmer's work, a tendency to go into fantasy or classic science-fiction mode when confronted with a dead end situation (the conclusion to his Gods of Riverworld, for one). I tend to think of Farmer as the most realist of fabulists--no matter how fantastic the situation, his men and women fought, fled, fucked, defecated; they felt fear, fury, frustration, the need for fun, and the need to crack really terrible puns. Many writers describe adventurers climbing up a dizzying mountain trail; none but Farmer thought to write (in The Magic Labyrinth) about the problems of urinating or worse defecating on a ledge thousands of feet high; many write about the problems of surviving without food and water; few write (as Farmer did in A Feast Unknown) a detailed treatise on the relative merits and flavors of various animal dung (hyena manure is inedible; zebra, however, is almost delectable).

His characters in effect experience the same biological and psychological processes we all undergo, and in a genre where even the mention of a toilet bowl--much less its use or misuse--was a major event (I'm thinking of the intricate instructions for a zero-g toilet found in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey). Farmer took such realism to be more standard than startling, an essential element in his stories; all this, plus an imagination second to none.


rico said...

Wow, BLACK NARCISSUS to RAMBO! Now that's range. Loved both those films. And DOGS is absolute kick-ass, man. With a young Tom Berenger. A real unrecognized gem of a film. Several memorable scenes-- Tom Berenger putting a live hand grenade in an accomplice's hand to show a plane steward that his friend is still alive, Walken keeping a handgun in the fridge(!), Walken again taking off his commando mask to reveal himself to the African girl he was lusting for, etc. And of course the fantastic four obliterating a whole town with those awesome rocket launchers! Paul Freeman was also very cool in it. John Irvin has shot in the Philipines btw-- HAMBURGER HILL. His RAW DEAL with Arnold wasn't too bad either.

Noel Vera said...

Rico, don't get me started on John Irvin.

Hamburger Hill (my favorite Vietnam war film, and yes I've seen the usual suspects) wasn't just shot in the Philippines, parts of it were shot in my family's farm. Imagine what I felt about that hilltop after they napalmed it.

Raw Deal is in my opinion the best Arnold film ever made. Whell, there's the first Terminator, but at least Raw didn't have an endless number of sequels following to ruin my memories.

And Irvin did what I thought was the best ever espionage story ever adapted--not for the big screen but the small: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with Alec Guinness.

And he's still doing good work--check out City of Industry with Harvey Keitel.

And Rico, if you need to dip into a writer man, you could do worse than Ballard or Farmer. Crash should be up your alley; and Farmer--hoo boy, try out A Feast Unknown. It's a gas.

rico said...

Ha, ha! Didn't know you were hardcore John Irvin, man. Ya, I saw INDUSTRY in the cinemas and liked it a lot. Crazy-- in your farm?! Must be in Tanay? Weird connection in your article as well: HILL'S DOP is Peter MacDonald who eventually directed RAMBO 3. I thought that that was the weakest of the RAMBOs. RAMBO 4 I thought was surprisingly good! Arnold's best for me I think is TERMINATOR 2. I'll be on the lookout for a TINKER, TAILOR dvd and the books. Weird also, Louie Quirino and I just discussed NARCISSUS before embarking on our latest collaboration.

Noel Vera said...

Roughly in Tanay,yes.

Terminator 2 was about the time Cameron started to work with a budget. Much of the grit was gone, and the fablelike simplicity of the first.

That said, they went complicated via the Philip K. Dick route (I think his short story Jon's World is what they based the story on (the first movie was based on its first part, Second Variety), and while I think it's a stretch to ask to see Ahnold as the bad guy, I have to admit the Terminator series pretty much follow trends in computer design--the sleeker and smaller model is faster, more powerful.

Plus if you need a climactic chase involving a helicopter, I much prefer Darkman, which came out about the same time, and was made for much less money.

Tinker Tailor is classic BBC drama, not exactly lively in pacing. But it does have John le Carre's intricate plots, and can be rewarding if you're patient.