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Stumbling Through the Portal

When I was a kid, my mom, brother, sister and I watched a scifi B movie called The Time Travelers late one weekend night. Two university scientists, an assistant and a technician climb through an experimental time portal into a grim future, where the remnants of mankind are beset by starving, bald mutants who all wear the same ragged jumpsuits. The surviving humans have a fortified underground city where they are building androids and a space ship to escape an Earth devastated by atomic weapons. That wasn’t exactly an unusual premise for 1964. We loved it, especially the weird looped ending.

Comet TV showed that film a few weeks ago, followed by Beyond the Time Barrier, which was shot in ten days in 1959. In this grainy b&w flick, an Air Force pilot testing a sub-orbital jet somehow lands in a future where most humans are deaf-mutes hiding in a fortified underground citadel. They, too, are beset by angry, bald mutants, but in this case there had been a cosmic ray plague – resulting from nuclear weapons testing. My sister would have cried at the sad ending.

There’s a great scene near the beginning of The Time Travelers. The technician has stumbled through the portal, then unnaccountably runs out of sight behind some rocks. The two male scientists call out, and then go looking for him. The female assistant scares off two hostile mutants with a fire extinguisher (not too believable). Then she goes through to warn the scientists that the portal is unstable. As the three of them head back, the portal suddenly implodes, and the camera lingers on each of their stunned faces as they process what just happened. And it occurred to me that I and a lot of other people probably looked just like that while we were watching the election returns last November. Because we can’t go back, either. We have crossed into the future.

We’re also beset by angry hordes, some of them the working class in this country, and some the displaced immigrants from countries that we have reduced to failed states, and some displaced immigrants from areas dessicated by the changing climate. Some of us live in cities where everyone seems to be happy, and prosperous, and where they are building robots to take us to a new future. We’re not deaf-mute, but we might as well be because we don’t listen very well. Like the humans in both flicks, we just can’t understand why the hordes are so angry at us, and we can’t imagine reasoning with them. We haven’t gone underground, but we talk about closing borders, building walls, banning protests and running over demonstrators.

I sometimes think we’re the mutants.

A Bit Sore

On Friday, Baltimore saw afternoon sun instead of the predicted thunderstorm. I biked my usual route up Eutaw Street towards Druid Hill Park. Traffic seemed light. At the end of Eutaw I would have taken the brick sidewalk along the Druid Park Lake Road, but it is being repaved, and is closed. From the sidewalk you can wait for the light, then cross onto Swann Drive, into the park, and on to Greenspring Road. Otherwise you have to mix it up with traffic for a hundred yards on the Lake Road, or cut up Cloverdale, a quiet, narrow brick road which takes you to Madison Avenue, which becomes Swann Drive when you enter the park. While recovering from Deep Venous Thrombosis, I’ve felt less like trying to keep ahead of impatient commuters, so I’ve been choosing Cloverdale.

On Madison one has to drive through one of two monumental brick archways facing the park. For quite a while the closer of of the arches was closed to traffic while they repaved the cobblestones, so I’ve gotten in the habit of looking through it to see if anyone is coming through the next arch. But on Friday, both arches were open again. So just as I biked up a car came charging out of the nearer opening. I said something deeply ironic, like “Aaaah!” and squeezed the brakes, but my front tire hit the guy’s door and I was knocked over.

The driver did stop, but I told him it wasn’t his fault I hadn’t anticipated that the road might be open again. I have a bruised right knee, a puffy left elbow, and a sore lower back. The bike seemed OK during a painful ride home. The back felt better when I was sitting against a bag of ice, and ice packs helped the knee and elbow, too.

I decided to spend Saturday morning in bed. While watching Madison Keys play Garbine Muguruza on the Pietrangeli court in Rome, courtesy of TennisTV, I also watched The Minotaur, originally Minotaur, the Wild Beast of Crete, a dubbed 1960 Italian flick that bears only the faintest resemblance to the Greek myth as transcribed by Edith Hamilton.

Madison and Garbine are lovely young women, even compared to the pinup girl extras in the Minotaur movie. And they both play crunch tennis. A lot of people consider Madison mixed-race because one of her parents is dark-skinned African American and the other is light-skinned German-Irish. But current science believes almost all of us are Sapiens, with smidgens of Neandertal and Denisovan. She says, “I’m just Madison.”

The plot of The Minotaur centered around an ambitious, evil woman using the threat of an even worse monster to control the people. So it was related to current events. Then a hero rode in and both the woman and the beast were slain. We can only hope.

Imitation of Turing

I watched The Imitation Game last weekend. Benedict Cumberbatch did a good job of not playing the somewhat autistic Alan Turing just like his somewhat autistic Sherlock Holmes. All the actors played their parts well, and the film was very believable, though not quite accurate.

Early on in the film, Charles Dance’s character, Major Denniston, interviews Turing and tells him, “Enigma isn’t difficult, it’s impossible. The Americans, the Russians, the French, the Germans, everyone thinks Enigma is unbreakable.”

In reality, three Polish cryptologists, taking advantage of poor German operating procedures, had broken Enigma in 1932, long before WWII. They even designed a bomba kryptologiczna (cryptologic bomb) machine for breaking ciphers faster. Six were built. But enigma devices were then made more complex, and decryption became increasingly difficult and expensive. So the Poles shared their techniques with the French and British.

In the film, Turing joins the British team under Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) after the war has started, dismisses the team’s cryptological efforts as too slow, and by letter implores First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill for funding to build a codebreaking machine, a forebear to the modern computer. After the machine itself, which he names after a schoolboy crush, proves still not fast enough to perform the bazillions of operations required to crack an Enigma cipher, Turing is accidentally inspired to start the machine searching for expected words and phrases, like Heil Hitler, which codebreakers called ‘cribs’.

In reality, Turing had been working with the British government for at least a year before the war, using cribs and building on the work of the Poles. In addition to many theoretical strategies, Turing conceived of a new ‘bombe’, a machine that could decrypt Enigma with what we now call more brute force methods than the Polish bomba, but which were still based on looking for a crib. One was built, and was successful, and a few more were built. He, Alexander, and the team together wrote a letter to Churchill asking for additional funding to build many more such machines. Along with the two hundred bombes approved by Churchill, British intelligence never stopped using cribs, and exploiting other German slipups, for every small advantage they could get.

While watching the film, I was wondering if the presence of Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke was a romantic fabrication, but Clarke was actually a very real and highly-regarded cryptanalyst at Bletchley, was briefly engaged to Turing despite knowing about his homosexuality, and did remain his friend after he broke it off.

Of course I recognized Allen Leech, who played Tom Branson on Downton Abbey, and Charles Dance, who played Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones, but I didn’t recognize Matthew Goode as having played Ozymandias in Watchmen, though he did look familiar.

The Ugly Little Boy

Way back before the internets, Isaac Asimov wrote, The Ugly Little Boy, which he included in his anthology Nine Tomorrows. Robert Silverberg later expanded the short story into a novel, which I have not read. In 1977, Barry Morse and Kate Reid starred in a TV version, which is supposed to be very faithful to the short story and is available on youtube.

The boy was a neanderthal (or neandertal) child, brought to, and kept in, the future at great expense of energy by a corporation for scientific research. In the years after the story was written, I read that one scientist claimed we probably couldn’t tell a well-dressed neanderthal apart from anyone else on the street, but knew that when the lay person heard, “neanderthal” they saw a dim but muscular caveman with a sloping forehead. And that is how most popular culture has portrayed them, one example being Jean M Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear books and the 1986 film starring tall, pale, blonde Darryl Hannah as a Cro-Magnon, adopted by a tribe of stocky, swarthy (but not black-skinned), black-haired Neanderthals.

But if one were to recast Clan of the Cave Bear based on the latest information, one should cast light-skinned people as the Neanderthals, and a taller, darker-skinned woman (perhaps Rosario Dawson) as Ayla the Homo Sapiens Sapiens or Early European Modern Human (EEMH). It is now suggested that populations of Homo Neanderthalensis had already adapted to Northern climates over some three or four hundred thousand years, and that the still dark-skinned Homo Sapiens benefited by acquiring those traits through interbreeding as they displaced the older species. [It is also counter-suggested that the neanderthal DNA remains from before the two species diverged from Homo Erectus.]

It is currently thought that humans (except those strictly descended from sub-Saharan Africans) have between 1% to 4% of neanderthal DNA and that some Melanesians and Australian Aborigines have Denisovan DNA as well. In other words, most of us humans are actually ugly little boys and girls, too.

Revealing All

A few weeks ago I watched the documentaries A Life in Dirty Movies and Bettie Page Reveals All, on Netflix.

The first was about Joseph W Sarno, who directed scads of low budget sexploitation films in the 1960s and 1970s with just enough erotic content to fill the seats, but not enough to get banned. Sarno directed many of these films in Sweden, and was presented as being more interested in imitating the style of Ingmar Bergman than delivering the titillation his customers expected. As censorship was relaxed, he assumed pseudonyms to direct more explicit films but eventually found himself out of date in the era of noplot hardcore loops. The film is mostly conversations between Sarno and his wife Peggy, who acted in over a dozen of the early films, as they try to find backing for a new hardcore film. Peggy is sharp enough to notice that Sarno is still writing screenplays with characters dialing rotary phones, just one example of how far behind the times he has become, but neither is really prepared for the terrain of the modern hardcore business. Sarno died soon after these interviews.

Bettie Page Reveals All was largely stock footage built around an old audio interview with the Pin-Up Queen of the Universe, herself. Much of what she said confirmed or paralleled the events in the 2005 biopic The Notorious Bettie Page, starring Gretchen Mol, but she gave a lot more background. Page seems to have been an uncomplicated woman who greatly enjoyed sex, was cheerful while being photographed naked, but wouldn’t tolerate bad language. The combination of her good looks and enthusiasm made her a star, of sorts.

Since I had watched those, Netflix led me to Hot Girls Wanted, which I watched last weekend, half on Friday evening, half on Saturday evening. The film was well-received at Sundance, but hard to watch. Afterwards I noticed that Caitlin Cruz at Talking Points Memo wrote an article, The Deep Class Issues Hidden In An Explosive New Doc About Amateur Porn:

The documentary frames amateur porn as a result of media’s oversaturation of hypersexualized images and the proliferation of selfies. But what the documentary fails to acknowledge is that wanting to leave a small town or city—places which often both sexually repressive and economically dismal—has always been part of the American story. …

What amazed me about the film was that Riley, the young man who runs the small production company out of his townhouse, let the folks from Kinsey film it. ‘Hot Girls Wanted’ was the title of one of his ads on Craigslist. Although he said some words to the effect that he actually cared about the girls, and while he didn’t appear to openly abuse them, he made it clear on interview that each girl was a replaceable commodity with a short shelf life. “Every day a new girl turns 18, and every day a new girl wants to do porn. I will never run out.”

Most interesting were the scenes between the primary subject, Tressa, and her mother, who tries to be matter-of-fact on camera but is clearly worried for her daughter – with good reason. After a few months Tressa had to have a baseball-sized inflamed cyst removed from inside her vagina. Later she shows us a 2 liter bottle-sized dildo that she says a producer wants her to accommodate. Her early videos were relatively safe lesbian sex or heterosexual intercourse with condoms, but once she was no longer fresh meat she finds herself relegated to scenes with ‘internal cum shots’, requiring morning after pills and then later in the niche of sadistic, “abuse porn” with gag-inducing forced oral sex. Presumably Riley was OK with all of this.

At some point we notice that Tressa has a boyfriend, Kendall. He talks about having routine sex before meeting her, but I don’t recall if he was an actor (the talent), or not. Kendall was initially OK with her porn career, but soon looks pretty down in the mouth and wants her to get out. And we’re all glad when she listens to him. She figures she earned $25,000 in three months, but because of doctor’s bills and buying her own fetish costuming only has $2,000 left.

Others last a few months longer. Although they all initially claim to be happy to be paid to do what they like doing anyway, another girl, Rachel, complains about the content, “It’s always your first time. You’re dumb as hell and pretend like you need 500 dollars. So you’re going to get this random dude who you’d never have sex with in real life and have sex with him and say things you’d never say and do things you’d never do. It’s all about the guy getting off. The girl is just there to help.” I think Rachel lasted six months.

Coincidentally, Emma Sulkowicz, who became famous for carrying a mattress to all her classes – and her graduation – at Columbia to protest her rape, has just released a performance video of what looks like a rape. Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol is an eight minute video – from four separate, simultaneous camera angles – of Sulkowicz and some man entering a dorm room, undressing, climbing into bed, having consensual sex on a bare mattress. Suddenly, he starts slapping her face hard, clasping her throat and pinning her limbs while she cries out. He leaves, she makes up the bed and goes to sleep.

She advises that it is not a representation of the Columbia rape, and asks that no one watch the video without her consent.

Do not watch this video if your motives would upset me, my desires are unclear to you, or my nuances are indecipherable.

You might be wondering why I’ve made myself this vulnerable. Look—I want to change the world, and that begins with you, seeing yourself. If you watch this video without my consent, then I hope you reflect on your reasons for objectifying me and participating in my rape, for, in that case, you were the one who couldn’t resist the urge to make Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol about what you wanted to make it about: rape.

Please, don’t participate in my rape. Watch kindly.

A-Studyin’ Scarlett

Lots of internet sites are suddenly carrying, or linking to, photos clipped from the new film, Under the Skin, which features actress and two time Esquire sexiest-woman-alive Scarlett Johansson as a predatory alien.

Early on, I liked Johansson in Lost in Translation and The Girl with a Pearl Earring. I had forgotten she was in The Island, The Prestige, and The Black Dahlia. She was OK in The Other Boleyn Girl, just an OK film. She was exciting as Black Widow in The Avengers action flick. There has been a lot of positive buzz about her voiceover in Her, as well as negative publicity about her resignation from Oxfam over celeb-presenting SodaStream, which is manufactured on the West Bank, and her statements exculpating anyone from judging Woody Allen, who has directed her in three films I haven’t seen.

In two pics from Under the Skin, Johansson stands frontally naked, in another she is naked in profile. At least one site raves that you can see everything, but what struck me was how ordinary she looks. While she is a very fetching young woman with a good figure, unlike last year’s carefully posed Esquire spread, there is nothing about these shots that say, sexiest woman alive to me.

An old Suzanne Vega song goes, “Fancy poultry parts sold here, breasts and thighs and hearts. Backs are cheap and wings are nearly free.” Johansson has the same parts as anyone else, but she also has the media machine constantly reminding us that she is sexy.

Update 20140423: She was a cute kid.

Good Woody, Bad Woody

The Academy Awards are a few weeks away, and we are pawns in a public relations chess match. While Wallace Shawn speaks highly of Woody Allen:

In fact, like so many of those who have worked with him repeatedly over the decades, I’ve found him to be not merely thoughtful, serious and honest, but extraordinary and even inspiring in his thoughtfulness, seriousness and honesty. Of the people I’ve known, he’s one of those I’ve respected most.

… in, An Oscar Voter Spills Secrets on Woodygate, Wolfgate, and Awards Scandals … an anonymous “Pat” professes to ignore the person in determining his Oscar votes, but has a remarkably different opinion of Allen:

… A movie stands on its own. I’m not crazy about what he did, but on the other hand, you do a movie, and if it’s a good movie, it’s a good movie, and if it isn’t, it isn’t. …

I think some voters are not going to vote for Woody because of [the Farrow scandal]. I know a couple of people who think he’s disgusting. He’s the most unpleasant person to work for. The assistant director tells you, “You are not to talk to Woody Allen.” Except for the major stars. One woman actor I know tried to approach Woody on the set and she was fired.

Update 20140225: Susan Estrich at Noozhawk, tries to clear away the the misinformation:

As best I can tell, if the decision not to prosecute Allen was the right one, it was so not because anyone who knew anything concluded that Dylan and her mother were lying, but because the trial would have been a nightmare for her, she would have been savaged by defense lawyers, and, as badly scarred as she reportedly was by her childhood, a failed prosecution only would have been worse. In fact, this is precisely what the prosecutor told Orth: that he did have probable cause, but the trial would have been too much for the “child victim” (his phrase), and without her there would be no case.

So he and the judge in the custody case did the best they could by Dylan, given Allen’s “lack of judgment, insight and impulse control” (the judge’s words), protecting her from a painful and fruitless trial and denying her father’s petition for custody and visitation.