Words – Sean Alexander
The word ‘ground-breaking’ in cinema these days has become a euphemism for the latest technical advance in special effects. Audiences jaded by summer after summer of high-octane, explosive blockbusters can be forgiven for forgetting a time when films still presented something truly unique. Popularly considered by movie aficionados as the last hurrah of the ‘Golden Age’ of cinema, the 1970s bowed out with one film that would revolutionise the science fiction and horror genres alike and, in doing so, embody the very hallmarks of style and substance representative of classic cinema.
For a film of simple pretensions, Alien certainly made its mark. Starting out as an inverted take on John Carpenter’s cult space comedy Dark Star, Starbeast, as it was originally called, would go through a variety of refining processes during its gestation and rebirth as Alien. Dan O’Bannon, performer and writer on the aforementioned slacker hit, began work on the script following the disharmonious end to his relationship with Dark Star director Carpenter. Inspired by stories of World War II bombers attacked by gremlins, O’Bannon wrote the first half of a story concerning the hypothetical invasion by alien beings of a B-52. At this point a period of writer’s block resulted in the embryonic Alien temporarily grinding to a halt - and it would take the arrival of friend and writing compatriot Ronald Shusett to capitalise on O’Bannon’s suspenseful first act. Once complete - and despite later revisions and additions from names including director Walter Hill and producer David Giler - O’Bannon and Shusett’s combined two-act template of build-up and resolution would provide the backbone of the film’s success. And an important name-change to Alien would seal the script’s maturation from pipedream to bona-fide screenplay.
Twentieth-Century Fox green-lit the picture and - several false-starts later - forty-year-old former advertisement maker and BBC designer Ridley Scott began filming in 1978. Director of one previous film, The Duellists, Scott had been ‘blown away’ by the previous year’s box-office smash Star Wars with its fusion of old-fashioned story-telling and futuristic settings. With O’Bannon & Shusett’s scary, character-driven script already in place, Scott envisaged an opportunity to capitalise on Star Wars’ success by approaching similar material from a different angle. Convinced that the realisation of the Alien itself was crucial to the success of the movie - and in turn escape from the science-fiction cliché of a man in a rubber suit - Scott turned to hitherto unknown Swiss-born artist H.R. Giger.
Giger’s disturbing and surreal oeuvre of ‘bio-mechanical’ designs gave Alien a scarcely dreamt of iconic look and visual bible that remains influential on science fiction today. His organic signature is littered throughout Alien’s visual landscape, from the surrealistic design of the derelict spacecraft to its calcified ’space jockey’ pilot. But where Giger’s greatest influence on Alien is most clearly seen is in the titular creature itself: an alien in every sense of the word. Yet the genesis of the ’xenomorph’ was no random occurrence. Within his seminal work ’Necronomicon’ Giger had already crafted a startlingly similar evocation of terror to that later seen on Shepperton’s sound-stages. And Scott, a great believer in the ‘If it ain’t broke…’ philosophy was convinced that he had the totem of horror he required. With his vision and Giger’s design, Alien had its Alien.
Conceptually - and rather appropriately for a man of such visually-inclined bent - Scott ensured that design took a leading role in establishing the cinematic universe of Alien. And this intention to bring a reality and rawness to the whole film permeates every aspect of each scene’s mechanics. The principal setting of the Nostromo spaceship has - despite its technical trappings - a very lived-in feeling. The technical influence of 2001’s Odyssey has been dirtied down and contemporised, fittingly so as to depict a crew - and by extension, society - both at ease with and slightly bored by its surroundings. From a design aesthetic it is notable how many of the ship’s sets are circular - the mess hall, the infirmary, ‘Mother’s’ chamber - and how Scott’s slow pans around these sets heightens the sense of claustrophobia on board. This results in a ship where, no matter where you go, you always ends up where you began, underlining the twin notions of familiarity and hostility inherent in Alien‘s philosophy. Indeed the design of Mother’s chamber is a microcosm of this ideal, its winking lights and cut-off sense of isolation echoing the surrounding vacuum nature of space itself.
While the look of the film merely establishes Alien’s grounding in ‘reality’, Scott uses another medium to capitalise on this foundation. Sound plays a - surprisingly - significant role in Alien’s slow build up of suspense. During large sections of the film - particularly in the absence of significant dialogue or music - subtle sounds are audibly emphasised. The effect is to create a sense of uneasiness, an awareness of something constantly in the background. The opening breakfast scene as the crew recovers from hyper-sleep is redolent with overlapping conversations, creating a sense of underlying tension. Scott favours contrasts within scenes - particularly between the cold, harsh reality of the outside Universe and the warm, claustrophobic interior of the Nostromo. This is best illustrated during the rescue team’s progress to the derelict spaceship, where the pin-drop quiet of Ash’s observation bubble is in stark contrast to the howling scream of the planet outside.
Critics have often suggested that ’nothing happens’ for the first 45 minutes of Alien, ignorant of the fact that it is this very ’nothing’ that gives the film its huge pay-off value later on. Mindful of this, and of John Williams’ success in creating tension through music on Jaws, Scott utilises Jerry Goldsmith’s score as a means of suggesting menace right up to - and beyond - the pressure-valve release of Kane’s death. And like 2001 before it, music is here used majestically, enabling sterile, soundless space scenes to achieve a hitherto uncaptured sense of awe and grandiosity.
Within this posited future that Alien takes place it is clear that space-travel has become common-place. The nature of the Nostromo’s raison d’etre - to ship mineral ore from one side of the galaxy to another - illustrates how far such a once fantastical concept as interstellar travel has become everyday and mundane. Accordingly, the characteristics of the ship’s crew echo this ennui of over-familiarity. Our first impressions are of a group of world-weary professionals operating in an uncomfortable environment. Personal relations amongst the seven are cold and detached - no-one addresses anyone by their first name, professional decorum or otherwise - and there are significant amounts of needle and back-biting. This is a crew that only turns to forging emotional connections with one another when faced with overwhelming terror, becoming comrades in adversity. Alien was heavily criticised at the time of its release for its sparse commitment to characterisation. Yet there are no anonymous ciphers to be encountered here. One of the advantages of the film’s languorous build up over the first three-quarters of an hour is that the audience is allowed to get to know these people before they are expected to care what happens to them. Like an Agatha Christie who-dunnit, each character contains enough information for the viewer to make informed conclusions. Captain Dallas is the dependable and clear-headed - not to mention, world-weary - leader of a motley crew of miners. Kane is a dependable second-in-command, unusually reticent to stir up vitriol in comparison with his ship-mates. Ripley, as one of the two women aboard, is immediately cast into focus by her authoritarian status in a male-dominated environment; her zealous, hard-faced exterior shrouding a compassionate and vulnerable nature. Lambert is spiky and prone to panic, while her ability to sense impending doom latterly comes across as pre-cognisance. Parker and Brett, with their blue-collar background and sense of class injustice in this microcosmic society, emphasise the tone of hostility and distrust prevalent throughout the crew. And Ash is the coldly analytical man of science, emotionally detached from the crew both before - and during - their enforced bonding as events escalate out of control. The effect is to create a group of individuals, not clichés.
It is in Ash that we have the most ambiguous yet clearly motivated member of the Nostromo crew. Although we later discover why he is so focused, it is one of Alien’s finest achievements that, until we discover Ash‘s true nature, his aloofness and cold emotional detachment can be viewed as merely characteristic of a scientifically-inclined mind. On repeated viewings, we are of course more able to trace Ash’s motives from an early stage. His prompting of Dallas to Mother’s summons, his frosty hostility towards Ripley while examining Kane’s body scan, his macabre description of the Alien as ‘Kane’s son’. Yet even as Ash’s true colours are revealed in his murderous attack on Ripley, there is a sense that the character’s underlying nature is somehow compromised. Ian Holm’s twitchy performance suggests a battle between the robot’s fundamental programming and the orders imposed on it by the Company. And an intriguing argument can be put forward to suggest that Ash is himself a victim of the Company’s machinations: a perfect example of what happens when Asimov’s first principal of robotics is corrupted.
Ridley Scott always maintains that the film succeeds best on a purely visceral level. And it is true that, in any diluted analysis, the film is an effective ‘haunted house’ ride of terror where the director plays with our expectations of the genre as to which of the next ‘little Indians’ will die next. We, as the audience, are always put in the place of the individual about to die. Yet Alien is suffused with several themes and subtexts that offer rich pickings on repeated viewings. In the depiction of the crew, we are presented with recognisable class systems and examples of power politics. Parker and Brett, as the ‘oily rags’ of engineering, represent the underclass of blue-collar workers socially at odds with the officer faction of the rest of Nostromo’s crew. Female gender politics are also examined, principally through Ripley’s zealous defence of her professional standing in a male-oriented world. Unlike her fellow XY chromosome colleague Lambert, Ripley manages to remain authoritative, resourceful and feminine throughout the film. And it is a testament to Scott’s integrity as director that, even when Ripley is stripped to the level of voyeuristic eye-candy, the camera enhances her sexual and spiritual strengths to equal proportions.
No true analysis of Alien’s themes can ignore the powerful Freudian imagery of the Alien itself. Indeed, both the creature’s principal and eventual forms are suggestive of male sex symbolism. Most notoriously, the adult form has a distinctly phallic-shaped head whose penetrative jaws are caked in a sperm-like drool. Meanwhile, the face-hugger’s violent and non-consensual invasion of its victim represents a form of oral rape - with the consequential impregnation of a malignant ‘child’ in Kane symbolising latent male fears of child-birth. The ‘oral rape’ metaphor is reiterated in Ash’s visually-bizarre suffocation attempt on Ripley. That he perpetrates it with a rolled-up porn magazine - itself a symbol of male rape fantasy - while surrounded by similarly titillating pictures only throws the parallel into stark relief.
The twin symbolism of rape and the Alien is again evident in the death of Lambert. The creature’s slow, seductive entrapment of her - along with Lambert’s own paralysed submission and pseudo-orgasmic hyperventilating - lend the scene a voyeuristic sensibility from which the camera seems compelled to move away. And the handheld shot of Ripley’s desperate attempt to reach her colleague, overlaid with the soundtrack of Lambert’s death shriek, makes this one of the most disturbing images of the whole film. In short, the true subtext of Alien is that the familiarity of peoples' lives breeds apathy and contempt. Against this comes the realisation that true horror comes not from spiritual decay within, but from unholy terror without. It is this fear of the unknown and the need to keep it outside that is the fundamental theme running throughout the film. For it is when the metaphorical terrors of outside become the literal horrors of within - quite literally for Kane, who is a victim of the horror inside himself - that the screaming truly begins.
Viewed as a template much imitated but rarely equalled, Alien is a model example of simple, white-knuckle film-making. It is testament to its ability to hold an audience’s attention that the last seventeen minutes of the film have no dialogue whatsoever. And so successful was its format that the original film inevitably echoes through each of its increasingly-inferior sequels. While Aliens is touted as one of the best sequels in modern cinema, even its greatest supporters concede that the film’s sacrifice of Alien invincibility at the altar of gung-ho action has a detrimental effect on the sequel’s audience-stranglehold. As a reaction to this, Alien 3’s attempt to re-establish the single-Alien threat fell flat on listless characterisation, despite impressive visual and thematic flourishes. And by Alien Resurrection the run-and-fight pattern of the films had become pedestrian and desperately familiar to long-term viewers. ‘A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality’, Ash eulogised of the alien. And his description could be equally ascribed to the original film’s ongoing popularity. What draws an audience to this masterpiece nearly a quarter of a century after its first release is as simple as the film’s mandate to induce terror itself. Like the titular star, Alien is admired for its purity.
Dave Rolinson examines the Marx Brothers classic film
If any form of pleasure is exhibited
Report to me and it will be prohibited
I’ll put my foot down, so shall it be
This is the land of the free!
The last man nearly ruined this place
He didn’t know what to do with it
If you think this country’s bad off now
Just wait til I get through with it.
- Rufus T Firefly (Groucho Marx) addresses the people of Freedonia
One of the funniest comedies ever made, Duck Soup (1933) is also one of the most subversive. It has been described as a political satire, even a war satire to rival Catch-22. Its darker edge – which angered audiences during the inter-war period (‘remember while you’re out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we’ll be in here thinking what a sucker you are’) – has made it appeal to the post-Vietnam generation. Strange to report, therefore, that the only people who thought Duck Soup wasn’t a satire were… practically everyone who worked on it!
Duck Soup was the last of the Four Marx Brothers’ classics for Paramount, after The Cocoanuts (1929), Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932). Although the Marxes preferred their more polished MGM vehicles A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937), I’d much rather watch the Paramount films, which give free rein to the anarchistic and chaotic Marx style. By The Cocoanuts, the Brothers had been performing on stage for over 20 years (arguably their best work was never filmed). Most famous today is Groucho (Julius, 1890-1977). The most verbal – mastering wisecracks, surrealistic interludes and insults that could strip wallpaper – he’s also the most recognisable, with his familiar stooping walk, fake greasepaint moustache (legend has it, daubed one day in the theatre when he couldn’t find his fake tache), puffing on a cigar. Groucho snared the best lines, in the films (‘Look at me, I’ve worked my way up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty’) and beyond. During his solo TV hit You Bet Your Life, he responded to a contestant with 19 kids who argued that ‘I like kids’ with ‘I like my cigar, but I take it out of my mouth every now and again’. Chico (Leonard, 1886-1961), apparently named after his admiration of chicks (in the notorious Marx Brothers Scrapbook Groucho describes Chico’s contribution as ‘fucking and shooting pool’), is the hustler with the appalling Italian accent, mangling language with cringe-inducing regularity. In Duck Soup, his character Chicolini is tried for treason: ‘Isn’t it true you tried to sell Freedonia’s secret war code and plans?’ with ‘Sure, I sold a code and two pair of plans’... Harpo (Adolph, 1888-1964) is a harp-playing mute (on-screen at least), wearer of blond wig, tatty outfit and manic look, chaser of female extras, a costume-scissoring terrorist prone to send scenes spiralling into chaos. Finally, Zeppo (Herbert, 1901-1979) is often the romantic lead, and, despite being witty off-screen, is lumbered with straight man status (Groucho claimed the best way to test a joke was to tell it to Zeppo – if he liked it, it was thrown out). Un-showbiz, Zeppo had replaced the largely forgotten Gummo (Milton, 1893-1977) when he left the stage act for army service. Zeppo himself would leave after Duck Soup, leaving the more recognised Groucho, Chico and Harpo to be supported by various stars to provide increasingly slushy romantic plots and hit tunes.
Although the college-football-based Horse Feathers had been Paramount’s biggest hit of 1932, plans for a follow-up were scuppered by studio reorganization, financial shenanigans and low-flying lawsuits. Groucho and Chico worked on the great lost radio comedy Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel by Nat Perrin and Arthur Sheekman (which produced at least fifteen routines stolen for Duck Soup) when Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby began a new screenplay. Originally called Firecrackers, then Cracked Ice (plus, after studio intervention along animal lines, Grasshoppers), it was finally called Duck Soup – an American expression relating to something simple or a gullible sucker (though it was also the title of a Laurel and Hardy short directed by this film’s director, Leo McCarey). Groucho plays Rufus T Firefly, made the new leader of Freedonia after the wealthy widow Mrs Teasdale, played by the indomitable Marx stooge Margaret Dumont, insists she will only continue to bankroll the nation with his august leadership. Groucho steps in to a hero’s welcome (Mrs Teasdale: ‘This is a gala day for you’; Firefly: ‘Well, a gal a day’s enough for me, I don’t think I could handle any more’) and a refrain of ‘Hail, hail Freedonia, land of the brave and free!’. Here he collides with the attempts of Trentino, Ambassador of Sylvania (in an earlier draft, Frankenstein of Amnesia), to marry Mrs Teasdale to get his hands on her principality. The problem is, Teasdale is keen on Firefly, and soon the flirting begins:
Firefly: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
Mrs. Teasdale: Why, he's dead.
Firefly: I'll bet he's just using that as an excuse.
Mrs. Teasdale: I was with him to the very end.
Firefly: Hmmph. No wonder he passed away.
Mrs. Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Firefly: Oh, I see. Then, it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.
Mrs. Teasdale: He left me his entire fortune.
Firefly: Is that so? Can't you see what I'm trying to tell you? I love you.
Mrs. Teasdale: Oh, your Excellency!
Firefly: You're not so bad yourself.
Trentino and Firefly exchange pleasantries (‘Haven’t we seen each other somewhere before?’; ‘I don’t think I’m seeing you now, it must be something I ate’), but Trentino plans his downfall, using exotic dancer Vera Marcel and his trusty spies Chicolini and Pinky to discredit Firefly, destabilise Freedonia or get Mrs Teasdale. Firefly and Teasdale plan for the future (‘I can see you now standing over a hot stove… but I can’t see the stove’), as he offers her ‘a Rufus over your head’ – a nice double-meaning, since, according to Groucho, Dumont rarely understood his dialogue. They even make a date for the theatre: ‘I’ll hold your seat til you get there. After you get there, you’re on your own’.
Groucho meets his government, noting that a Treasury Department report is so clear that ‘a four-year-old child could understand it’ (aside to Zeppo: ‘Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can’t make head or tail out of it’), and agreeing to give the workers shorter hours (‘We’ll start by cutting their lunch hour to 20 minutes’). His Secretary of War quits (‘I wash my hands of the whole business!’; ‘Good idea, you can wash your neck too’), but Groucho hires Chicolini, as he and fellow spy Pinky worm their way into his affairs. Chico (whose contribution to military logic is to suggest ‘we should have a standing army… because then we save money on chairs’) is soon put to work. In an attempt to cause a diplomatic incident to enable him to kick Trentino out of Freedonia, Groucho attempts to insult him, but is so offended by his replies that he slaps him, provoking war. Attempts are made to defuse the situation, as Trentino has ‘a change of heart’ (‘A lot of good that’ll do him, he’s still got the same face’), but Groucho refuses to back down, as he’s already got a month’s rent of a battlefield. As if this wasn’t satirical enough, Trentino’s one last plea for peace fails, after a speech which offers a great indictment of diplomatic thinking:
Firefly: I’d be only too happy to meet Ambassador Trentino, and offer him on behalf of my country the right hand of good fellowship. And I feel sure that he will accept this gesture in the spirit in which it is offered. But suppose he doesn’t? A fine thing that’ll be! I hold out my hand and he refuses to accept it! That’ll add a lot to my prestige, won’t it? Me, the head of a country, snubbed by a foreign ambassador. Who does he think he is, that he can come here and make a sap out of me, in front of all my people? Think of it – I hold out my hand and that hyena refuses to accept it!
(Trentino enters.) So, you refuse to shake my hand, eh? (He slaps Trentino across the face with his glove)
Trentino: This means war!
Viewers acquainted with the classic War episode of The Day Today might be surprised to see the tone equalled in Duck Soup’s build up to, and outbreak of, hostilities. There follows a medley of patriotic songs, George Formby impressions, astounding gospel (‘We got guns, they got guns, all God’s children got guns’) and crowd participation. Groucho runs the military machine with such precision to protect Mrs Teasdale (‘We’re fighting for this woman’s honour, which is probably more than she ever did!’) that Chico defects to Trentino’s side. In a bout of what would now be called ‘friendly fire’, Groucho takes the traditional American military route of gleefully machine-gunning his own men. In a frenzied finale, Groucho (in a variety of leader’s uniforms, from General Custer to Davy Crockett) somewhat jammily captures Trentino and the war is won. Everything that is right about the Marx Brothers works superbly: Groucho and Chico’s relative verbal dexterity, and Harpo’s slapstick assault on a street vendor and pomposity-pricking destruction of Trentino’s office, shorn of the romantic sub-plots through which they would later become (to quote John Lennon on the Beatles’ role in Help!) guest stars in their own movie. There are none of their own usual musical interludes - Chico’s piano-torturing (prompting Groucho in Horse Feathers to address the audience: ‘I’ve got to stay here. But there’s no reason why you folks shouldn’t go out into the lobby til this thing blows over’), and Harpo’s eponymous instrument-fingering.
The film received mixed reviews, and after the success of Horse Feathers was a conspicuous flop. Apart from the film’s political subtexts, there is much broad comedy, including one of their most famous visual gags. Trying to get Freedonia’s war plans from Mrs Teasdale, Chico and Harpo dress in Groucho’s nightgown, glasses and moustache, resulting in Groucho encountering Harpo (and then Chico) as a mirror reflection, frantically copying his actions. Apparently one of Leo McCarey’s contributions to the script, the mirror routine had appeared on stage and in Charlie Chaplin’s The Floorwalker (1916). McCarey’s role is crucial – with some justification Groucho later called him ‘the only first class director we ever had’. Directors hated working with them, their chaotic attitude prompting one to claim that they didn’t need a director but a referee. McCarey had refused, but signed a new contract when it looked like they would never work for Paramount again. Meeting up for a few beers was one thing, but once moviemaking was on the agenda, it seemed impossible to keep all four Brothers on set at the same time. Once, they suggested everyone meet up at 8.30 the next morning, only to roll in themselves at nearly midday, prompting the conversation: ‘where were you guys?’; ‘why, RKO’; ‘RKO? We’re not making this picture for RKO!’; ‘don’t change the subject!’. The Marxes stuck to a clause in their contract stopping them working beyond 6pm, prompting McCarey to get his own back: after working on a scene for hours, he excused himself to make a phone call, and went home to his wife, leaving the Brothers waiting for hours until an assistant finally pretended to ring McCarey and pass on the news that he’d be bright and early the next day.
From such chaos came my favourite satirical comedy. Except, it’s probably not really. True, Harpo had visited both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and the film was made against a backdrop of Hitler’s aggressive speeches on the radio. However, its creators insisted that it was just ‘a crazy picture’. Harry Ruby said that ‘We wrote shows and movies for only one purpose: entertainment. That is all there was to it!’, while Arthur Sheekman added: ‘Comedy is best when you upset stuffy people or notions, but that doesn’t mean that you start out with social criticism’. In his 1971 article ‘Duck soup for the rest of your life’, Joe Adamson argued that, whatever Duck Soup is, it’s not a political satire, because no such film could survive the Marx Brothers. This is why frequent Marx writers George Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind refused to let the Brothers loose on their genuinely satirical play Of Thee I Sing. The original Duck Soup script was indeed mutilated in rehearsals, with gags added and cut; Harpo and Chico now humiliated a peanut seller for no obvious reason; McCarey cut out one of the film’s major scenes in a theatre which established Groucho’s dictatorial ambitions; Harry Ruby came in one day and asked Harpo where the hell the mirror routine had come from, to which Harpo replied: ‘This is the scene where they break into Mrs Teasdale’s house’ (Ruby: ‘I’m afraid to ask what they’re breaking into Mrs. Teasdale’s house for’). As Adamson puts it, ‘McCarey shared the view-point that a script for the Marx Brothers is as about as definite as a treaty for the Indians’.
So, to claim it’s a politically radical film might be wide of the mark. But it’s still one of the most gag-packed comedies ever made, with a refreshingly modern sense of wordplay and a plethora of visual material to please even the modern Airplane! viewer. But glimpses of material cut from the drafter version of the script indicate that somewhere at the bottom of a filing cabinet or on the cutting room floor remains an even more subversive Duck Soup than this one:
Firefly: Now that you’re Secretary of War, I want to ask your advice. I’ve been running this country for two weeks, and I haven’t sold one piece of ammunition. How do you account for it?
Chicolini: That’s easy. You no gotta war – how you gonna sell ammunition if you no gotta war?
Firefly: You’ve got a brain after all, and how you get along without it is amazing to me. So you got to have a war to sell ammunition…
The more things change… Imagine their surprise when they realised that there was a city in New York really called Freedonia, the Mayor of which complained at the film’s slur on its name. Cue the inevitable Groucho letter: ‘Your Excellency. Our advice is that you change the name of your town. It is hurting our picture’.
More big Japanese dinosaurs with Matt Salusbury
Gojira was in town recently. You probably know this beast by its American name, Godzilla. Godzilla’s/Gojira’s original Japanese black and white first film from 1954 – which curiously never got a cinema release in the UK – was showing at – of all places – the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London’s beard-stroking intellectual home of Contemporary Art with a capital ‘F.’ Rubbing shoulders with seminars on semantics and awfully serious art installations was a black and white Japanese film featuring a man in a rubber suit who stomped over giant model train sets. I went along, the cinema was absolutely packed. The 21st century sophisticates snickered when Godzilla made its first appearance, in daylight, but everybody shut the hell up and sat in enrapt silence during Godzilla’s terrible night raid on Tokyo. While the franchise eventually degenerated into goofy cartoonish stomp-fests aimed at primary school kids, its original outing was a very serious beast indeed.Even today, Godzilla has immense cultural influence. The Black neighbourhood of Inglewood, Los Angeles recently saw off an attempt by gigantic supermarket owners Wal Mart to open a megastore, which would have quickly destroyed the neighbourhood’s local economy. The successful campaign against Wal Mart was led by a beautiful and charismatic female African American Episcopalian Church Minister. Did she use quotes from the Bible to rally her troops? No siree, she used Godzilla. “David and Goliath? This ain’t David and Goliath,” she told the press, “This is the city of Tokyo versus Godzilla!” The entire Old and New Testament apparently couldn’t come up with a suitably inspiring metaphor, but the world of Japanese monster movies could – Godzilla is, apparently, bigger than God.
The film even featured in America’s response to 9/11. There was apparently an informant held in unofficial detention by the Americans, a Syrian guy who fancied he was in Al Qu’eda, and who turned out to be a bit of a fantasist. Under “interrogation” he blabbed out the names of all the targets he could think of in New York, a city he had never visited. He named the Brooklyn Bridge as the next Al Qu’eda target, because he’d seen it being destroyed in Godzilla. The phrase ‘Godzilla targets’ discreetly crept into US intelligence analysis. That’s how big Godzilla is.
While Americans may have seen some of Toho Studios’ 30-odd Godzilla movies, probably on the drive-in circuit or on late night cable TV with the presenter taking the mick out of it, Brits have probably only ever seen Tri-Star’s 1998 American travesty that was Godzilla, in which the monster is taken out by missiles after getting caught up in the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. I was working at a private English school at the time, and the many Japanese students in my class went to see it, and came back just shaking their heads in bewilderment and muttering, “But Godzilla’s just a giant iguana in this one, they don’t get Godzilla.” Seeing the original 1954 Godzilla, it’s revealing how many elements are taken from the original film and used in the remake, (except for the obvious change into ‘just a giant iguana.’) There’s a very credible opening scene in the remake in which a post war French nuclear test in French Polynesia starts to mutate the local marine iguanas, and the bloke out of Leon turns up as a French secret service agent clearing up the mess. (Blaming Godzilla on the French is interesting, given America’s subsequent attitude to France in the Iraq war, and all that ‘Freedom fries’ nonsense.) In the original 1954 Gojira, nuclear tests at sea are blamed, and we all know because of the location that it’s the Americans who’ve done the nuclear tests, although in 1954, with large parts of Japan still formally occupied by US troops, you would be censored if you said so in a film. “Don’t mention the war” was film industry policy – and the horror of Godzilla’s attacks on Tokyo – with bystanders suffering radiation poisoning in Godzilla’s wake, and refugees camped out in the corridors and stairwells of the hospitals, is an oblique reference to Hiroshima and also to the incendiary bomb raids that burned Tokyo to the ground in a fortnight at the end of the war, and which you still couldn’t allude to directly on film. The model tanks and planes in original Godzilla, intercut with live action tanks and troops, are from the then brand new Japan Self-Defence Force – the Americans had only just let them have any kind of army.
Gojira opens with its lofty, serious, classical score, written by serious Classical composer Akira Ifukube, punctuated by the signature shrieking Godzilla roar, which was also Ifukube’s creation. Then we’re in the Maritime Safety Bureau in Yokohama, and the director’s office is being besieged by wives and kids of the crew of yet another trawler that’s gone down in Japanese waters. We see scenes of more trawlers going down – or in one case being pulled under – when mysterious lights show up underwater. Fish catches locally are suddenly right down to almost nothing. Survivors who are washed up on a remote island have horrible radiation burns. The old dude from the village recalls how in the old days, when fish catches suddenly dried up, they would “sacrifice a maiden” to a mythical sea dragon named Gojira. Now we’re back in Tokyo, where a dashing guy from the Navy Office is courting the daughter of Prof. Yamane, a paleontologist, who has a very feeble grasp of his science, as he places the Mesozoic era of dinosaur dominance at “twenty million years ago”, but as well all know the Mesozoic was about 200 million to 60 million years ago. (Prof. Yamane is played by Takashi Shimura, who was the leader of the Samurai in the then brand new Akira Kurosawa film, The Seven Samurai. Kurosawa’s assistant director on his period art movie epics Kagemusha and Ran, was none other than Ishiro Honda, director of Gojira and eight more Godzilla films.)
The young Miss Yamane was recently engaged to Dr Serizawa, a bitter and twisted professor who has an eye patch after losing an eye in Hiroshima. Miss Yamane hasn’t got around to telling Serizawa she’s dumped him. Back on the island, a mysterious force stomps on houses and wrecks ships during a storm in the middle of the night. Delegates are dispatched to lobby Parliament in Tokyo. Prof. Yamana gives his appallingly inaccurate talk on the Mesozoic to a Parliamentary Commission. After various Navy survey ships sent to investigate are also mysteriously sent to the bottom, they all go out on a scientific expedition to the island. They turn up and immediately find giant footprints, which start their Geiger counters clicking.
Then Godzilla appears over the top of the hill in broad daylight. He looks rubbish, everyone runs away, and the audience laughs. Prof Yamane tells the Parliamentary Commission he thinks Gojira is an aquatic reptile left over from the Mesozoic, mutated by a seabed churned up by nuclear tests. Gojira is first glimpsed from a ferry as it nears Tokyo, and then descends on the city, the plates on its back glowing as it sends out lightning-radioactive breath. Buildings – recognizable as actual places – are destroyed, kids left behind in the street are radioactive, power cables are ripped up, and trains derailed and played with, hospitals fill up. A Buddhist hymn of salvation, sung by school children on the radio, together with a confrontation by his ex, moves Dr Serizawa to use his newly-invented Oxygen Destroyer. An eye dropper full of this horrifying compound starts a large fish tank bubbling and fizzing like an aspirin and takes out all the oxygen, reducing all the fish to skeletons in minutes. Dr Serizawa had demonstrated the Oxygen Destroyer to his ex but then begged her to keep it a secret, so terrified is he that it will be developed into a weapon of mass destruction.
Finally persuaded, Dr Serizawa destroys his notes and goes out in a ship with the handsome male lead from the Maritime Safety Board to find Gojira and activate the Oxygen Destroyer. Donning those old diving suits with the lead boots, they are lowered down to find Gojira. Dr Serizawa sets off the fizzing destroyer, his comrade is hauled up but Serizawa cuts his rope, fearful that “a foreign power” will capture him and beat his secret out of him. Gojira is skeletonised very quickly, but Prof Yamane warns that, if nuclear tests continue, more monsters like Gojira will be churned up by the sea, thus keeping open the possibility of a sequel.
And sequels there were, by the shed load. Gignatis The Fire Monster was more a remake than a sequel, and then Toho discovered by accident that the kids loved the seriously intentioned Godzilla. Goofy sequels followed, in which Godzilla:
- adopted a “cute” child monster with big round eyes that was “only” about 60 ft high
- danced a little victory jig on Saturn a bit like Nobby when England won the World Cup
- was abducted by wrap-around sunglasses wearing aliens with aerials
- fought and vanquished creatures including the following:
a rhino-like colossal horned dinosaur that picked up women with its tongue
a super-pterodactyl that flew with a sonic boom
a giant blob of toxic sludge
70-ft wingspan moths
a three-headed dragon straight out of The Book of Revelation
a badly done baggy King Kong with a papier-mache face,
a pantomime oversized Tyrannosaur
a multi-coloured lizard monster with giant hooks for hands and a gigantic knife protruding from its stomach
flying robot replicas of itself
an outer space clone of itself – the latter, ‘Space Godzilla’, was bred in the core of a comet, sprouted ice crystals from its shoulders and could levitate.
Godzilla tripled in size over the years to avoid being drawfed by the increasingly huge size of Tokyo skyscrapers, and new Godzilla releases would incorporate the latest additions to the Tokyo and Osaka skylines and crush and stomp them, in much the same way as contemporary Bond movies include the Millennium Dome and the Guggenheim Bilbao. The brand new Tokyo Inland Revenue office building was collapsed by Godzilla shortly after its real life opening, and audiences applauded when Godzilla karate-kicked his gargantuan opponent through the walls of the controversial new Shinjuku Ward Council Office, scandalized by a massive overspend, shortly before its official opening in 1983. There are even alleged to be special Godzilla tourist maps of Tokyo available, with which you can follow Godzilla’s various paths of destruction through the city from the many films.
Like the Bond films, Godzilla seemed to go through a sort of late Roger Moore era – Godzilla films became increasingly childish and ropey and fizzled out in the early 1980s, only to be revived in Godzilla 1985. Godzilla finally went down fighting a giant creature called The Destroyer (not to be confused with the Oxygen Destroyer) in preparation for the transfer of rights to Hollywood for the Brooklyn Bridge giant iguana travesty. But Japanese Godzilla fan outrage at Hollywood Godzilla meant Toho Studios took the rights back, and Godzilla was soon stomping over model Tokyo again in Godzilla 2000. 21st century Godzilla films have begun to incorporate CGI effects, while man in increasingly sophisticated silicon rubber animatronics-enhanced suits remain the default special effects technique. Just as the Dead Kennedys announced in 1987 “we stopped before we started to suck”, so Toho Studios recently announced they were finishing with Godzilla for the moment until the technology improved or until they had found ideas for better scripts. This announcement came with the release of the recent Godzilla Final War, in which proper man-in-suit Gojira flings rubbish Hollywood iguana Godzilla to its death by judo throwing it into the Sydney Opera House. At least that’s what the man at the ICA told me, I’ve never actually seen Godzilla Final War myself, so I’m taking his word for it, although the scene sound like the sort of thing that could happen in a Godzilla movie. Final War may be a premature title, as Godzilla is not conclusively dead at the end of the film, only missing in action. But how you could lose a 150-ft radioactive dinosaur with spines on its back is not clear to me.
The bits in the Godzilla films where there’s no Godzilla on screen, which you would expect to be the dullest, are often deeply weird and convoluted, with stirring performances and the full range of human (and alien) character development. Godzilla’s only on screen for about six minutes in Monster Zero, but there’s a lot of intricate strangeness in the bits in between, centering on the X-ians from Saturn. The look like PVC-clad skinny art punk industrial band surrealists, with their wraparound sunglasses and aerials coming out of their hats. Their women are all identical. One is executed for the capital crime of displaying emotion, and they speak in a series of translated budgerigar chirps, whistles and squeaks. The exotically beautiful but evil Klaaxians, who succumb to one of Godzilla’s many efforts at international cooperation – on this occasion a UN-flagged space mission to bomb the crap out of Mars – melt to death at room temperature and go out with all the dignity of Shakespearian tragic heroes.
One of Godzilla’s worst received films, Space Godzilla, has the most Byzantine sub-plots of all. A departments store office salarywoman has painful telepathic contact with Godzilla, which normally takes the form of agonizing migraine attacks. Meanwhile, there’s a Renaissance revenge tragedy being playing out in the mind of one of the other human characters, a soldier in the elite heavily tooled-up anti-giant monster special unit G-Force, who runs amok and attacks Godzilla with all the special hardware he’s got, because Godzilla’s foot demolished his house in a previous film, while his comrades in arms have to physically pull him away because they’re trying to let Godzilla lure bad Space Godzilla with the crystalline shoulders into a trap. Godzilla versus the Sea Monster (aka Godzilla versus Crustacea) has human interaction that’s weird even by the standards of a Japanese monster movie, involving and Elvis-movie style dance marathon, the prize of which is a motorboat won by a gang of wacky teenage geeks.
Godzilla was played in the 1956 film – and in all subsequent films up to 1972 – by Haruo Nikajima, who – surprise, surprise, also starred in The Seven Samurai, as a bandit. Nikajima was a Classical method actor who went to the zoo at opening time at least once a week, to watch how the large animals moved. He is perhaps the most famous Japanese actor of all time, although none of his fans had any idea what he looked like. His approach is reminiscent of the actors who played Draconians, Sontarans, Ice Warriors, Cybermen and other monsters wearing a huge mask with just holes for their eyes in Doctor Who, one of them said it was like playing Classical Greek tragedy in a mask, you had to summon up all your powers as an actor to convey emotion without the audience being able to see much (or in Godzilla’s case any) of your face.
Now acting has gone forever from giant monsters, as they are CGI-rendered, although its revealing that Steve Jackson, whose special effects movies Lord of the Rings and King Kong were so good, used an actor to ‘do’ Gollum and King Kong. Tri-Star’s American Godzilla leaps and bounds gracefully through New York in the manner of Jurassic Park. But as we go to press, new information on dinosaur skeletons is emerging – their skeletons were actually very stiff, they could not have bounced and jumped like the ones in Jurassic Park, and the studied stiff lumbering of original 1954 Gojira is actually more accurate after all.
Words: Matt Salusbury
Flicking through one of our local North London papers recently, I came across a big advert for what was clearly a big budget science fantasy movie, called Gora – a Space Movie. Curiously, SFX, Europe’s biggest science fiction monthly, hadn’t heard of Gora at all when I rang them about it, even though the film had its UK premier in five London cinemas and was sold out on its first night. When I tried to see it on the next Saturday afternoon, our local cinema had a queue longer than the one for Lord of the Rings. How can a big-budget sci-fi film open to sell out audiences and completely slip under the media radar?
Gora’s original title, Gora – Bir Uzay Filmi (Gora – A Space Movie) gives a clue as to why it’s languishing in UK obscurity. Gora is the first sci-fi film to come out of Turkey in a very long time. Back in 1979, before Lucasfilm could be bothered to enforce copyright in Turkey, there was a truly awful Turkish Star Wars rip-off called Uzay Savaslar, which featured badly-done horned helmets, lots of horseriding around dry Anatolian landscapes, and even back-projected Star Wars space dogfight sequences with ineptly done space action in the foreground. Some now regard Uzay Savaslar as the worst film ever made. Turkey came to regard sci-fi films as automatic turkeys. Then along came MTV Turkey and numerous other ‘yoof’ satellite pop channels, often aimed at the diaspora in Western Europe. Turkey embraced the slick, airbrushed, pumped up PVC and latex pop video sensibilities of MTV as is if had been their idea in the first place. Sci-fi themed ‘novelty’ pop videos began to proliferate on Turkish screens, especially by the eccentric singer Mustafa Topaloglu – who often performs in a silver space suit, and when asked in interviews where he’s from always replies “From space.” Recently, a UFO museum opened in Sultanahmet, in the heart of Istanbul’s tourist district, complete with a shop dummy “Roswell autopsy” exhibit. So the time was right for Gora, which opened with English subtitles in early November 2004 in London cinemas in neighbourhoods where there’s a big Turkish-speaking population (Wood Green, Edmonton, Greenwich, Dalston, Enfield) and at the time of writing (late December) is still playing in Wood Green. Turkish, it turns out, is London’s second language, with estimates of up to 200,000 speakers in the city. Several North London suburban cinemas now have a ‘minority’ Turkish-language film circuit alongside the regular Bollywood programming.
If beings from another planet made films, they would be a bit like Gora. It isn’t just an exotic foreign curiosity; it’s a very strange beast indeed. The sets and the costumes are all glorious. Think armoured Klingon cleavage out of Star Trek TNG, think TRON-inspired over the top blue fluorescence, think the 1980s colour version of Flash Gordon, think plastic PVC latex MTV video attire. And think Lexx as well, no so much for the décor as for the vibe, particularly the preoccupation with other than mainstream sex. There’s momentary confusion as the opening scene of Gora – a classic spaceship interior – is in English, and English with lots of swearing. Then one of the characters turns to the commander and says, in Turkish, “Commander, they’re talking English – can we have it in Turkish from the start?” Then things start to get a lot weirder.
Inexplicably, we are then in contemporary Istanbul, with Arif, carpet selling wide boy chancer, trying to pass of UFO photos on which you can see the brand name written on the underside of the saucer. Arif’s other scam involves ripping off Japanese tourists with frescoes in a Byzantine church that are freshly airbrushed-over photos, and it’s all an excuse to get them into his carpet shop. Jokes about subsidies for the tourist industry abound, a mate warning him, “The Treasury guys are after you.” Arif is played by comedy star, Cem Yilmaz, who took over Gora’s production with a management buyout once the original backers – Star Cable TV – had gone bust and the film was bought up by the Turkish state, who weren’t in any hurry to finish it. (The making of Gora is a story stranger than the film itself, with rumours that there’s another four hours of swearing, sexually different practices and fart jokes that the censor consigned to the cutting room floor.)
Cem Yilmaz – who plays Arif and, as I realised long after seeing the film, the bad guy Commander Logar – has something of a Peter Sellers look about him, emphasized by his deliberately obvious fake moustache, and by his rather hit-and-miss Pink Panther accident-prone clowning around. Mr Yilmaz turns out to be an incredible versatile guy, he’s also a stand-up comic who’s clocked up 2,500 live shows, and a cartoonist who regularly does comic strips for Turkish satirical magazines like Firt and Girgur, which are absolutely huge, bigger than Mad magazine, even. Turkish humour weeklies are apparently the biggest circulation comic book humour papers in the entire world.
Two visitors appear in Arif’s carpet shop – apparently Prince Charles and his blonde girlfriend. Their visit prompts a lot of bullshit English for tourists which will be familiar to anybody who’s ever been abroad – “This is a flying carpet, look out!” as he throws carpet onto the floor. It turns out that it isn’t Prince Charles and his girlfriend at all, it’s disguised alien Gorans who have beamed him onto the fluorescent blue-lit TRON spacecraft full of ladies with stacked heels and Klingon cleavages, and he has been abducted. Logar, the evil Goth-type commander of the Goran spaceship, is a plastic-jacketed heavy metaller complete with novelty scary contact lenses. He’s a very bad man indeed, and his motivation for hating the humans is revealed in one of movie history’s more bizarre flashback sequences, a shaky old silent black and white sequence in which his grandfather lands in a suburb of eighteenth century Istanbul, and steps out of a retro 1950s Adamski-style flying saucer with his Wizard of Oz-type clunking steel robot to wave at the natives, only for a local Anatolian peasant to chase after him throwing stones, and apparently rape his robot.
Then there’s a Jedi-type apparition of a hooded figure who appears to Arif in captivity and babbles on about him being the chosen one, of which more later.Arriving at the Metropolis-inspired Gora City, suddenly we’re dropped in a prison drama along the lines of Oz or Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder’s Stir Crazy. The native language on Gora seems to be Turkish, and the ship bringing Arif turns out to be a slave ship. In prison, they eat wine gums which are like space food pills, and the kitchen steward is Bob Marley Faruk, a dreadlocked Turkish Rasta who was abducted from his failing seaside reggae bar years ago, after accidentally inventing the Six Million Dollar Man concept before having his script for the first ever Turkish sci-fi movie Lunar Lust turned down by a producer who usually does Turkish porno movies.
We’re briefly in a Bob Marley Faruk flashback, a Turkish Boogie Nights with bad eighties hair. It’s September 1980, and there is the rumble of tanks outside as it’s the day of the military coup.
Back on Gora, the product placement has got so weird and out of place that it becomes one of the film’s best running jokes. The spaceship passes a communications satellite bearing the logo of a Turkish mobile phone company. On Planet Gora, they drink cans of Uludag (a cheapo Sunny Delight-type canned ‘fruit’ drink), and what spoils does the captain of the Slave Ship present to the ‘Superior’, the King of Gora? Izmit Pismanoglu (a brand of candy flossy Turkish delight.)
In prison, where they play chess with a Star Trek chess set, we are introduced to supporting character Robot 216 – a very camp robot programmed to read tealeaves. In Turkish his serial number is the much cooler iki yuz on alti. The subtitling people seem to be having a laugh as well, producing lines like “Notify that geezer of our condition immediately” as they fluctuate between hyper-correct formal English and sweary slang in the same sentence.
Gora is supposed to be a parody of sci-fi, although it’s so loving of the genre that it does sci-fi better than the sci-fi it’s taking the mick out of, rather like Trancers, the early 1980s Terminator/Scanners parody that was in fact way better than both of them. Gora also takes the mick out of itself, with the Fifth Element scene in which the ‘sacred stones’ used to stop the giant fireball consuming Gora turn out to have the instructions missing, but Arif saves the day by explaining how to use them, because he’s seen it in “that Fifth Element film with Bruce Willis”, following the failure of Logar’s self-built “gastrovascular laser freezer” machine.
After a breakout from Gora City, we’re in Anatolian Mad Max territory in the crusty tent encampment where everyone has dreadlocks, and there’s even a crusty techno rave going on – in the afternoon. The Goran crusty economy resembles Iraq’s in that it is fuelled by looted commodities like J&B Rare whisky. Out of the city in the wilderness, in the forest of garlic sausage trees, Arif manages to pull the lovely space princess. Gora shifts into top strangeness gear as our heroes finally meet Garavel, the Ben Obi Wan Kenobi character previously glimpsed in visions. It turns out he’s a blind former Turkish Air Force reconnaissance pilot abducted in 1979, who now ‘sees’ by smelling and, it quickly transpires, is completely, completely nuts. He takes our heroes back to his beat-up old space caravan, cue out of space product placement as he gets out the Turkish state alcohol monopoly Tekel brand raki. Much twitching and convulsing follows as Garavel then proceeds to do some urgently-needed piss-takery of The Matrix as he uploads Kung Fu moves into Arif’s brain using a 1980 model cassette tape-equipped Commodore computer. 21st century MTV sophisticated Gora may be, but when our heroes leave Garavel’s place, he does a traditional Middle Eastern farewell of throwing water after their departing spaceship. In no time, they’re back in Gora City for James Bond and Matrix tomfoolery with slow-motion bullets. Unfortunately, this is where the film starts to lose its way. Having thrown out such glorious weirdness, it now feels obliged to go all linear narrative on us and tie up all the loose plot ends (as if we could care less), which results in weak knockabout gag comedy and running up and down corridors like bad Doctor Who, which the Turks apparently always regarded as a comedy show – they put a laugh track on it for broadcast. I’m afraid I was looking at my watch at this point. There’s one notable scene in which Arif, camcorder in hand, is crawling around in a ventilation shaft when he comes across Commander Logar in bed with his (male) assistant and a dwarf court dignitary, prompting him to say “The film took a weird turn, it’s not sci-fi anymore,” which pretty much sums up the whole film. This is, by the way, is the second incident in the film involving blackmail, videos and gay group sex.
Then we’re back in Istanbul, and Arif gets to move in with the space princess, cue credits and thundering Turkish MTV rap soundtrack. I found that Gora stuck in my head for days afterwards because it was just so very, very strange. I recall reading that David Lynch was Lucas’ first choice to direct Return of the Jedi, and if he had gone ahead with it, I’ve no doubt that the Lynch-directed Jedi would look awfully like Gora.
When Hollywood increasingly comes up with ideas for sci-fi films on autopilot (witness the recent absolute PANTS Chronicles of Riddick and the overblown computer game that is Sky Captain and World of Tomorrow), it’s a breath of fresh air to come across a sci-fi film which is so unashamedly, well, Turkish. It’ll be out on DVD soon at your local Turkish language cassette and CD shop, but just make sure you ask for the version with “Inglizce alityizi” (English subtitles).
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, ’Jaws’ is thirty years old.
Sean Alexander looks back at the fish that changed Hollywood…
The 1970s marks the last golden age of Hollywood cinema. This final hurrah - before the production-machine excess of the eighties and beyond - is largely viewed as encapsulating all that is best about the medium while highlighting how film’s capacity as a crucial emotional and spiritual outlet is often overlooked. With both Vietnam and the Manson Murders symbolically announcing the end of the decade of peace and love, the seventies certainly began in an air of uncertainty and distrust.
Out of these troubled times emerged two factors that were to have a defining influence over the shape of the decade’s cinema. First was a once-in-a-generation upsurge in creative talent; with such decade-defining directors as Scorsese, Coppola and Terence Malick all leaving their indelible stamp by era’s end. Secondly was perhaps the seventies’ most defining characteristic: providing entertainment for entertainment’s sake. Best illustrated by the disaster-movie phenomenon - in which seemingly endless casts of Hollywood A-listers faced catastrophe from air, sea and land - global threats of Armageddon tapped a rich vein of public uncertainty, while marrying people’s then desires for escape and entertainment. Despite their popularity, the cinematic cognoscenti dismissed these proto-blockbusters for lacking any resonance beyond the two hours or so they shamelessly enthralled an audience. Their presence alongside the Taxi Drivers and Godfathers of the decade did not defer the conclusion that a chronic slump in artistic integrity had begun; one to lead all the way to the merchandise-swamped reality of the modern blockbuster.
One of the more satisfied fans of these populist, escapist films was a twenty-six year old director by the name of Steven Spielberg. Raised on a diet of pulp, B-movie features and cinema serials such as Flash Gordon, Spielberg had begun directing on such mainstream TV shows as Columbo; but would first make an impression with an inauspicious TV movie called Duel. Starring Dennis Weaver, Duel was a surprisingly successful mixture of road movie and Hitchcockian suspense story, with Weaver as an ordinary Joe (named ‘Mann’, symbolising Spielberg’s later predilection for everyman protagonists) who finds a long-distance trip home dogged by a seemingly psychotic truck driver. Duel proved so popular with audiences - with its simple premise and grab-by-the-throat treatment of its audience - that it even had a limited cinema release in the UK and on the back of it Spielberg received his first offer of a studio picture; the highly acclaimed - though little seen - The Sugarland Express.
Following Sugarland, great things were expected of the young Mr Spielberg. Praised even by that most notorious of Hollywood critics, Pauline Kael (who suggested that - with Sugarland - Hollywood was looking at the birth of the next Howard Hawks) Spielberg sat down with producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown to discuss his next project. When his eye was drawn to a hefty manuscript on the desk before him, emblazoned with just one word - ‘Jaws’ - Spielberg assumed it to be some quirky, dental biography; unaware of the novel’s buzz since its 1973 publication. Its writer, Peter Benchley, himself had a rich literary heritage to live up to; father Nathaniel had authored the book on which The Russians Are Coming was based. Having long wanted to write a novel about sharks - perhaps in part down to his one-time stint as a speech-writer to President Johnson - Benchley finally found his hook when he read a report of one such beast which had been caught off Long Island: ‘What would happen if one of these things came into a beach and wouldn’t go away?’
‘Jaws’ the novel tapped a nerve with the pulp-reading public. With its diverse mix of literary antecedents - including ‘Enemy of the People’ (everyman’s struggle with authority), ‘Moby Dick’ (Ahab-like desire for revenge on nature) and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (the final, allegorical battle between man and beast) - the book was the perfect summer read; selling millions into the bargain. Literary critics maligned it for that common fault of the bestseller - purple prose - but Zanuck and Brown saw in it the potential for a huge movie success, given its already in-built literary popularity. However Spielberg wasn’t so sure; having read the novel, he concluded that while Benchley could write pacey action scenes, he knew nothing about character; with the Brodys’ disintegrating marriage and Ellen’s passionate fling with ichthyologist Matt Hooper proving particular sources of his scorn. These concerns were not assuaged when the author produced the first of what would turn out to be several potential screenplays for the film.
Still unsure whether he should follow Duel so soon with another tale of an unstoppable juggernaut, Spielberg himself wrote the next screenplay; producing a workable script in just two weeks. This version found disfavour with producers Zanuck and Brown, who - seeing their film head down a creative cul-de-sac - cast around elsewhere for someone to mould the novel’s exciting action with Spielberg’s desire for relatable characters. Following an uncredited five weeks from Howard Sackler - who would later find more, albeit misguided, acceptance for his Jaws 2 screenplay - John Milius was brought in to provide some ‘nautical authenticity’; with him producing the template for Quint’s ‘Indianapolis speech’ which would remain a highlight of the finished film. But no workable script was still ready until renowned script-polisher Carl Gottlieb joined up with Spielberg; injecting much of the humour and machine-gun dialogue which would prove endemic to Jaws’ success. Gottlieb - who would later recall that he never once sat in the same room as the book’s novelist - was also afforded the bit-part role of Amity’s newspaper editor; ensuring he was on-set to provide any last minute rewrites to this most troublesome of scripts.
If Jaws’ literary journey to the screen had been tortuous, it was as nothing compared to the problems Spielberg and co. would encounter with their mechanical shark on location in Massachusetts. Already hailed by producers Zanuck and Brown as the ‘star of the show’, ‘Bruce’ - as Spielberg nicknamed the behemoth in honour of then lawyer Bruce Ramer - operated through a combination of air bladders and an underwater platform to convince audiences of his malign power. Unfortunately as the high salt-water content of main location Martha’s Vineyard ruled out the use of any electronic components, ‘Bruce’s revolutionary - and somewhat temperamental - mechanism broke down on countless occasions. With Spielberg unable to do anything but film around the shark, Jaws’ shooting schedule stretched into weeks, then months. As the film’s modest budget crept into the substantial, producers Zanuck and Brown prepared themselves for the end of their cinema careers.
As was to become apparent with many of the reasons behind Jaws’ success, the delays caused by Bruce’s temperamental performance - and, even when he was working, from yachts spoiling the supposedly empty seas of the film’s climactic hunt - in fact helped to cement its repertory performances. Cast in the lead roles of Chief Brody, Captain Quint and shark-expert Matt Hooper, Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss all hailed from rehearsal heavy, theatre backgrounds. They soon found - when marooned on a remote island week-after-week, while their aquatic co-star stubbornly refused to hit his marks - that there was plenty of time to build believable biographies to temper the film’s otherwise fantastical premise. The results speak for themselves. For one of the recurring accolades awarded to Jaws - despite the scorn that years of special-effect advances have helped heap on the rubber shark - is that it depicts real human beings in a real crisis; twenty-five foot malfunctioning monster or not.
Roy Scheider was not Spielberg’s first choice to play Amity’s Chief of Police. Robert Duvall, then best known for his roles in To Kill a Mockingbird and The Godfather, was the director’s preference but when Duvall fancied himself for the Quint role - and Spielberg didn’t - Spielberg, to his later chagrin, looked elsewhere. Skirting the inevitable interest of disaster-king Charlton Heston, Spielberg turned to an actor who had impressed alongside an altogether different type of shark. Scheider played second fiddle to Gene Hackman in the Oscar-winning The French Connection, but his qualities still shone through to convince Spielberg he had found the perfect everyman for the role of Martin Brody. Scheider in turn was impressed with the director’s verve, and particularly in how he intended to achieve some of the more outlandish elements of Jaws’ then shooting script. Yet once filming began, it was not the prospect of killer sharks leaping like salmon onto boat decks that most concerned the incumbent Chief of Police. Scheider was more frustrated with the constant appeals from his director to underplay the role; especially amidst the more grandstanding - and eye-catching - turns of Shaw and Dreyfuss around him. What Scheider - like the audience - was to learn was that the underplaying of his character was the key to Brody’s appeal as unlikely hero - this was no larger-than-life fisherman, nor a show-off freshman shark-addict, but just an ordinary Joe not a million miles away from Dennis Weaver’s truck-troubled salesman in Duel.
If Brody is the ‘eyes of the viewer’ on this grisly tableau, then Hooper is arguably Spielberg casting himself in his own movie. Bookish, anti-establishment and just a little bit nerdy-looking, Hooper as played by Richard Dreyfuss represents the new order on Amity’s closeted isle; much as Spielberg would portray himself as the young upstart against Hollywood convention. Equal parts ego and self-derision, Hooper in the film is nevertheless a very different prospect to Hooper in the book; a former Yale graduate, his literary sun-kissed looks had put a further spanner in the Brodys’ already troubled marriage. And that final descent into the shark cage had culminated in death, not escape; seemingly as punishment for such base misdemeanours (although, in truth, it was film-makers Ron and Valerie Taylor’s capturing of live shark footage that spared film Hooper his literary forebear’s fate; the beast’s demolishing of the shark cage only occurring after Dreyfuss’ stuntman had fled the scene). Dreyfuss was cast by Spielberg following a highlighting turn in his pal George Lucas’ American Graffiti. And his arrival some half-hour into Jaws - aided by that memorable schoolboy-ish cackle - helps undercut much of the mordent horror seen up to that point. Hooper crucially also provides the by-now beleaguered Chief with a reassuring shoulder amidst all the denial and indifference. For like Brody, Hooper is a fish out of water on Amity; his college-boy demeanour marking him out from the landlubbers infesting the island’s slightly backward community. His bonding with Brody - while on the surface forged through adversity as the only two sane men on the isle - has more to do with their mutual feeling that they don’t belong here and will never be accepted even if they do.
As with Brody, Spielberg had to settle for inspired compromise for the role of Quint. First choice Lee Marvin less than graciously declined the director’s overtures, while Sterling Hayden also baulked; although more as a consequence of the tax-shelter problems he was encountering than for any artistic reason. Final choice Robert Shaw - himself no stranger to revenue interest - was already a veteran of stage and screen; most recently in Zanuck and Brown‘s The Sting, where Shaw had played significant support to then Hollywood colossi Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Spielberg saw in Shaw a perfect encapsulation of Quint’s brutal, world-weary cynicism; a man - like his sea-faring alter-ego - disillusioned by the modern world around him. With his lifetime of repertory experience, Shaw offered his director a wealth of filming options; and Spielberg significantly makes full use of the actor’s multiple-take technique in the final film.
Holed up of an evening at Martha’s Vineyard - with little more to do than eat dinner and work the script to death - Scheider, Dreyfuss and Shaw’s nightly workshops of theatre-style improvisation proved crucial to Jaws’ layered appeal. And the triumvirate’s efforts paid most dividends during the concentrated character dynamics of the climactic hunt. While it may be at the risk of stretching a point, it could be argued that the trio represent the classic three-way model of the Freudian conscious mind. For, like Star Trek’s Kirk-Spock-McCoy before them, they embody three individuals as one; Brody - the identification figure - is Ego, Quint - all unrestrained passion - Id and Hooper - with his frequently fruitless attempts to impose rationality through science and control - Superego.
Such devotion to characterisation is not restricted to Jaws’ principal players. Every character within has a life and heartbeat all their own; often expressed through no more than a look or a glance. Coupled with this, exposition is kept to the bare minimum, with much of what we learn about the protagonists achieved with little or no dialogue. One of Jaws’ most celebrated scenes is the post-Tiger-shark interlude between Brody and his youngest son. Stung both by the bereaved Mrs Kintner’s words and her vengeful slap, Brody sits at the kitchen table, mulling over his unfinished dinner and the man-eating problem still stalking the beaches. Suddenly he becomes aware of his infant son’s mimicking of his facial expressions; snarling - somewhat shark-like - at him to acknowledge the attention. Observed by the watching Mrs Brody, the scene encapsulates two of Jaws’ fundamental themes; the strength of family bonds - as illustrated by the Brodys - and how the innocence of youth belies the cynicism of adulthood. Given what we now know of Spielberg’s later descent into his own brand of emotional manipulation, it is surprising to find just how restrained this scene is.
Elsewhere, the supporting cast all provide memorable moments of characterisation that help knit Jaws’ rich tapestry of human life. Surprisingly, Brody’s wife Ellen is the sole example of femininity - beyond Chrissie’s semi-nude titillation - amidst the Boy’s Own bravado of the film’s macho adventuring. And, as Spielberg would later echo through both Mary in E.T. and Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark (to name but two), women prove to be the touchstones of rationality in Spielberg pictures. Ellen’s portrayer, Lorraine Gary, was in fact only cast by Spielberg as a favour to studio-head Sid Sheinberg; whose wife Gary was. But it is somewhat unfair on her that this ‘stigma’ still maligns what is one of the film’s most effective performances. Likewise Amity’s Mayor, Larry Vaughan - played by Murray Hamilton - is another perfect snapshot of mid-seventies American values. With his reverence for the dollar above all else, Vaughan is a perfect cameo of small-town, self-aggrandising philosophy; a man with complete belief in the propaganda he peddles. And shorn of the novel’s Mafia subplot - in which the Mayor’s motivation stems more from his obligations to the local mob than from any devotion to capitalistic ethos - Hamilton crafts the perfect spin-doctor some two decades before the term became common parlance.
Spielberg’s direction joins these disparate elements of characterisation and performance into the highly effective result. Given the behind-the-scenes headaches of this most difficult of shoots, it is all the more remarkable that any cogent film comes out at all; let alone one which continues to be so well-regarded. While the frequent delays allowed the principals to breathe a life into their parts beyond that granted on the printed page, it also forced Spielberg to re-think how he was to depict both the shark and the terror it would ultimately wreck on the island’s inhabitants. And as with much else on Jaws’ shoot, inspiration would come through accident rather than invention; not least of which composer John Williams’ maddeningly-simple signature theme. This two-tone tattoo which comes to signify the shark’s presence is as emblematic of Jaws’ status in modern pop culture as anything else but its real key was in allowing Spielberg to suggest the menace of the shark, while the real thing was no doubt off malfunctioning somewhere else.
Although interestingly, Jaws’ opening scene would have remained the same, functioning shark or not. Never was it his intention for Spielberg to ‘spoil’ his audience with the star attraction from the word go. So Chrissie’s doomed midnight swim is executed in exactly the way in which its director always intended; as a nightmarish hint to the terror that will plague the audience for the following two hours. Critics have suggested that Chrissie’s death is one of the most tasteless scenes in the film; with its rape-allegory lending ample ammunition to the film’s misogynist-claiming detractors. But this is to overlook Spielberg’s recognition that audiences need to start with a bang to get their attention. The fact that this inaugural death - at least, until Quint’s own near-climax demise - is the most can’t-bear-to-look moment in the entire film suggests that, contrary to criticism, Spielberg’s instincts were dead right.
No examination of Spielberg’s vaudeville direction would be complete without a look at arguably the film’s most accomplished scene: the first beach interlude culminating in young Alex Kintner’s death. More than anywhere else in Spielberg’s entire oeuvre, this four minutes is a master-class in Hitchcockian suspense. Although, just to buck convention, the scene is in fact more about Brody’s worst fears being fulfilled than it is about the bloodshed out in the surf. Achieved with a sublime mix of the disorienting (the wipes that gradually pull Brody closer to the viewer) and the mundane (the prattle of the islanders that punctuates the Chief’s growing unease), Spielberg drops so many red herrings in the water that the sense of something major about to happen becomes almost unbearable. And when it does, only then does the director unleash his piece-de-resistance; the much-copied, though never-bettered, push-pull shot that drags Brody towards the audience, while at the same time making him shrink as though into his own skin. This is Spielberg’s signature shot in Jaws. And fittingly contains no blood or death-like spectacle at all.
Spielberg truly comes into his element - like Quint, when the action moves out to sea - in the film-within-a-film second half showcasing Brody and co.’s nautical hunt for their nemesis. Having established Jaws as a thriller in which man battles with the forces of nature, the translocation of the action from land to sea finally unleashes the film’s latent desire to be a rollickingly fun adventure story. Even John Williams’ hitherto mix of summer-inspired strings and doom-laden ‘der-dum’ shark theme lets rip into a full-blooded, swashbuckling action soundtrack. Stripped now of its reassuringly cosy Amity beaches and quaint town-houses, the film becomes a much purer distillation of what it has been from the off: a full-on fight between Man and his darkest fears.
The hunt section also highlights where ‘Bruce’s recurrent absences caused the biggest continuity headaches. Rarely do you see two shots in the last hour that match, as neither sky colour nor horizon convince the viewer he is watching lineal action over the space of just two days. But it is a testament to how Spielberg has his audience so hooked by now that such concerns fall away even on repeated viewings. The tension, so ramped up already, now becomes unbearable as the inevitable showdown between the three-men-in-a-boat and their aquatic quarry draws ever closer. Yet Spielberg still has the tenacity - not to mention, guts - to bisect this section with an on-the-surface spurious interlude into male bonding and false machismo. Culminating with Quint’s compelling tribute to his former comrades on the Indianapolis - the authorship of which remains disputed - the night-scene on the Orca is arguably Jaws’ most relatable scene; a frank and realistic depiction of mutual respect through adversity. Perfectly played by Shaw, Dreyfuss and Scheider - whose Chief Brody is never more underlined as the outsider of the trio than here - the scene segues perfectly into the film’s final day of reckoning; as Brody, Hooper and Quint finally face their destinies.
Soon Hooper is in his cage - another tip of the hat to the film’s fundamental theme of protection - and Bruce is belly-diving onto the Orca’s flooded deck, just as Roy Scheider overheard Spielberg’s plans to do so. And with the film apparently risking its truce with plausibility - by finally showing the shark in all its rubber and fibreglass glory - the most brutal and gut-wrenching death in Jaws occurs. Even now there is a numbing sense of horror watching Quint slide inexorably to his end between the shark’s teeth. The fact that Robert Shaw culminates his steely-eyed performance with the most blood-curdling scream imaginable only underlines the anguish both Quint and the audience feel at his fate. Surprisingly, this is the only death in two hours that we witness uncensored on screen, resplendent in all the grand-guignol blood-letting you’d expect. For Quint’s death is the money-shot of Jaws. And despite the punch-the-air heroism of Brody’s final, well-aimed shot - and the light-hearted climax as he and Hooper swim for the beach - it is Robert Shaw’s death cry that echoes long in the mind after John Williams’ reassuring strings have faded.
So just what provides Jaws with its resonance - beyond the two hours of scares and thrills - some three decades after we first became afraid to go in the water? Well, first and foremost, it is a terrific action adventure film, made by a director at a time when he was more open to risk and less liable for schmaltz than in later years. But Jaws is not just an adventure movie, in the way that it is not just a scream-fest. Coming itself out of the glut of disaster movies which threatened to flood the early-seventies market, Jaws heralded another emergent - and highly lucrative - sub-genre destined to dominate over the following decade: the slasher movie. With its bikini-clad fodder - and most memorably in Chrissie’s coitus-interuptus death-by-rape at the jaws of the shark - the film can be seen as a forerunner to the Halloweens and Friday the 13ths to come; with their similarly sharp-weaponed antagonists only too eager to punish the beautiful and the sexually promiscuous.
To truly understand Jaws’ appeal is to understand the climate of American socio-political life at the time of its release. Haunted by Vietnam, and redolent with images of politically-active youth protesting from University campuses, America in the mid-seventies was a country experiencing a crisis of faith with its leaders. Arguably the already-established appeal of the disaster movie took root as a result of this very sense of instability; of a fear that might was no longer right in the face of a cunning and resourceful enemy. With Nixon and the Watergate scandal becoming an almost real-life disaster film, people no longer trusted those they had elected to serve. And sought in their cinematic heroes someone who was more like them, as previous generations had fastened onto the outsiders of John Ford’s westerns; or the nameless - and almost dialogue-less - vigilantes typified by Clint Eastwood’s cheroot-chewing ‘Man With No Name’ in the Dollars trilogy.
In Jaws, these archetypes are clearly identifiable. Mayor Vaughan is former President Richard Nixon, self-appointed guardian of the public Good; but a man more than willing to risk further carnage in the name of good ol’ US capitalism. Brody is the everyman that audiences identify with; even more so given he is an outsider and disrespected by the people he is paid to protect. As underplayed by Scheider, Brody is awkward, emasculated and afraid of the very element in which his antagonist revels. When he conquers both his fear of water - and, by extension, the shark - audiences cheer not just at one man’s triumph over human fallibility, but because Brody could, in a very real sense, be one of them on the movie screen.
Given the post-Vietnam implication that a powerful machine could be usurped by a primitive force, it is telling to note just how much Jaws is about territoriality and defence. The two halves of the action are themselves neatly divided into events predominantly based on the land and the sea. And the notion of ‘territoriality’ is ubiquitous throughout, whether it is in Hooper’s inclination to uphold that particular theory of shark-behaviour; or in the ever-present picket fences that enclose both the beaches and Amity’s picture-postcard town. The Chief of Police is himself frequently jibed about his dislike of the water, and by implication his status as a non-islander. While his wife - in one of Spielberg’s most effective examples of using throw-away dialogue to embellish character - is given an insight into the mindset of the community where she and her husband now live. ‘When do I get to be an islander?’ she asks one of the beach residents in the lead-up to the death of the Kintner boy. ‘Never’, she is told, ‘You have to be born here’.
Irrespective of all this talk of interpretation and resonance, the film works first and foremost as a primal scream movie. The fear engendered by Jaws is perhaps our most primal fear of all: dying. However, this is not just a fear of death in the routine, arbitrary way of everyday occurrence; rather it is a far baser fear of being eaten alive. Coupled with this is the perceived helplessness of becoming a victim to an unseen attacker; a seam which Spielberg mines to its fullest with his frequent shots of headless swimmers from below the water’s surface. He is acknowledging the mistake we all make in thinking that calm, surface events are anything but facades. While at the same time reinforcing how death can often come when we least expect it, and from the unlikeliest of sources. Admittedly, this tapping of primal fears would have struck a chord had Jaws been released at any other time. It is interesting to note - given the Vietnam angle - just how successful such nerve-striking was. And perhaps helps explain how - in this contemporary world of suicide bombers and the ever-present ‘War on Terror’ - the film’s resonance remains un-blunted some thirty years on.
On 20th June 1975, Jaws opened large across America, becoming in just a few, short weeks the inaugural event movie. It was the first film to pass the holy-grail of $100 million in ticket receipts, and its success established a pattern of summer Hollywood blockbusters which still stands today. Along with a certain other film called Star Wars - released less than two years later - it is both celebrated as the quintessence of mass-entertainment cinema, and reviled for its perceived acceleration of blockbuster culture. But one thing remains clear: few films - whether before, during or after Jaws’ watershed success - have come close to marrying the same sense of popcorn spectacle with a resonant human drama. That the filmmakers who followed Jaws - and those adventures in a galaxy far, far away - largely failed to capitalise on this is regrettable; but to blame the pioneers for their failure is both remiss and facile. Jaws recalls a time when special effects favoured creative improvisation over digital sanitation (just compare Bruce with the CGI sharks of ‘Jaws-for-the-millennium’ Deep Blue Sea, and ask yourself which provides more visceral effect). It reminds you that audiences were once allowed the honour of deciding for themselves what did - and didn’t - make a great movie; not spoon-fed such conclusions by dubiously-motivated studio executives. Fundamentally, Jaws represents the allure that drew a generation to the cinema in the first place, and the thrill of what beguiled them once they got there.
Join John Connors in the yellow van for a fascinating journey.
Some films are great – other films are great and very cool and Little Miss Sunshine definitely makes the latter grade with ease. It’s about families, how they don’t get on and about people and how they can fail to achieve their aspirations yet still find some sort of accommodation in their lives.
The Hoover family consists of Dad Richard Greg Kinnear) who’s virtually bankrupted the family having failed to drum up interest in his motivational `Nine Steps` programme, Mum Sheryl (Toni Collette) who has reached the end of her patience with her husband’s activities while trying to keep everything together. Its her second marriage and 15 year old son Dwayne (Paul Dano) is the product of her first therefore he harbours resentment towards Richard though this has to be expressed non verbally as he’s taken a vow of silence, as a form of self discipline, until he gets into Flight School. 7 year old Olive (Abigail Breslin) dreams of winning the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant for which she is being trained by her grand-dad (Alan Arkin). That sounds nice until you realise he’s a drug taking porn obsessed pensioner who was thrown out of a retirement home for bad behaviour! Finally there’s Frank (Steve Carrell) Sheryl’s gay brother just out of hospital after trying to kill himself when the student object of his affections went off with his big rival as `America’s leading Proust scholar`. Frank reacted so badly he ended up losing his job and reputation. So, not an especially happy family then, and the cinematography certainly plays on that shooting the Hoover house in muted colours while the sets have that awkward lived in feel that seems quite real. Yet despite this set up – a lot of which is revealed over an extended dinner table sequence- and the opening montage which even has exactly the sort of music you’d expect from this sort of film, this is not your typical indie film by any means, in fact it’s nearly unclassifiable. And, despite what you’ve just read about the characters it’ also very funny indeed.
There are two crucial lines of dialogue that sum up what writer Michael Arndt is aiming for. At one point the family’s van is pulled up by a motorway cop and as he pulls up Richard pleads for everyone to “pretend to be normal”. Picked out as the line that went on the promo posters, it is a perfect fit because in the end that’s what the Hoover family are trying to do; and of course that’s what anyone tries to do. The question is – what is normal? The movie reaches the rather reassuring conclusion that it is being as happy as you can be in this world. The struggle to be what is seen as normal as opposed to being an individual permeates the film; Olive’s aspirations are hardly realistic given she is plainly not that sort of girl and early on we are perhaps supposed to feel sorry for her yet by the time of the unexpected climax it is her individuality we love and we realise we were suckered into expecting her to win the silly contest. The film wrong foots our expectations time and again this way which is what makes it such a delight; Dwayne’s vow of silence, inspired by Neitsche, is actually exactly the sort of thing his step father’s Nine Steps programme purports to inspire while the latter cannot give up his goal despite rather overwhelming evidence that the programme is not going to be bought up by investors and so on.
The other key line occurs near the end when a talking again Dwayne, reflecting on what’s happened with the contest they have just been watching opines that “life is just one long beauty contest”. We are, in other words, being judged every step of the way and it is therefore satisfying for us to watch such a family, with all it’s problems and foibles, struggle to get through because it reminds us of ourselves. The script tells us that you should celebrate and encourage individuality and that even not conforming to the `normal` doesn’t mean you won’t make it. Not that its easy and it would certainly be wrong to suggest a road trip solves all the family’s problems but in their own way each character is reaching for something and its that process that life is all about, not the winning or the `beauty contest`.
One of the reasons why the film is so engaging too is because the disagreements we see are not false `movie rows` of the sort that you often see film families having. People can be yelling and shouting but like a real family, everything’s sort of OK the next morning.
The yellow camper van which they trek across the country in on the way to the pageant becomes a visual metaphor for the dysfunctions; it’s increasingly quirky characteristics appearing to mirror the stubbornness of the family members and the worsening crises that befall the trip but of course the vehicle is a brilliant slapstick device in its own right. Early on in the journey the clutch goes and the only alternative to being stuck in Hicksville, Nowhere for days is for them to push the thing to get it going and then jump in one by one which of course means that for the first time they have to co-operate over something. This underlying practicality often wins through and is shot through with a warmth that none of the characters would probably admit; Dwayne may scribble “I hate everyone” but when Mum is upset he also writes to Olive “Go Hug Mum”. When Richard has lost his investors and been given a good telling off by his wife, granddad offers a few gruff reassuring words. Even Frank who started the film when his sister says “I’m so glad you’re still with us” responding “Well that makes one of us” is engaged by the experience and we see him smiling for the first time when they have to push the van.
Of course the film is also very funny at times and amongst the comedic highlights are Frank buying porn mags for grand dad) just as his ex turns up in the same shop, a scene in a diner when Richard and Sheryl argue politely through gritted teeth over whether Olive should have ice cream or not, sneaking a body out of the hospital and into the van then later when the van’s malfunctioning horn attracts the attentions of a cop who insists on searching the boot….
I particularly like the mix of characters and the way that everyone gets a fair hearing. There are so many films where the Dad character is treated like a piñata or seen as stupid and out of touch but here that doesn’t happen; in fact the more the film progresses the more you realise his Nine Steps have a lot more to offer than it seems at first even if he is over enthusiastic and pushy about them! He may fail to get outside interest but in a way it works on his own family. Likewise we mistake Dwayne’s behaviour as typical surly teen but it turns out to have purpose and discipline. Frank starts off as suicidal but is revealed to have a love of life. Best of all though Olive’s story seems set to be the cute heart of the film giving us a sugary bittersweet payoff at the end. Well, think again! Instead it provides us with the funniest and most surprising sequence of the picture which I’d love to talk about but you really should see it in context. Suffice it to say, if you realise what sort of a grand-dad taught her the routine then you might have an inkling but it’s a joyous strike against the normal which – as the excerpts from the pageant show us- is often creepily plastic.
The performances are tremenous; Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette exchange a raft of knowing looks, half hidden exasperations and physical nuances to portray a married couple hassled by each other. Alan Arkin is foul mouthed yet has a heart of gold while Steve Carrell plays against the expected type as the thoughtful if wry Frank. Paul Dano has to spend much of the film saying nothing yet you still know what he’s thinking while Abigail Breslin is wonderfully intuitive and never irritating.
The film is directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton a husband and wife team responsible for pop videos who first read the script in 2001. Says Faris: “We read this and thought- Wow, this doesn’t need to be developed! It’s ready to shoot”. “What we both really connected with was the rebellious spirit of the family” adds Dayton, “All the characters were taking action based on their beliefs and convictions”. However it wasn’t an easy ride and it would be four years before filming took place over an intense 30 days in mid 2005. Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival ir was received rapturously and immediately won a $10.5 million distribution deal.
To achieve the film’s mood, the directors discussed various films with the cast such as The Graduate, Harold and Maude and Five Easy Pieces. “Tone was the biggest issue” said Dayton when comparing the original script with what was filmed,, “There were certain moments that felt too slapstick.” All versions of the script trod a fine line between drama and comedy something that Dayton says they achieved “as long as the actions felt honest. Luckily we had this incredible ensemble of actors who were playing off each other so well.” The directors also deliberately went for a more sombre tone to start the film; “People wanted to cut a lot more out of the dinner scene” said Faris “We cut some out but we kept it pretty long because we liked that it was not your comfortable length dinner scene. It made it more like you were sitting at the table with them.” The ending too went through some changes and the actual one in the film, as they get into the van the final time, was shot some time after the rest of the film as Faris explains: “We realised the bus had become such an important character in the movie that we needed to see the family push the bus one more time”
A measure of the quality of Little Miss Sunshine is that as they do drive away you really want to continue the journey back with them and find out what happens to the characters next. This is my joint favourite film of 2006 (along with Brick) and is well worth a look by everyone reading this when it comes out on dvd.
The recent remake of `Solaris` offers a different kind of sci-fi says Roger Jones
Living as I do on the former furthest boundary of the Roman Empire, it is not unusual to finally see a film only shortly before it is available on DVD (and even then, only if you are in town on the two nights the film is actually shown). This was the case with Solaris, which I finally saw in a rather odd George Clooney double bill with `Confessions of a Dangerous Mind’. While the latter had some justified success and entertained many people, it was Solaris that stuck in the mind afterwards.
This latest version of Solaris did not fare too well with the critics. After a completely misleading advertising campaign (one which seems to be being repeated for the DVD release), the reviewers looking for action and pace were understandably disappointed. The art-house crowd were less justifiably critical, showing an excessive reverence for the original Tsarkovski film. There was also a whiff of the charge that this was another Americanisation of a classic, albeit by a director that still has art-house credibility despite making commercially successful films. As one who shares an instinctive horror of American remakes of European films, it is interesting to reflect how well this charge stands up to scrutiny, especially as the question of originals and replicas is at the heart of the film.
It is not spoiling the film too much to summarise it in the following way. On a space station in orbit around the planet Solaris, strange events are taking place around the investigating team of scientists. In an enigmatic message to his friend, a psychiatrist back on Earth still recovering from the death of his wife (Clooney), the team leader asks him to come to Solaris and see what is going on. The company running the station persuade the psychiatrist to go, their earlier attempts to investigate having failed. On arrival at the station, the psychiatrist finds the team leader dead, another member deranged, a third near hysterical with something locked in her room and a strange young child walking the corridors of the station. However, it is only as he sleeps that the real mystery of the Solaris becomes evident; he awakes to find his dead wife alongside him. The rest of the film is less about this mystery, but rather how the crew react to the visitors conjured from their memories and dreams, obsessions and mistakes. Some become suicidal (one, it transpires, committing a very unique form of suicide), others reject what they meet utterly, while our psychiatrist first shows violent rejection of the visitor, then a slow acceptance, and finally a surprising form of reconciliation.
So, in what way does this differ from the earlier version, or from the book? The most obvious difference is in the running times. This new Solaris has a perfectly respectable running time around the two-hour mark. The original was more like four hours in length. Is this evidence of American dumbing-down, pandering to an audience with a short attention span? I think not. The film is slow in development, careful in its mood, and clearly not pandering to the popular taste. What is more, unlike the earlier film, it does not need to be so long. The earlier film was made in the old Soviet days, and was a brave and oblique treatment of the Gulag system. The team were sent to Solaris with no real chance of leaving. The long running time helped build the feeling of imprisonment and claustrophobia. In the new version, the themes are very different, and it is noticeable that all the team go to Solaris more or less of their own volition, and could leave if they wished. The only prison in the film is that built by guilt, regret, obsession and memory. The film is therefore only as long as it needs to be to explore its themes, focussing tightly on the story of the psychiatrist and largely ignoring the other crew.
It is in those themes that the film is most identifiably American. The new version concerns itself with the nature of identity, and the possibility for forgiveness and redemption in a Godless universe. If one wanted more West Coast themes, one would be hard pressed. The film deals with the question of identity in a very deft way, through the visitor that appears to be the wife. Initially, she is almost a blank, but her character develops the more the psychiatrist dreams; but also develops as a result of her `reincarnated’ experiences. We believe her to be a fake, a position that she herself becomes aware – self-aware – of. Later, as good liberals, we at least accept that she has her own identity. By the end we are strongly led to believe that we are seeing a `replica’ psychiatrist, and yet we accept him as real (to the extent that my companions at the showing had not read the signs he was no longer the original). This is a thoughtful take on the old question `were the Enterprise crew killed every time they beamed down, and replaced with replicas?’
It is in the ending of the film that we perhaps see the greatest American influence. In the original film, the psychiatrist escapes back to his father, but it is a bleak ending (the book even more so). Without giving the game away, the new film suggests that there is scope for redemption and forgiveness even in a Godless universe, even though you may have to die first to obtain it. This could be seen as a parable for psychoanalytic redemption through the acceptance of loss and past mistakes.
In short, it is in the choice of the themes teased out of the original book for the film that Solaris reveals its Americanism. Is this a bad thing however? I would say not. It is made with sensitivity, and a real European sense of style and structure. It does not share the lo-fi feel of the Russian original, but its effects never overwhelm the film, beautiful as they are (and with occasional visual nods to 2001, a film that was also told in a very European way by an American director). The acting from the leads is fine (although the supporting roles are less impressive). I could carp on about the techno babble (anti-Higgs fields indeed; do they not know Higgs files are scalar and so self-conjugate?), but it is no worse than the invocation of `neutrino fields’ in the original book. No, if all American films were as well made, thoughtful and thought provoking as Solaris, the world would be a better place. Not everything has to be as bad as the remake of `Get Carter’, I’m very pleased to say.