Ghosts From The Machine

    Geoffrey O’Brien shows us how, after more than a century of motion pictures, we have become an international community personally and culturally inhabited by films. We do not merely view them. Movies are so pervasive that we become them. The Phantom Empire (1993) is a collection of philosophical essays that explores, in language of sinuous and seductive rhythms, our relationship with cinema.

    “How did you wander into this maze, anyway, and how would you get out? Do you in fact want to, or would you prefer to sink deeper into it, savoring its manifold ramifications and outlying distortions?” Mister Memory locates us in our spectator’s position, our minds filled with movie images universally shared. “How often you’ve wished that memory could be as sharp, solid, and mechanical as a movie, that the mind could give way to remembering as effortlessly as the eye submits to the ritual glide of the camera…” If so, then “…the camera would have preserved (our memories) the way people preserve food, for sustenance in time of famine.”

    “For its education in focus and order the eye was indebted to certain privileged windows: objects whose function was to teach what an object was.” The Garden of Allah explains how the movies enter our consciousness, at first through our senses, then by our exposure to and habitation of a world permeated by movie advertising and impact, and peopled by others profoundly affected by scenes, dialog, and visual imagery with a compulsion to share their excitement.

    A Short History of Fun describes how the movies affect our experience of time. “As a medium in which the dead continued to walk about, movies provided an education in time. Events could be dated by which actors were still alive, or by how many wrinkles they had acquired.”

    World War II changed the movies. “In the world the war had made, reality was black-and-white. Color was suitable for candy wrappers, comic books, and Maria Montez vehicles.” Orpheus and His Brothers identifies the new wave of European directors that emerged in the 1950s who reevaluated film aesthetics. “There was life in the ruins, a rusted rotting life, menacing and erotic.” “Out of the ashes, out of the rubble, something new was being born. It was art. It healed.”

    “What did people do, anyway, before there were movies?” Ghost Opera is a recapitulation of how the movies were invented from an accumulation of entertainment technologies over millennia, from campfire shadow shows through the magic lantern to Cinerama and beyond.

    “For the first twenty years, it was almost enough to show things… The spectator wallowed in the visible like a neighbor perched on a stoop watching the world go by.” In The Author of the Visible, directors learn to personalize their films. “It was a question of narrowing the range of choice, to minimize both the depth and the periphery so that there could be no escape from the enclosed surface.”

    “The directors who made the most indelible marks on memory… were those who knew best how to exclude all information except the tiny amount required to give their dream narratives minimal coherence..” The Souk of Knowledge and the Wide Open Spaces ruminates on the meaning of Westerns. “The Western derived its strength from the reiteration of what was already self-evident.” “The Western became the genre of genres because it was most obviously the common property of the emerging global communications tribe… Nowhere – not Lapland or Fiji or the remotest estuaries of the Indian Ocean – was Hopalong Cassidy a stranger.”

    “In the last days of imperial Hollywood, the big show was the spectacle of the show’s disappearance.” In The Italian System, the dying Hollywood studios produce bloated, cost-heavy epics. “The trouble in the empire was highlighted by the encounter, in Hollywood’s shadow, of another Hollywood, its cheap twin… in Europe it was still possible to work with enough speed and violence and crudity to make movies suited to the world they were being shown in.” The Italian studios ransack cinema history. “All the movies ever made constituted a storehouse of images waiting to be appropriated and pasted into place.”

    A Ticket To Hell recounts the development of the horror film. “The taste for danger, a flirtation with evil, hovered around the movies from the beginning. Part of the attraction of the medium was that it allowed spectators to sate themselves on horrors without fearing contamination. Whatever had been captured for their gaze was really elsewhere, with no risk of anything escaping from the screen into the audience.”

    In The Magic Cockpit, movies reach a point of exhaustion: plot devices, images, story lines – everything had already been done. “The opaque icons just accumulated, like non-biodegradable plastic jetsam piling up on Pacific atolls. Marilyn, Bogart, JFK, Garbo, Lugosi, Elvis, Duke Wayne, Judy Garland: all were destined finally to be blank marks stirring not even a flicker of response.”

    “Just as movies have their dream sequences, dreams have their movie sequences.” Dream Sequence meditates on the evolution of movies from a capacity in the human brain to form dreams to the effect of dreaming on reality. “After Chuang Tzu dreamed of being a butterfly, he couldn’t say for sure that he was not a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Tzu.” In a roundabout, absurdly elaborated fashion – requiring special effects laboratories, wagonloads of art directors and prop men, and years of systematic alchemical research – the brain had set about creating an image of itself, with a view toward projecting it into every corner of This Island Earth.”

    Geoffrey O’Brien is a poet, editor, and critic whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, the Village Voice, and elsewhere. In his Phantom Empire, we are besotted subjects who have been beguiled to believe that our rulers,  the filmmakers, are fashioning shadows from trapped particles of light for our benefit. We surrender willingly, hostages to Hollywood and all the international avatars of Hollywood that have but one purpose: to make us spectators eager to pay for our enchantment.

    Whatever our pleasures be: King Kong, The Bank Dick, Fantasia, Hellzapoppin’, Gunga Din, Mister Hulot’s Holiday, The Third Man, Northwest Passage, The African Queen, A Walk in the Sun, A Hard Day’s Night, They Might Be Giants, Harold and Maude – the movies are not here to serve us. Like the tall, benevolent extraterrestrials in the Twilight Zone episode To Serve Man, they are here to serve themselves.

(Review posted on Amazon.com, November 2011)

Traveling Lady, Stay Awhile

    In 1971, the year following the great success of his movie M*A*S*H, Robert Altman chose to adapt Edmund Naughton’s novel McCabe about an amiable drifter who discovers his soul in the harsh, unpromising outback of the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the 20th century.

    Altman assembled his stars Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, a group of durable character actors, including William Devane, John Schuck, Rene Auberjonois, and Michael Murphy, and ingenues Keith Carradine (his first role) and Shelley Duvall (her second). He instructed his cast to select their own wardrobes from thrift shops and personal belongings, prepare themselves to live in rudimentary dwellings near the set for the duration of the shoot, and not to expect excellent weather.

    The result was McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a dreamy, sensuous, and affecting film about ambition, pride, romance, character, and community. A sense of fragility and bust held at bay pervades the story, emphasized by the gently rueful songs of Leonard Cohen and the presence of rain, mud, or snow in nearly every scene. Digging in against the elements, determined miners scrape from their living from ore reluctantly disgorged by the hills, finding their comfort in rugged humor, bottled spirits, and muted camaraderie as the town of Presbyterian Church takes shape around them.

    The arrival of the mysterious stranger McCabe (Beatty) brings mutual benefit. He is rumored to have shot dead a notorious bad man, but he seems to have no more aim than to be one of the boys, taking his chances along with everybody else at rude poker and raw whiskey. McCabe is accustomed to solitude; he communes with himself in muttered monologues. Among the residents of the hardscrabble town, he finds he is the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind. Acceptance by his newfound friends stirs ambitions he was not aware he had. He sees the profits to be banked by bringing the town a commodity it most eagerly needs: prostitutes.

     Fancying himself an astute cosmopolitan, McCabe is blindsided by the beautiful, calculating, and thoroughly worldly Mrs. Miller (Christie), the madame who follows the imported ladies of pleasure. McCabe falls for her like Cascade mountain rain. Though their business relationship redounds to their personal advantage and enhances the town’s prosperity, no effort of charm, sincerity, or plea can crack Mrs. Miller’s granite heart. Turned away at her door, McCabe audits their partnership. “Money and pain. Pain, pain, pain.” Mrs. Miller’s impenetrable reserve prompts McCabe’s disconsolate soliloquy, “You’re just freezin’ my soul. That’s what you’re doin’. Freezin’ my soul.”

    The booming town inevitably attracts the interest of a large mining corporation that dispatches representatives to buy out McCabe and Miller’s holdings to cement their local monopoly. Confronted by an obstinate McCabe, the company resorts to more intimidating tactics, sending the implacable Butler (Hugh Millais) with a pair of surly gunmen. Will McCabe and Miller sell out? Will they ever pledge their troth? Are they the only thing standing between Presbyterian Church and the relentlessly controlling forces of commerce?

    In his long, fruitful career, Robert Altman (1925 – 2006) wrote, directed, or produced 34 films for the big screen and dozens of movies, series episodes, documentaries, and short features for television. He favored experimental approaches in style and story. In this film he spotlights main characters with appreciable flaws, portrays prostitutes in warm, familial glow, and fills backgrounds with chatty ensembles conducting business without reference to the principal action.

    McCabe & Mrs. Miller may have been submerged by the acclaim accorded many of Altman’s other movies, but it is a work perfectly realized in its chemistry, atmosphere, and effect. Life is rarely an all-out war against the armies of darkness. For most it is the humble struggle to put down roots, to nurture one’s designs, to be something for someone, to defy transience and impermanence.

(Review posted on Amazon.com, July 2011)

Bringing Home The Burkean

    James Burke is a fellow you would love to have at your dinner party. Affable, articulate, avuncular, with his friendly nimbus of windblown hair crowning a broad forehead with dark, thick eyebrows behind heavy framed glasses, his impeccable Oxford diction coddling every phrase with dry wit and charming colloquialisms, he is the perfect paragon of the beloved college professor. You and your guests would never be bored because he can talk agreeably about, well… everything.

    Art, architecture,astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, math, medicine, languages, philosophy, social movements, political history – you name it. Other than in your living room, or in a classroom, there is no better place for James Burke than on television.

    From its earliest days, psychologists have been skeptical of television’s suitability for education because the medium plays to a passive audience and is not designed for the mind’s active participation. This view is valid as far as it goes, but it may slight the power of drama to edify, of well-executed productions to transport, and the appeal of charismatic individuals to engage the imagination.

    Burke enjoyed a long association with the British Broadcasting Corporation, commencing in 1966, both behind and in front of the camera. In July 1969 he covered the Apollo 11 moon landing for the BBC. From 1996 to 2001, he wrote a regular final page column for Scientific American. His discourses maintained a chatty air, constructed with a satisfying circularity, beginning with a fascinating scientific observation, retreating to a salient historical moment, retracing steps and knitting up stitches until returning to his original point. He followed this general outline in four popular science and technology programs for the BBC and PBS networks.

    In 1978, Connections, Burke’s series about discovery and inventions, aired in 10 half hour episodes. The 20 segments of Connections 2 appeared in 1994, with 10 more parts arriving as Connections 3 in 1997.

    In 1985, The Day the Universe Changed followed a more leisurely pace, highlighting the social and philosophical ideas that influenced science history in 10 one-hour episodes. Its central premise is that we humans are “what we know” and that our definition of knowledge and our means of ascertaining it arise from cultural frameworks that change over time. The series features:

    1. The Way We Are  The birth of rationalism. Thales of Miletus and the Ionian Greeks begin to see nature as impersonal and explainable on its own terms rather than as a product of supernatural agencies.

    2. In the Light of the Above  The fall of Toledo to 11th century Spanish crusaders yields vast accumulations of ancient learning previously lost to European culture that had been preserved by the Islamic civilization. After a century and a half of translation efforts, medieval scholars gain enough knowledge to found universities and launch the Renaissance.

    3. Point of View  The recovery of the principles of perspective drawing initiates new approaches in art and architecture. Grid lines applied to cartography enable maritime exploration of the African coastline and the discovery of the New World.

    4. A Matter of Fact  Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable type printing press banishes human memory as the repository of wisdom, engenders the spread of literacy, empowers free communication of ideas, transforms the meaning of factual information, and undermines the authority of the Church.

    5. Infinitely Reasonable  Copernicus overturns Aristotle’s celestial notions that had dominated scholastic thought for nearly 1900 years by locating the sun at the center of the universe. Kepler and Galileo confirm the Copernican worldview through observation and experiment. Newton’s Principia Mathematica demonstrates in precise mathematical language the laws of motion and gravitation that explain the mechanics of the observable universe.

    6. Credit Where It’s Due  Great Britain adopts the Dutch banking and credit system that provides the capital to build canals, harness steam power, spur technological invention, expand factory production, distribute goods to broader markets, transfer labor from farms to cities, and create the Industrial Revolution.

    7. What the Doctor Ordered  The work of surgeons and the survival rate of their patients is improved by the invention of anesthesia and the discovery that deadly sepsis is caused by microorganisms that can be destroyed during medical procedures and controlled during recuperation. Chronic outbreaks of cholera, typhoid, and plague are traced to their sources in contaminated water, and city planners learn to separate sewage from water intended for consumption.

    8. Fit To Rule  Advances in zoology and comparative anatomy applied to collections of fossils lead to recognition that past species have become extinct. The new science of geology proves that the earth is far older than anyone knew. Wallace and Darwin propose theories of evolution to explain the diversity and inter-relationships of species. Darwin’s ideas are appropriated by social theorists to rationalize utopian ideals.

    9. Making Waves  Electromagnetic phenomena, the wave theory of light, and the discovery of sub-atomic particles force a reevaluation of Newtonian classical physics. Einsteins ideas on gravity and relativity, along with the application of probability theory to quantum mechanics, lead present day physicists to increasingly complex models of the fabric of reality.

    10. Worlds Without End  What is reality? Different societies coexisting in the modern world apprehend different structures of reality. Is there anything objective and ultimate that human beings can universally accept?

    With impressive geographic scope, The Day the Universe Changed was filmed in the locations where the events occurred that precipitated conceptual departures, often depicted in realistic mini-dramas with period costumes and authentic props. It is James Burke himself, however, who stands front and center, narrator, guide, exhibitor, storyteller, and wit. We are “what we know.” The Day the Universe Changed is James Burke.

(Review posted on Amazon.com, October 2010)

The Kids Were Alright

    Considering all that has been written about The Who by music critics, biographers, and pop journalists, there is not much left to say about this forceful, inventive, and influential rock aggregate. Thanks to Amazing Journey (2007), however, there are still fresh things to see.

    The twin DVDs in this set produced by Nigel Sinclair, Bill Curbishley, and Robert Rosenberg include The Story of The Who and Six Quick Ones. These documentaries assemble live performances and recording sessions, archival newsreels, television and movie clips, interviews with the principals, their managers, producers, family, friends, and fellow rock musicians (Sting, The Edge, Eddie Vedder, Noel Gallagher, Steve Jones, and others) from 1964 through 2003.

    The Story of The Who tracks the band’s career from the earliest days of their emergence from among scores of English performers scrambling for attention in the wake of the commercial tsunami known as the “British Invasion” of 1964, spearheaded by the Beatles’ successful penetration of the American marketplace.

    The extraordinary thing about this footage is that there is so much of it. That is owed to The Who’s first managers, Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert – entertainment industry promoters with no particular ear for pop music – who surveyed the lively London scene in the spring of ’64 looking for a promising group to manage and to film in action for a movie. Their selection of The Who – then billing themselves as The High Numbers – for their project proved to be miraculous. Suppose they had picked Herman’s Hermits or the Dave Clark Five? They could not have foreseen any more than the band themselves that The Who would become rock immortals.

    The hits started coming immediately. I Can’t Explain, The Kids Are Alright, My Generation, Magic Bus, Happy Jack, and I Can See For Miles were chartbusters in Great Britain and the U.S.A. The documentary cameras continued to roll. The Who recorded an advertising jingle for Coca-Cola, which inspired their first concept album, The Who Sell Out.

    One could isolate The Who’s four consecutive studio albums, The Who Sell Out (1968), Tommy (1969), Who’s Next (1971), and Quadrophenia (1973) to bury in a time capsule with the assurance that, when unearthed by archeologists centuries hence, the vigor, spirit, urges, concerns, and musical vocabulary of the first quarter century of rock ‘n roll would be amply represented and potently distilled.

    The Who were by no means a seamless ensemble. Musically and temperamentally they were more distinguished by their individuality than by their cohesion. The subtraction of any one of their members however, would have meant a sundering of the whole, a fact sadly demonstrated in 1978 when rambunctious drummer Keith Moon died shortly after the release of Who Are You?, the group’s last hit. Each of the other three band mates ventured solo careers. Roger Daltrey struggled to find suitable material for his rugged voice. John Entwhistle harnessed melodic, ostinato-free bass figures with brass sections and his sardonic sense of humor in several albums, but could not sustain commercial viability. Only Pete Townshend possessed sufficient artistry and imagination to craft exciting, affecting songs in his own right.

    If there had ever been any doubts, it became clear in later years that The Who had been Pete Townshend’s band all along. The tensile strength in Townshend’s direct, introspective writing embodied thoughtful vulnerability even as his music summoned thunder. The Who wanted their performances to be seen and felt as much as heard. Their decibel level pressurized eardrums and their stage antics – the windmill guitar chords, the amplifiers pounded for feedback, and the furious destruction of guitars and drum kits – suggested rage shrugging off restraint.

    The band members were notoriously fractious. In their interviews, Daltrey and Townshend are candid about their difficulties in working together, as well as their personal weaknesses, creative failures, and affection for intoxicating substances.

    Six Quick Ones is designed to be complementary with The Story of The Who. It covers some of the same ground, including some of the same interviews and documentary footage. Where the first film presents a chronological history of The Who, the second is organized into six segments (plus bonus material), bringing into focus each of the band’s four members, a study of the group’s conceptual framework and art school influences, and a recording session that spotlights The Who as constituted in 2003.

    All writing about music suffers from being naturally unmusical. Its purpose is typically critical, expository, or promotional. Even if it were cast as lyric poetry with inspired phonemes and complex rhythms, it would still be language, absent tonal pitch, timbre, melody, harmony, and sonic dimensions. This review of Amazing Journey can offer only arid sentiment and parched opinion. The DVDs invite the viewer with a thirst for The Who or for the popular music of the ’60s and ’70s to sip cool draughts straight from the wellspring.

(Review posted on Amazon.com, August 2010)

Heart Felt

    Mother Africa is the cradle of our species. She has also given birth to so much of our music that we sometimes lose our ear for its origins. “I thought it was important for people to realize where the banjo comes from because it is so much associated with a white Southern stereotype,” says Bela Fleck, the world’s primo virtuoso of this instrument. In Throw Down Your Heart (2008), he documents his six-week sojourn to Africa to discover whether the modern banjo still has a vibrant voice in the land where it was born.

    The banjo is a descendant of an instrument that African slaves brought to the New World in the 16th century. It sat in the laps of musicians in cane and cotton fields, in plantation shacks and sheds, atop the levees and bales of raw goods that stood along the rivers that brought the blues to the bustling gulf ports.

    By the early 19th century, the banjo was an essential element in plantation cake walks and white minstrelsy. It accompanied sailors in their sea chanteys and traveled west with hopeful miners toward the Gold Rush. After the Civil War, the presentation banjo was adopted as a parlor instrument alongside the player piano. In the early 20th century, it sang in the ragtime orchestra and the nascent New Orleans jazz bands. By the 1930s, the banjo had disappeared from the jazz ensemble, though it continued to flourish in folk music and in the jigs and reels of barn dances in the Appalachian states that reached a national audience through radio broadcasts. In the mid-1940s, the banjo burst forth as an instrument of arresting brilliance when it was featured in bluegrass music.

    In the four countries on his itinerary, Bela Fleck steers clear of big cities and large venues. He, along with sound engineer Dave Sinko and director Sascha Paladino’s filmmaking crew, head for the bush and the villages “to play with great African musicians and find a role for the banjo in their music.”

    In each of his stops, Bela connects with a musician to serve as host and translator and to introduce the party to locals and their particular instruments and tradition. He emphasizes that he has no wish to be front and center among the players, but prefers to take a seat on the backbench. In every group setting, he adds his banjo’s voice as if he were politely joining a conversation already in progress.

    The first destination is Uganda. The filmmakers stage a boisterous audition in Jinja to recruit musicians familiar with the local music. From there the party travels to the village of Nakisenyi. In nearby Lwanika, Bela meets his first guide, Walusimbi Haruna, a professional musician whose specialty is the thumb piano. “Music is in every aspect of life,” Haruna explains. The visit includes a stop at the grave of Haruna’s late father, where burial customs in Africa and America are compared. In a touching moment, Bela is visibly caught off guard when Haruna is overcome with grief as they play a song about his father.

    The thumb piano is culturally regarded as a man’s instrument, but Jinja’s prodigy, it turns out, is Ruth Akello, a woman who sings like an angel and plays like a “wizard.” Nakisenyi possesses an enormous marimba, a communal instrument played by many people at once that sounds “like a rock band.”

    The filmmakers depart Nakisenyi with sadness. Dabbing at tears, Bela notes, “I felt truly welcomed.”

    The second destination gives the film its name. Bagamoyo, in Tanzania, means “throw down your heart.” Bagamoyo was a seaside collection point for the transport of slaves. Unfortunate captives knew that when they glimpsed the sea they should thrown down their hearts because they would never see their homes again.

    The Tanzanian guide is John Kitime. Bela had hoped he might meet Hukwe Zawose, the legend of traditional Gogo music, but is disappointed to learn that Zawose had died a few years earlier. He is delighted to find blind vocalist and thumb pianist Anania Ngoliga alive and well. The two compose and record seamless inventions from their very first session.

    At a brief stopover in Dar Es Salaam, Bela becomes acquainted with determinedly tribal young Masai, who are pleased to demonstrate their traditional forms of dance.

    The travelers cross the continent for their third destination, the Gambia, believed to be the birthplace of the banjo. Sniffing the Gambian air, Bela quips, “I can smell banjo.”

    Jil Ekona Jatta is the Gambian guide. He introduces Bela to the akonting, a 3-string banjo ancestor. We see an akonting constructed as American banjos had been until the early 1800s: an animal skin is nailed to a hollowed calabash with a shaved hardwood pole run through it. After several days of drying in the sun, a carved bridge is glued to the head and strings of gut or hemp fiber are attached.

    “It felt really natural playing with the musicians in Gambia,” Bela reports. “It felt like the banjo was supposed to be there.”

    The fourth and final stop is Bamako, Mali, the “crown jewel of the African music community.” The hostess is Oumou Sangare, the great “songbird” of Mali’s Wassulu music, who owns the hotel the filmmakers enjoy during their stay and moves among adoring crowds with the regal grace of one born to the purple.

    Bassekou Kouyate, the town griot (“keeper of customs”) introduces Bela to guitar hero Djelimady Toukara and ngoni master Harouna Samake.

    As we listen to the handcrafted lutes, harps, flutes, whistles, shakers, and drums of contemporary Africans, we are hearing instruments designed to perpetuate continuity with the ancestral past as well as the throbbing heart of the present. Some of this very music comforted the enslaved people dragged away to the Americas.

    Music of all cultures in every age evokes exuberance and despondency, celebration and rapture, discovery and contemplation. The modern banjo evolved to express the musical forms of our European-derived Western tradition with its machined instruments and tempered tuning systems. Does the banjo have a role in Africa music? Of course it does because the voice belongs to the player, not the instrument. “I just want to make great music,” says Bela Fleck, a man of endless imagination and expansive heart. His banjo voice is and always has been sublime. In every setting it is truly welcomed.

(Review posted on Amazon.com, June 2010)

Alas, Poor Yorick

According to the French periodical Cahiers du Cinema, in their appreciation of the film at hand… but our request to reprint their opinion has not as yet been answered so we are not at liberty to share it. Suffice it to say, there are “motion pictures” and there is “cinema.” Our subject, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2001) is something else.

As Shakespeare wrote – was it Shakespeare? – wait, we have the quote here somewhere. If we can find it, we will come back to it later.

Confronted by such a screen spectacle, we tremble merely to contemplate its depths of profundity, its expanse of scope, its pierce of insight, its brilliance of illumination, its reverberation of consequence… Hold on a moment. We shall have to take our medication to stop this trembling before we can continue.

Science! Is there anything more dazzling, more exhilarating, more utile, more swollen with promise? Yes, there is. Power! Could there be a topic more topical, a surge more surgical, an import more important? Certainly there could be. Sex! What could be thrilling, more beckoning, more forbidden? Well, there’s one thing. Death! Is anything more entrancing to the mind, more hypnotic to the senses, more elusive to the soul? Okay, there is. Wealth! Dreams of untrammeled desire sated, of acquisitive urges empowered, of insecurities forever banished! But isn’t that the same thing as Power and Sex? Damn! Those trembles are back again.

The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra has it all and much, much more. Science. Power. Sex. Death. Mysterious meteors. Aliens from outer space. Ray guns. Mutant monsters. Resurrected tyrants. Mesmerized slaves. Did I mention Science? And the seductive, alluring “Animala Dance”! Your hips will sway; your legs will twitch. You will be unable to remain in your seat. You will probably go to the kitchen for a snack.

The film’s trailer warns us, “You’ll be sterilized with fear!” It must be so because we find ourselves impotent to summarize in words a work that wrestles so far outside its weight class, in which each part is greater than the sum of its whole. Yet somehow it all goes together like skeletons and xylophone music. It’s very complicated. It’s scientific. Or, as Doctor Armstrong edifies his helpmate Betty, “You know what this meteor could mean to science. It could mean actual advances in the field of science.”

Who should rightfully possess the priceless atmospherium? Doctor Armstrong, the Earth scientist from Earth, Kro-Bar and Lattis, the stranded aliens who need it to power their space ship home to the planet Marva, or the imperious Lost Skeleton, arising like the noble dust of Alexander to assert his designs of world dominance and matrimony? The issues cudgel the brain.

The roles of the characters are played by actors. Larry Blamire does all the science as Doctor Paul Armstrong. His meals are prepared by faithful Fay Masterson as his wife and spouse Betty. Andrew Parks and Susan McConnell are brave, resourceful, and confused as Kro-Bar and Lattis. Brian Howe is evil as Doctor Roger Fleming. Jennifer Blaire fuses forest creatures together to become Animala. The Skeleton plays the Skeleton.

Oh, before you go, here’s that quote we promised: “Where be his quiddities now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks?” We have no idea what it means. Do you? We just dug it up because you can’t bury a good quotation. Or a skeleton.

(Review posted on Amazon.com, June 2010)

Brit Wit

    The tiny English hamlet of Little Wallop (Pop. 57) has its problems. Deaf Mr. Brown’s dog never stops barking. Ancient Mrs.Parker suspects there is a conspiracy afoot in the church Flower Arranging Committee to overturn her leadership. The local football club is so desperate to field a team to compete with the neighboring village that it has placed the entirely nonathletic church vicar between the goalposts. Nasty algae have invaded the pond behind the vicar’s house that have baffled local health authorities and turned the pool, like Little Wallop itself, into a murky uninviting stew whose continued existence is questionable.

    The swirling tensions in the tired little town are lost on earnest, well-meaning, and distracted Reverend Goodfellow, whose serious mind is absorbed by the challenge of composing the speech he must deliver to a convention of religious colleagues on the subject of “God’s Mysterious Ways.” He is unaware that his exasperated, sex-starved wife, exhausted by the sleepless nights caused by Mr. Brown’s dog, is about to run away to Mexico with a panting American golf pro, or that his over-ripe daughter is a nymph who will couple with any boy registering a pulse, or that his adolescent son is daily tormented by school bullies.

    The situation looks hopelessly clogged until the arrival of Grace, the Goodfellows’ new housekeeper, a protective, practical, problem-solving, paroled murderer.

    Keeping Mum (2005) puts the lie to the lament that there are few good film roles for women or elderly actors. The British seem to have no trouble finding supple scripts to keep their seniors in front of the camera. Octogenarian Liz Smith is the paranoid Mrs. Parker and septuagenarian Maggie Smith is sharp and clear-eyed as the homicidal housekeeper who keeps finding uses for the dark pond behind the house. A buttoned-down Rowan Atkinson and a feverish Kristin Scott Thomas are the preoccupied reverend and his at-wit’s-end wife. Patrick Swayze is suitably creepy as the lecherous American. Written by Richard Russo and director Niall Johnson, Keeping Mum is a delicious must-see for fans of Brit style dark comedy.

(Review posted on Amazon.com, May 2010)