[Issue #57 features The Green Slime on its cover: an MGM production shot at Toei studios in Japan, it was directed by Kinji Fukasaku, who would later become better known as the director of Battle Royale.]
This Friday’s fotographic fiesta is a fabulous full-fat feast of freakish filmic fings from Forrest’s Famous Monsters of Filmland. Gorgeously garish covers from Forrest J. Ackerman‘s (1916 – 2008) legendary magazine (1958 – 1983), they show a side of cinema that is a gallery of great characters, a toytown of rubbery make-up, miniature models and marauding aliens. Siphoning off the scares to show these hoardes of monsters as almost near-friendly creatures happy to pose for a portrait or crack a half smile for the artist, the mag captures Ackerman’s affection for the films and the ephemera they left behind. His collections of memorabilia were peerless. Click below for many more covers, and take a YouTube tour of his mansion if you don’t believe me:
Let me get my joke out of the way. Don’t worry, I only have one. Here goes: it’s called Up in the Air because it’s really, really lightweight. Thankyou, I’m here all week.
I won’t keep you long, because Surely Jason Reitman’s new comedy is packing them into cinemas across the UK and being greeted with shrugs of “Well, that was nice, but is that it?” All the acclaim, all of the awards nominations and Oscar buzz for a film in which someone runs to the airport to tell someone he loves them. Yikes. Is this really the film being cited as the mature alternative to Avatar? Is this what passes for “indie” these days?
I’ve been too busy to complete some of the other blog posts I’ve been preparing, so all I have to offer you this Friday is another picture of the week, this time some stills from the legendary Movieland Wax museum in Buena Park, California. It was the largest wax museum in the USA, with over 300 figures in 150 sets, some of them using actual costumes and props from the movies on show. It was opened in 1962, and finally closed in 2006, when the waxworks were auctioned off. I wonder where they are now. I hope they’re being looked after. I’ve always found waxworks, dummies and statues a little bit creepy. I wouldn’t say I was an automatonophobe, because they’re fascinating enough to stop me running away. The eerie sense of liveness and presence, even when faced with inert matter in the shapes of people, is part of the appeal of these things, a shiver to be indulged rather than avoided.
The strange thing about waxworks is how they provide a different form of the usual engagements we have with film stars. When we watch a film, these people are both present and absent to us. We see them in gross detail, but we have no physical proximity or interaction with them. We are voyeurs, seeing but not seen. Waxworks let us do something similar, inspecting the celebrity body in frozen form. But of course, they’re not really there. It’s just a likeness imprinted in the pliant medium of candle-stuff. No wonder horror films about waxworks (House of Wax, The Mystery of the Wax Museum) play on the possibility of the figures coming to life, being made of corpses or burning down. Charged with celebrating famous lives, a wax museum is just as likely to remind us of death, decay and the impossible distance between ourselves and our idols. Take the kids.
Understandably, somebody took greater care over Bardot’s body than they did over Stan Laurel’s face…
The Picture of the Week feature was meant to be a gentle way to blog my way into the weekend with an eye-catching image and a brief comment to make some sense of it. I’ve turned out to be not very good at it, because I tend to post more than one image at a time. There are just too many pictures in the world. This week, I’m reminding myself of the marvellous Ed Ruscha exhibition I saw at London’s Hayward gallery before Christmas. It closed last weekend, so I’m afraid you can’t even pay a visit if you like what you see here. Sorry. Ruscha’s blunt-statement paintings match perfectly with the Hayward’s brutal, boxy architecture, especially things like his famous “OOF”, which I photographed at MOMA a couple of years ago. Anyway, I was particularly taken with his movie-related paintings such as The End (above, 1991) and Exit (below, 1990). Making something the subject of a painting gives it a special emphasis, a new status, and Ruscha likes to grant that promotion to the bits of text we’re not supposed to celebrate – the sign that points to the way out of the cinema, for instance, like an “off” switch for the movie, or the text that marks the conclusion, in this case the stuttering, scratched breakdown of the film itself as well as its finish. “Deathly but wry” is what I would write on the poster if it was my job to write posters…
Alternatively, you might find Ruscha taking iconic text and bringing it down a peg or two:
I don’t get on well with biopics. I don’t like the pre-fab structure that they all seem obliged to follow, and I wince at the dramatic irony of the little moments that wink at you to indicate a shared foreknowledge of what’s going to happen. Particularly in those films that deal with artists, musicians etc., we are offered a series of obstacles to their “becoming” the celebrity we recognise, finding their voice/muse/inspiration through a series of miniature origin stories. The indignities and problems they tackle are set into context by the greatness we know they will go on to achieve – we are expected to be fascinated by John Lennon’s youth not because of what it tells us about Britain in the 1950s and 60s, but because of how it stands in contrast to Lennon the self-possessed megastar adult. There’s a moment at the beginning of Nowhere Boy when a group of schoolchildren are walking to school through the park. There’s a cut to the sign that tells us what we really need to know: STRAWBERRY FIELDS. It’s a heavy-handed, early reminder that this has meaning because it will one day become meaningful. I was also tempted to claw my own flesh every time a moment was designed to gain force from it’s understatement – the casual introduction of Paul McCartney, Kristin Scott Thomas forgetting the name of the new band that will shortly take over the music world.
Who is the 9 year-old boy at the centre of this opening scene form Abbott and Costello go to Mars (1953)? Take a good look. He’s a comic actor, broadcaster and very familiar voice artist. And here he is getting a start in showbiz by giving some backtalk to Lou Costello. Can’t guess? Then find the answer by clicking this link.
I must stand by my initial response to Avatar, which was that it was visually exciting, but dramatically leaden. It also fades from memory quite quickly, and sours a bit in the recollection. James Cameron’s film has, however, excited quite a lot of debate – despite mostly favourable, if qualified reviews (mine was very much in line with the majority, I think), there is already a backlash that shows how quickly cultural products can be mined for the subtexts and counter-readings that will be exercising students on film-studies courses in years to come. I can see it being used as a prompt for discussions of Hollywood’s myths of hegemony, race and history very soon, even though there are unlikely to be any campus lecture theatres to show it in 3D as intended. These post-hype analyses will not be dazzled by the arc lamps of spectacular, IMAX-sized action, which might make them more clear-minded and less likely to be swayed by special effects, but this is not necessarily a fair fight if one believes that visual spectacle is a part of a film’s lexicon rather than the fig leaf for an under-endowed plot.
You may have missed Irish directors Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy’s debut feature film, Helen last year. Plenty of people did. I just caught up with it on DVD, and while it’s not without its flaws, it’s certainly the kind of work that I wish was supported more often in the UK. Told at a stately pace in an understated, almost fussily deliberate style, Helen is the story of a teenager in care, who is brought to question her own sense of identity when she is picked to play the part of a missing girl in a police reconstruction of her final movements.
Happy new Year to you. I thought it might be fun to mark the start of a new decade by changing the scenery here Spectacular Attractions. If you’re a returning reader, you’ll notice that the look of this blog has changed today – it’s much brighter, lighter, and hopefully easier to read. I may try out a couple of different looks in the next few weeks, so if you’re a regular, let me know which you reckon is easiest on the eye and do my best to smarten the place up.