Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn series of essays on cinema fantastika has been an integral part of Interzone since 1985.
Interzone Digital has managed to coil its many-suckered tentacles around the vast and unexpurgated Mutant Popcorn archive and will be serving up each and every insightful portion for your enjoyment.
The serving below – Making Mr Right, Empire of the Sun, The Princess Bride – appeared first in Interzone #24 (Summer 1988).
Eyes have been on Susan Seidelman since Desperately Seeking Susan proved to a bemused industry that a woman director could make the crossover from budgetless independent quirkies to blockbusting studio boxoffice and still have the critics blowing kisses. For her keenly-expected followup she’s shot a debut script by a pair of unknown writers, a romantic comedy on the timeless theme of what women, men, and androids really want. In Making Mr Right jerk scientist John Malkovich creates an experimental humanoid in his own image for deep-space exploration, and when funding looks shaky his company hires image consultant Ann Magnuson to sell the public on his prototype. As Magnuson’s forte is chat shows, women’s magazines, and Enquirer-type junk tabloids, she duly sets herself to schooling Ulysses (also played by Malkovich) in the necessary social graces to win the hearts of the nation’s women. Unfortunately he also wins hers, on the rebound from a marvellously creepy Congressional candidate (‘It takes a man this sensitive to know your needs’), as well as her sister’s, similarly rebounding from a ghastly daytime soap stud. Sis puts Ulysses through the most conclusive and intimate of Turing tests, and the contest is on to remake Ulysses as a man women can love, instead of the projection of asshole Dr Malkovich’s emotionally crippled masculinity.
One problem with Making Mr Right is that it’s awfully reminiscent of a lot of other recent films from The Bride through to Short Circuit, and the cybernetic-Pygmalion theme is getting a little too familiar to survive another indifferent twist. I can’t accept that this lightweight fantasy has anything useful to say about sexual politics, and the final moral made my stomach twist. (Be warned: ‘We can create the most ambitious space programmes, but we still can’t learn to love and care for one another…’) Though the men in the movie are all suitably horrendous, it’s hard to find much more sympathy for the women. One of the most baffling things about New Yorkers to citizens of the real world is the way they insist on the interestingness of terms like ‘Mr Right’ and ‘the meaning of life’, as if the attainability of perfect fantasies were merely a matter of effort. Everyone in this world is rich, successful, pampered, and obsessively self-occupied, and though Malkovich’s scientist is set up as the fall guy it’s hard not to agree at times with his tirades against all this soppy emotional self-indulgence. Otherwise, Seidelman gets most of what can be got from the rather flimsy script, with a characteristic attention to style jokes and a nice ensemble feel to the performances, but the already-sloppy plot and glumly predictable end twist aren’t helped by her obvious uninterest in either science, scientists, or sf. The script’s view of current AI work is laughable, the tiresome old myth about all scientists being socially retarded males is wheeled out one more time into the dayroom, and the careless plot logic begs far more questions than the uneven comedy can ever hope to disarm.
The versatile Malkovich is much better used as Basie in Empire of the Sun, a film on which the verdict was in long before its release over here. Judged too long, too languid, too British, and too disconcertingly oblique in the emotional uses it often makes of its potent material, it’s won critical respect but little wild enthusiasm, and if it’s done Spielberg’s adult reputation no harm it hasn’t exactly swept the board in statuettes either. This seems a shame, because for all the film’s subtle failings and longueurs it remains an amazingly creditable attempt at bringing an impossible vision to the merciless screen. If it fails at times to translate the elusive essence of its novel, it’s still faithful and sensitive to Ballard’s material beyond anyone’s right to expect.
The problem, predictably, lies in the very uniqueness of Ballard’s voice. Here’s a passage picked literally at random from the novel:
Jim listened to the drunken shouts from the guardhouse, and the volley of rifle shots as Price fired over the heads of the Chinese at the gates. With his dungeon pallor and bandaged hands, this albino figure frightened Jim, the first of the dead to rise from the grave, eager to start the next world war.
The first sentence is filmable, at least in principle, but it’s the extraordinary second that gives the paragraph its inimitable frisson of meaning. All else apart, how do you make a model in light of Ballard’s use of the demonstrative adjective? Empire of the Sun is loyal to Ballard’s text in objective details, often taking its dialogue straight from the novel; but to see the events of the book on screen stripped bare of their narrative voice is a strangely diluted experience. An early moment in the film shows this up only too well, when Jamie and his father play by the family swimming-pool at the house in Amherst Avenue, and you realise with a barely-controllable thrill of anticipation that you’re actually going to see a drained swimming-pool on screen. But come the occupation and Jamie’s return to the house, what we see is just, well, a drained swimming-pool, with none of the resonance that image in words has held for the Ballard reader since ‘The Voices of Time’.
This isn’t just an esoteric quibble; I seriously wonder if the viewers of this film will understand what the novel’s about. The fault, I think, lies more with Stoppard than with Spielberg here, in drastically pruning the final section of the narrative that deals with Jim’s complex adventures after the exodus from Lunghua. As I read it, the novel is less about the atrocities of the Japanese war, let alone war in general, than about the birth of the postwar world, as the torpid remnants of elderly British colonialism find themselves enforced spectators of the clash between the two virile new empires of America and Japan. Stoppard’s script, though catching some of Jim’s elegiac ambivalence over the death of imperial Japan, bottles out, perhaps understandably enough, from endorsing the novel’s most wilfully mischievous suggestion: that there is no perceptible moral difference between the wily American scavengers with their impossible magazine dreams and the grimly disciplined ritual of the warrior Japanese. For Jim in the novel, the Nagasaki bomb whose flare he sees from the Olympic stadium at Nantao becomes for him the signal that World War III has already begun. For Stoppard’s Jim, it’s Miranda Richardson’s soul ascending to heaven. The conceit jars, the scene misses its impact, and something is lost from the sense.
For all these reservations, Empire of the Sun is an enormously rewarding film, beautifully made, with only the horrible John Williams score a major error of taste. The set pieces are, as you’d expect, breathtaking, especially the crowd scenes in Shanghai and the air raid on Lunghua; and the strength of Christian Bales’ performance is another reminder of how wonderfully Spielberg has always directed children. A welcome surprise is the master’s uncharacteristic restraint in lighting and sentiment: lumbered with filming in a more than usually lugubrious English summer, Spielberg has gone for a grey louring look to the Shanghai scenes, and there’s hardly a sniff of the mawkish goo that curdles the emotion of his earlier films. Perhaps this, as much as anything, has prompted the indifferent American reception; but it may be just that, even blunted of its full Ballardian perversity, this rival perspective to familiar myths of WWII may hold little appeal for a public already so easily bored with uncomfortable history.
With The Princess Bride, another quirkily unfilmable novel on the opposite fringe of the genre makes its uneasy screen epiphany, once more doing the best it can with our island weather. (Look closely at the length of shadows in the sunnier scenes: the hapless crew obviously had to do most of their location takes at dawn to get any sky at all.) William Goldman’s curiously winning original novel was a whimsical fantasy played as an elaborate game: a beloved fairytale classic exhumed from the author’s childhood and (purportedly) edited to approximate the form in which it was first read to him. A long, ingenious introduction tells the story of Goldman’s own affair with S. Morgenstern’s novel, and editorial inserts in the text note quirks and excisions in the process of putting together his ‘good parts’ version. The result is a minor classic of ironic romance, deftly exploiting the double perspective of child and adult in the reader’s experience of story; and fifteen years on, here is Rob Reiner’s film of it from Goldman’s own screenplay.
Goldman’s screenwriting, of course, is amongst the most consistently versatile and adroit in the business, with an agreeable sense of technical flair and a seductive streak of wryly sentimental naivety. It’s fair to say, though, that his original scripts have tended to make more successful films than those like Marathon Man or Magic that he’s written from his novels; and The Princess Bride, Goldman’s personal favourite of his books, is an especially tricky case. The editorial frame has to go, and the film version’s solution is to substitute a hammy Peter Falk reading Morgenstern’s novel to his sceptical grandson. Occasionally the new frame works neatly to disarm absurdity (‘Just a minute. Is this a kissing book?’), but the narrative tricks are neither as intricate nor as pointed as in the novel, even when the story itself transfers okay. The ascent of the Cliffs of Insanity, a set piece of spectacular preposterousness in the novel, surprisingly does quite well in the movie thanks to some inspired location shooting (and despite some rather ludicrous dummy work in longshot). But the novel adds a sublime autobiographical aside claiming the cliff-jumping scene in Butch Cassidy was inspired by Goldman’s own childhood memory of the scene in Morgenstern’s novel. Alas, the joke is left behind in the film, with too much else; unfortunately, since if anything the story needs even more metafictional help on screen. Film is an unforgiving medium, especially of fairy tales, and tackiness is all the harder to deflect. Reiner’s delicate touch with fragile material was well displayed in his three fine earlier films, but something has gone seriously awry with this one, and the audience’s tolerance of gurly glop is put under moments of severe strain. The cast don’t help, despite some energetic coarse performing all round: only Christopher Guest’s Spanish swordmaster has the proper match of rakish camp with jaunty moustachioes to carry his role consistently, while lead Carey Elwes’ public-school raffishness is hopelessly adrift in a comic role. Still, there are good jokes, snappy lines, and the swordfight clip (of course) has already passed into legend. Just be sure not to stay around for the end-title song.
In the States, The Princess Bride was a big hit and Empire of the Sun a disappointment. This seems to me the wrong way round, and it may be we’ll see a reverse over here. The British, after all, are less patient of mush than any nation on earth with the possible exception of Norway. But what both of these versions too obviously show is that film is a difficult instrument for the transposition of finely-scored narrative voices, especially where dealing with complex overlays of child and adult perspective. The richness of Empire of the Sun the novel is at heart that its hero is an impossible creation, and one that curiously has more than a little in common with the real subject of Goldman’s book: the mind of a child as remembered by a middle-aged man, remade and extended with adult inventions and meanings. For better or worse, that ruthless objectivity that filming brings to its material requires us to view Jim Graham as a real boy caught in a real war in a real world. That may be a lot of what Ballard’s about, but it’s still a long way from the whole.
Nick Lowe has been dispensing Mutant Popcorn for Interzone since 1985. By day he teaches Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London, where his books include The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative (2000) and Comedy (2009).
Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn appears in each issue of Interzone. Subscribe to the print magazine to get it delivered directly to your door, six times a year.
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