Mutant Popcorn #12

Nick Lowe

The Running Man

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn series of essays on cinema fantastika has been an integral part of Interzone since 1985.

IZ 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 – The Running Man, Drowning by Numbers, The Wizard of Speed and Time, and The Monster Squad – appeared first in Interzone #26 (November/December 1988).

Overhead, without any fuss, the stars are going out. It wasn’t so long ago there were real stars on the screen, not just actors and clowns. Look at Jack Nicholson, a star well into the seventies; now even his agent seems to have accepted he’s fit only for clown roles. Remember Eastwood, de Niro, Fonda? all true stars within living memory, now tumbled down the Hertzsprung-Russell curve to burned-out X-ray curiosities. What you turn into seems to depend on your initial mass and luminosity: the real heavyweights, the OABs, tend to collapse to clowns, while the less massive presences linger on for a faintly glowing senescence in koff serious koff koff dramatic roles. All the women, for instance, turn into actresses; the males who survive as actors tend to be those like Martin Sheen or Harvey Keitel who never quite made it as naked-eye objects to begin with. To qualify as a real star, you need to be plainly visible to the amateur observer, which is why those remaining luminaries of the screen who clearly cut it in other respects (Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton, Michael Moriarty) seem a bit pale and twinkly against the memory of ancient fires. And this prompts to wonder: if the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore! – or would we sink into barbarism and philistine anarchy, our primitive mentalities unable to cope with the marvel?

I’m speaking, of course, about Arnold. He cannot act, they clamour. He turns scripts into vehicles, cry the savage legions. What’s wrong with us? Are we really so short of mind? Could John Wayne ‘act’, or Cary Grant, or Orson Welles after 1945? Are these meaningful terms in which to discuss celestial bodies? Star quality is muted and diminished by any recourse to what is normally understood by acting: true stars do not act, but perform. You can’t appreciate a star performance by going through the reflex critical motions. Actor or not, Arnold is an unrivalled performer, projecting a unique and surprisingly complex brand of grimly laconic humour with a minimalism of dialogue and expressiveness that would leave any mere actor crippled. It’s a style of performance ideally suited to the medium, and especially to the kind of comic-book (I hope we can now use this term without pejorative reflection) character he’s made so inimitably his own. We should worship his brilliance while we can, before he burns out into clown in three to five movies’ time. All it would take, after all, is for some bright prankster to strip him naked, shave his head, and paint him blue all over.

In the meantime, The Running Man is a close-to-perfect Arnie picture, fast, silly, and violent, owing rather less to its Stephen ‘Bachman’ King original than the average Bond movie does to Ian Fleming. Arn is a future cop in totalitarian 2019 LA, where dissidents and enemies of the state are served up as contestants on the stalk ’n’ kill game show of the title. In an absurd opening sequence he rashly tries to prevent a police massacre of unarmed demonstrators and gets framed for the slaughter himself; busts out of labour camp and holes up with outraged Maria Conchita Alonso, and when she blows the whistle both of them end up on the show. But, there’s hope: if they can last the course, they can reach the secret satellite transmitter and jam the show nationwide with devastating subversive broadcasts from underground resistance leader Mick Fleetwood (remember him? used to be in a good blues band in the sixties). Nobody’s ever survived before, of course, but what do you think? Starsky (for it is he) helms our man past some awkward long sentences in the early scenes through a more comfortable territory of exploding heads, chainsaw duels, and a long parade of retired football stars in supervillain costumes, with some quite good dumb media jokes and fetchingly idiotic skintight rubber suits for the big A and his sultry Venezuelan temptress. What more, really? ‘The plot didn’t hang together. I couldn’t relate to any of the characters. It didn’t seem to have anything to say.’ Go away, little person, and watch small films with actors in them. The future is not for such as you.

Meanwhile, outside the genre crop is one completely beautiful autumn movie with eyes truly turned to the stars. The affection Peter Greenaway still commands within the British sf community goes back around a decade to the wonderful crop of avant-garde fantasy shorts he spooled off in the late seventies, culminating in the astonishing and not at all short sf docudrama The Falls. At that time, Greenaway films seemed a perfect cocktail of the obsessions and techniques thriving in the post-New Worlds written genre: human transcendence, apocalyptic comedy, and a peculiarly English tension between pastoral romanticism and ironic formal games. The conscious affinities of The Draughtsman’s Contract with filmed sf have been repeatedly acknowledged by the director, and even his less overtly fantastic productions often flirt with genre perspectives and themes – notably in the great evolution movie A Zed and Two Noughts.

Drowning by Numbers is scarcely an sf film in any orthodox sense, despite a throwaway monster roaming the Suffolk countryside, three women who may or may not be the same person, and an opening catalogue of a hundred star names in which reality and bizarre invention disconcertingly jumble; but it is a film with an instantly recognisable sf mentality. Mainstream critics have real trouble with Greenaway: the dialogue rings unnaturally, the characters seem cold, the acting is often wildly erratic, and the dizzying counterpoint of images and ideas is seen as pretentious self-indulgent doodling. ‘I guess you either love it or hate it,’ the conversation usually ends, with the glowering implication that if you love it you must be sick, deluded, or lying. They will then make an exception for The Belly of an Architect (comparatively speaking, the dud in the canon) ‘because of Brian Dennehy’s performance.’ Well, sf gourmands are well trained to respond to this kind of litany of inept whingeing: that’s all very well we bite short of saying aloud, but what do all you zombies do for pleasure? My spine goes wet with horror at the thought of a world where Ironweed and A Handful of Dust are the best you get. If you can’t be stirred at least as profoundly by ideas as by emotions, then something’s defective or loose with your basic humanity. I’m not saying we-are-Slan or anything, but it does strike me that someone who can understand why (say) Ian Watson is good enjoys a little something extra in their response to the universe. And I hope they’d find that something extra in Drowning by Numbers; which, for what it matters, is the best Greenaway in ages, and for my pennies the most enjoyable movie yet this year.

There’s absolutely no point in summarising the plot, which is typical, or the themes, which for once are refreshingly frivolous. Enough to say it’s a postmodern comedy about the ages of woman and the expendability of the male, set in a surrealistically observed coastal Suffolk of sheep, water, Sam Palmer treescapes, prolific road kills, more sheep, leaf drifts, timber follies, and much more water, where everything seems to be permanently sodden and stencilled with inscrutable numbers. Names of stars and rules of games (also mingling the strange-but-true with the sheerly fantastic), circumcision and cricket, food, fireworks, entomology, and the myth of Samson: these, with much else, contribute themes to the usual giddy fugue on sex and death. Like the best Greenaway, it creates an alien world of lushly treacherous beauty from the estranged observation of a real terrestrial landscape; and a ravishing Michael Nyman score refers back to the Mozart cutups of The Falls, from which the main characters and many of the references descend. Unlike most Greenaway, it’s enlivened further by some killingly funny scenes and superb performances – especially from Juliet Stevenson, here coaxed at long last to a wonderful big-screen debut. The already-notorious gimmick of trailing the numbers 1 to 100 in sequence through the movie (sometimes in plain view, sometimes disguised or encoded) offers a new and dangerously addictive filmwatching experience, as well as some lighthearted reflections on old Greenaway themes of pattern, accident, and the editor’s game. The fertile Mr G recently announced plans (undoubtedly doomed) for The Falls II. Fortunately the concept is too perfect ever to become reality.

Still in the wacky individualist auteurs department, but down among the end-of-line seasonal special purchases, lurks a real oddity, Mike Jittlov’s The Wizard of Speed and Time. Long in coming and uncertain of wide release, this is the full-length feature version of animator Jittlov’s acclaimed four-minute short from 1982: a puzzling spec to begin with, as the short was an innocuously plot-free escapade in musical stop-motion starring a running green wizard and a garage full of dancing tripods and film cans. The solution is as simple as it is well, simple: the big version is a live-action movie about the fun, farce, and frustration of making an animated short. Zany effects genius Mike Jittlov (Mike Jittlov) is commissioned to produce a stupefyingly brilliant short film for a TV special in an impossibly short time with neither budget nor facilities, and little suspecting that his commissioning producer has laid a massive bet that the project will fail. Jittlov’s only assets are his brain-sweatingly colossal talent, his irresistability to women and the fact that everyone in Hollywood really respects somebody who cares about what he does even if he’s a charmless dork who lives with his mum and flaunts a dress sense even Californians recognize as terminal.

The plot and people aren’t up to much, but many of the effects and throwaways are quite witty, and it does offer some fascinating observation of Hollywood subculture, where special-effects men are viewed in much the same way as programmers and model railway enthusiasts in societies marginally closer to reality. The film’s main handicap is Jittlov himself, who comes over (rightly or wrongly) as a serious prat and deeply flaky person whose interest in the universe is confined to rather childish moviemaking and observing the circumference of his own ego. Few of the other characters have much more going for them; the romantic interest makes her first appearance in a car with the bumper legend ‘Honk if you love unicorns,’ tempting the powerful option of discarding your ciggy down her gastank if you don’t. There isn’t nearly enough animation – we never see the tripods scene in full, though the running wizard sequence is quite flashily remade – and what there is is puffed rather too generously for its rather tame virtuosity. There’s little here that wouldn’t be taken for granted on MTV, which is perhaps where Jittlov might do best to look for a home; when the legendary Robert Breer can do classy videos for New Order, it seems a touch perverse to insist that the animator’s integrity is only preserved in the Gilliam/Burton step up to live-action feature directing.

The Monster Squad

Finally, a late welcome for the best of the summer’s kiddie flics, Fred Dekker’s genre nostalgia comedy The Monster Squad, in which a gang of twelve-year-old Famous Monsters of Filmland addicts defend hometown USA and the American family against the entire platoon of Universal’s classic monsters. Ironically, the notional target audience of twelve-year-old FM addicts-weren’t allowed to see it under its UK certification; but its real charm in any case is as an adult nostalgia piece, brilliantly evoking the strange pre-teen subculture of monster fandom, which uncannily doesn’t seem to have changed in twenty years. Ancient, rather chronic b&w films you’re not allowed to see acquire a strange secondhand mystique through breathless resumés in exclamatory F.J. Ackerman prose, and curiously stirring photographs of period starlets in bridal clothes making faces at large, pawing humanoids. Even back then, in the last days of Hammer, monster movies were an exhausted, rather touchingly unscary genre: a minor problem for Dekker’s film, which has to work hard to make most of its lumbering gaggle seem even remotely threatening for an audience of jaded video-generation adolescents. But for anyone who passed through the FM phase in youth, this movie polishes up priceless memories of a fascinating presexual universe of obsession, and still leaves you with change from an hour and a half. At the same time, it’s probably the last of many nails in Universal’s monster pic coffin, so the nostalgic element is somewhat bittersweetened by the knowledge that you’re watching the final, flickering burnout of a once-brilliant cluster of stars: the fading remembrance of what was once, in a modest way, the City of God.

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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