Mutant Popcorn #14

Nick Lowe


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 – Yeelen, Dead Ringers – appeared first in Interzone #28 (March/April 1989).

If you think the British cinema has a hard time, spare a tear for the planet Neptune. Its moons alone host more creative talent than the whole of downtown Beverly Hills, yet young filmmakers face problems of finance and logistics inconceivable by terrestrial standards. Even the cheapest east European film stock is well-nigh unobtainable, and raising the capital for even a three-minute promo consumes the entire GNP for the outer planets over twenty trillion years. A completed Neptunian feature has little prospect of distribution outside its world of origin, and to date no Neptunian picture has even been considered for selection at a European or American film festival. At present, filmgoers on Neptune have to make do with poor-quality satellite TV signals intercepted from Earth. Nevertheless, local filmmakers show a surprising resilience and even optimism about the future, despite the difficulties a Neptunian faces, as a bonded flux of charged deuterium nuclei, in interacting with the physical universe at all. Neptune’s current orbital status as outermost planet has led to a surge of local pride and identity, and many look to the forthcoming Voyager encounter as a historic chance to ‘put Neptune on the map’. Others remain sceptical, remembering the poor response on Earth to Viking transmissions of the Martian Geological Players’ award-winning performance piece ‘Stasis’, or the woefully misappreciated Uranian project to create a zany comic sculpture from their planet’s magnetic field. It remains to be seen whether anything comes of present plans by young Neptunian film fans to celebrate the Voyager visit by programming their weather system to spell out ‘Still waiting for Lemon Popsicle VII’ in 450-mile-long methane streamers in the upper atmosphere.

In the meantime, would-be devotees of extraterrestrial cinema have to be content with pictures that simply look like they’ve come from other planets. Happily, there seem to be more and more of these about, if you can sift past the seasonal clutch of late body-swap vehicles and brainless ghost comedies. Moonwalker, for instance, was clearly made on a planet where Michael Jackson is not a pathetic twerp with the sexual energy of a Care Bear and the songwriting skills of a jar of marmalade. But rather more rewarding are those occasional films that actually look, speak, and breathe like the world of a different sun; and of all such lately, unquestionably the most amazing has been the west African fantasy epic Yeelen.

Souleymane Cisse’s perplexing fusion of folklore and arthouse esoterism plays like a vaguely Martian remix of Return of the Jedi. The film follows the quest of a young Bambara sorcerer, Nianankoro, whose precocious skills lead drive him to steal the tribe’s objects of power and flee into the wilderness with his witch mother. Nianankoro’s father, the dark sorcerer Soma, sets out to pursue and destroy the fugitive before he can learn to use his plundered power. Nianankoro’s only chance lies with his exiled uncle, who preserves the lost talisman that can channel the power of his stolen jewel. But the uncle lives beyond the territory of the hostile Peul, and Nianankoro’s mother is too old to make the vast, hazardous journey; so he must set out alone through desert and enemies with his father’s magic ever closing in pursuit, and only his own still-immature powers for protection. Through the expected series of rite de passage adventures, Nianankoro develops in manhood and magic, and comes also to understand the real significance of the showdown with Soma that looms inevitably ahead.

But if this sounds familiar stuff in outline, the execution is uniquely and brilliantly alien. The strange imagistic narrative, often bizarre dialogue, the weird alien symbolism of the final scenes, and above all the light and landscape of the Sahel evoke the uncanny poetry of another world, in which story and players seem eerily at home. The power of kinship, the unquestioned reality of Bambara magic, the universe of symbols that these together build are taken for granted as part of the cultural furniture, not just by the characters but by the whole narrative they inhabit. Aside from the locations and a certain technical minimalism, Yeelen has little in common with the other Mandinka film to get a wide recent showing, Med Hondo’s Sarraounia. That was an enjoyably shambolic period adventure, complete with action pieces, vivid politics, robust humour, and a wonderful villain; this is a visionary celluloid poem, a rare and remarkable attempt at an African art film.

Yeelen has been badly overpraised, with a lot of Oedipal wittering from festival critics, and it’s exactly the sort of film I’d have expected sf buffs to abhor. Yet every genre fan I’ve found who’s seen it has loved it to death and back. The reason, I’m convinced, is that it triggers all those disused adolescent tingles of actually watching an alien world unfold, something longtime sf readers are affected by powerfully but which has never been even approximately achieved in a genre film. (I’d personally make an honorable exception of Dune, but look how much effort that cost, and how few thanks.) Yeelen has most in common with another great tribal epic of landscape and sorcery much savoured in sf circles, the Lappish spectacular Pathfinder (followup now in production, I’m happy to note). There’s something hugely, primitively absorbing about historical fantasies from subindustrial cultures, set in landscapes sufficiently remote from tourism and wildlife documentaries that they seem familiar in imagination rather than in earthly reality. All this, plus a soundtrack showcasing the golden tonsils of Salif Keita, le Domingo de la Chanson Africaine! Are you sure you have strength to resist? Unlike PathfinderYeelen will have you nodding off now and again, but that’s cool. It’s still the nearest thing to a movie from Mars.

And so to a film that seems beamed across from a whole nother dimension where they really know how to boogie. To say I enjoyed Dead Ringers is about as pallid as remarking that the inside of David Cronenberg’s head is not as other places. This, just for example, is the movie that includes a credit for ‘Radical Surgical Instruments’. This is the movie, prized by its author as his long-awaited breakthrough into realism, that features a sequence where Genevieve Bujold separates a pair of Siamese twins on camera with her bare teeth. This is the film in which a drug-crazed gynaecologist becomes convinced that his clientele are all MUTANT WOMEN with uterine abnormalities hitherto unknown to science. This is Valley of the Dolls meets A Zed and Two NoughtsThe Parent Trap meets The Brood. This is – no, no, I’m fine, really, I’ll be fine if I just do a synopsis.

Okay, Drs Elliot and Beverly Mantle are identical twin gynaecologists who achieve international fame while still medical students by inventing a revolutionary piece of surgical apparatus. (Steady…) Soon they are treating the reproductive machineries of wealthy ladies in their thriving private clinic in Toronto, and enjoying worldwide acclaim for their joint research. Suave extravert Elliot handles the PR end with panache, while studious Beverly has the human touch toward clients and painstaking appetite for work. With appropriate attention to hair and dress sense, they are accomplished at passing for one another: a ruse that serves them well in public and private, where everything is shared all the way from apartment to women. But all goes awry when hysterine mutant and recreational user Bujold falls for Beverly but very much not for Elliot, and rejects both when she finds she’s been two-timed in a novel sense. Beverly, torn between her and his twin, descends into spiralling drug use himself, and at the height of a paranoid obsession with mutations of the uterus commissions a sculptor in steel to execute his Geigeresque designs for a set of new-wave gynaecological tools…

Dead Ringers is Cronenberg’s pet project, very freely nursed from horror writer Bari Wood’s 1977 novel (with Jack Geasland) Twins – itself an opportunistic psychothriller prompted by the now-forgotten Marcus twins scandal a couple of years earlier. (The original, superior title got appropriated by Ivan Reitman’s forthcoming goof-off comedy about Schwarzenegger and DeVito as identical twins.) It’s an important manoeuvre in its maker’s career-long quest for mainstream credibility: a serious, non-genre dialogue movie rooted in character and performance, confining the old Cronenberg obsessions with mutations of mind and flesh within a studied facade of naturalism. Ironically, it makes more adventurous and pervasive use of special illusions than any of his previous films, in the seamless virtuosity of new split-screen wheezes to allow Jeremy Irons to play both twins together. But the wizardry is meant, as in the oddly parallel faked interactions in Roger Rabbit, to recede invisibly into the film texture; in which it largely succeeds, thanks both to fine work by Irons and to painstaking mimicry of perfectly routine track and pan shots, little uninsistent snippets of everyday film grammar that lull suspicion by their very familiarity.

All the same, a lot of the film’s ambitions are pretty wishful. Cronenberg obviously wants to demonstrate that the things he’s been making genre films about all his career are serious human ideas that would be equally at home in a realistic picture; that he’s a film-maker with a unique, important vision that pleads for critical respect. I’ve no quarrel with any of that. Us lot have known for years that the man’s a mild form of genius, whose nightmare romances of the radical flesh set out consciously to decode our largely submerged terror of decay in the body. With hindsight, it hasn’t helped Cronenberg’s pursuit of mainstream recognition that he suffers from a healthy sense of humour about himself and his work, and a comfortable, unembarrassed attitude to genre. But when he has tried, in Fast Company and The Dead Zone, to show he can make films without baroque extravagances of makeup and sheep guts, nobody’s been terribly interested in the results.

So in interviews about Dead Ringers Cronenberg keeps stressing how this is a realistic movie, an actors’ movie, an emotional drama dependent on script rather than screen magic, and how all the wizardry is dictated by the story, not other way up. This is disingenuous to the point of mischief. The script isn’t really all that great (there are some laughably stilted lines of O-yes-very-clever dialogue), much of the drug stuff is pretty gothic, there’s some riotously improbable bumps of plot and plausibility lapses, and the Bujold character and her role in the twins’ relationship are very erratically handled. There’s even a couple of difficult moments of old-fashioned Cronenberg schlockery: the oddly anticlimactic surgical homicide at the end, and a preposterous earlier dream sequence reminiscent of Geena Davis’s birth nightmare in The Fly. (A second, even sillier, dream was shrewdly snipped, but Cronenberg claims response to test screenings supported the retention of this one. Yet, unless I blinked, a crucial scene in the disintegration of Beverly’s affair with Bujold seems to have flittered to the cutting-room floor.) Yes, Irons is very good – no more pasty-faced period toyboy leads for him – and the twins’ strange bond is very well imagined. Especially satisfying is the way it’s the amiable Beverly who goes psycho and the glib Elliot who then reveals a powerful streak of empathy and compassion. But Cronenberg’s come on from an iffy start to do excellent work with actors lately, and there’s nothing confirmed here that followers haven’t known already.

Fact is, Cronenberg goes blithing on about how he’s always wanted to make a film about twins, when it’s perfectly obvious that this is the film he’s always wanted to make about gynaecologists. The fundamental reason why Dead Ringers is so wonderful is its brilliant deconstruction of the myth of women’s insides. Here, more than anywhere, is an area of social thinking about sex and flesh where the body itself is treated as an alien beast. Even their owners sometimes feel wombs are a parasitic lodger hosted deep in their flesh, with awkward animal purposes of their own that the host organism is powerless to control. The fact that there are expert veterinarians who know something about the handling of these temperamental uglies doesn’t altogether make the situation any more comfortable. Everyone, gender notwithstanding, is afraid of their insides to a degree, and submitting to someone else’s professional invasion is unsettling enough. The surgeon who flips out in the theatre when you’re helpless under his knife is a potent nightmare – indeed, there’s just such a scene in Dead Ringers. But male gynaecologists going hoopla fetch out in addition all the emotional crockery of sexual control and aggression, and there we are back in the classic Cronenberg territory it used to be fun to call venereal horror. There’s much excellent stuff in the twins scenario, and obviously I hope Irons gets his Oscar; the Academy does tend to favour gimmick performances, so it’s more than an outside chance. But the real stars of this beautiful, sublimely extraterrestrial film are the radical surgical instruments, and shame on anyone who tries to apologise for it.

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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