Mutant Popcorn #24

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 dishing out each and every delicious portion.

The serving below – Hardware, Dreams – appeared first in Interzone #39 (September 1990).

You’re young, slightly talented, eager to move, and you want to break into movies fast and high. No cycling round Soho with cardboard cartons for two years on end, or making tea for girls on the phone in some half-shot blagging agency. You want to be a big-budget, international, seriously commercial writer-director with a studio deal, proper distribution, Leicester Square openings, and you want it before you’re as old as Steven Soderbergh. And the punchline is (this’ll kill you) the punchline is, you’re British. Get the flibbertygibbet out of here! You young scamp, you made me spill my coffee!

But this is not a dream, not a hoax, not an imaginary tale. Your name is Richard Stanley, and your script is called Hardware, and that lady in the sparkly dress with the wand is – yes! – it’s that chap from Palace with the incredibly naff ponytail… So how did it happen? How did the glass Doc M come to end up on your ill-smelling leg-end? What was the magic spark, the killer concept that made all the little dollar signs line up? Well, it’s there, I think, but it’s been rather cleverly disguised, so see if you can spot it from the treatment.

Okay, the titles come over a pan around The Zone, basically a bunch of dunes under a heavy red filter, with a solitary human scavenger in black coat, hat, and goggles. It’s really Morocco, but something keeps flashing ‘Australia’ – why? wait and it’ll come. Then we’re in a grim, smelly, shantified future metropolis, where he sells the mechanical head and bits he’s unearthed to a good-looking, hard-jawed American called Mo, who gives them to his sculptress girl (‘Jill’, also American) to work on in her impenetrably-high-security lots-of-floors-up mysteriously-badly-lit apartment. After a night of gratuitous passion, she sticks the found stuff in a composition while Mo goes off (with his Irish friend ‘Shades’, who wears some) to do what drifters do. But oh dear! the parts are from an experimental killer droid that reassembles itself while she’s dozing, and starts stalking her round the apartment; and the armoured doors can only be worked from the inside. Can a lone terrorised female, armed only with everyday kitchen implements and her indomitable feminine cunning, defend herself against a psychopathic killing machine equipped with heat-sensitive vision, chainsaw appendages, cell-dissolving hypodermic attachments, and an extremely naughty drill that it will insist on poking at her privates whenever it gets her cornered?

Can you see what’s going on here? Look around. Those costumes, that desert, that post-tech survival culture: haven’t we seen them in Mad Maxes? That third-world future undercity, that interestingly-lit and -furnished noir apartment, that dangling between buildings climax: surely this is Blade Runner we are watching. Those sets, those screens, that warehousey look: it’s Max Headroom, surely? The witty commercials and satirical background throwaways: Robocop, or I’m a flying Dutchman. Even that PIL title song has been heard on screen before, surely?

Forget about the rampaging robo, which is only there to evoke further great chunks of Blade RunnerRobocop, and (above all, and inevitably) The Terminator. Poor Jill is being stalked by the eighties. No wonder she’s so panicked. Can she escape from the barrage of dead icons before she dies of embarrassment? I kid not – all the characters are these outrageous club types, the dialogue has lines like ‘Things are going to get worse before they get better’, and there’s even a Mandelbrot set. (I’m sure those went out of fashion before they even came in…) Even the political chuckaway gags, which are often pretty funny, have oddly nostalgic targets: ‘radiation-free reindeer steaks’? when would that have been topical? The very subject seems, in the grand eighties tradition, a quintessentially video one, maybe because tales of stalkers in the home are best appreciated in a medium specifically tailored to living-room, after-dark consumption.

But, big but, Hardware is a determinedly big-screen movie, and after the appalling first half-hour it’s really not a bad one. The art direction is amazingly good for the budget, and far better than the subject really expects: lots of fussy, crowded, densely-textured backgrounds of found material, ingeniously lit in Citizen Kane shadowvision to make it look like there’s loads more set than they could afford. The effects don’t look anything like as strapped or shoddy as they presumably must have been, and the whole thing stinks of love, perfectionism, and the kind of endless unnecessary patience that only obsessed youth can muster. And yes, apart from the bloody filters and the relationship scenes it’s generally very well directed, all considered. If R. Stanley has a future, it’s surely here rather than in writing, because the script is an uneasy 2000 AD mix of utterly brilliant throwaways (‘Fair Isle Electronics’, a fridge full of cartons of ‘Unigator Lactoplasm’) and really frightful foreground stuff. The world is completely incoherent, the satire splotchy, the characters hopeless, the emotions sculpted from pure foamed plastic, and the original plot concepts nil; only the action writing is quality stuff.

Otherwise, the players are unknowns and seem inexperienced, but there’s been lots worse; at least the Americans sound like real Americans, and perhaps are. (At least, he does sleep in his underpants, while she’s called ‘Tracy Travis’, though of course it could just be a clever professional name.) There’s some possible misjudgments for the US market – there’s a very casual attitude to recreational drug use, and it may be a problem that the only characters to survive are the two heavy users, one of whom needs to be E’d out of his nod for the plot to work (so cutting won’t help). If you really long for an sf thriller that displays not the slightest trace of influence from either Ridley Scott or James Cameron, or if you possess either a Firstdirect account, a Microwriter AgendA, or a CD of ‘One World, One Voice’, then you’re probably not ready yet for the eighties revival. But for a film made almost entirely by young persons with hairstyles, Hardware is so much better than anything you could have expected that it’s really hard not to be disarmed.

On our other screen, by contrast, is a massively expensive specimen of the cinema of extreme old age – with US funding, ILM effects, Spielberg leading the credits, and probably the greatest living behind-camera name imprinted possessively on the title. Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams are, quite simply and without remote rival, the most preposterous cinematic folly erected in our lifetime, and anyone who can argue otherwise must be watching some private composite of their own. Imagine giving anyone, even um I dunnno David Lynch, millions and millions of currency units to tell you his dreams. You’d have to be on something pretty heavy. Just sixty seconds of listening to some earnest git narrating his cinema of the mind is normally enough to inspire in one a savage impulse to infibulate his brain. Those silly cases at Warner’s gave Kurosawa two crawling hours, just because he’s the greatest filmo on the face of the planet. Can you believe that? When they saw the results, could they?

Well, it would be unfair to deny that two of the eight dreams are really quite close to wonderful. The opening ‘Sunshine through the Rain’ number has that kind of barmy logic and creepy sense of suddenly realising you’re trapped in something inextricably horrible that only dream narratives really have. ‘A fox was here. He was very angry. He left this for you’ (a harakiri sword) ‘and says you have to kill yourself. You’ll have to find him again and persuade him. He might be under that rainbow.’ But then it stops just as it starts getting weird, and you’re left with one of several overlong production numbers recalling nothing so much as a popvid paused forward a frame at a time. In fact, not just the music and dancers but everyone, in every single dream, moves with unbearable, geriatric slowness. Even in the apocalyptic ‘Mt Fuji in Red’ sequence where all the reactors have gone up and hordes of citizens are running screaming, we cut straight to three figures standing motionless on a beach doing a bit of pointing and stuff. I almost took my own life during the ‘Blizzard’ segment. Don’t the old realise we striplings have attention spans?

But I’m glad I stayed my hand, because the second great moment is one of modern cinema’s milestone moments of priceless pottiness. It’s long been apparent that Martin Scorsese is, quite irrespective of what he does with film, the greatest star in the universe. Nobody makes camera like a Scorsese interview. The man could charm the underwear off your loins without undoing a button. So, for his front-of-lens almost-debut (there was that Soviet thing that died; half-remember?), what more inspired casting than the mighty and topical Vincent? We’ll dye your beard red, and we can stick a bandage round your box so nobody will know you haven’t really cut off your ear; and we’ll give you some dialogue to establish what a really driven person you are, which you’ll deliver to a former Japanese popster with all your native professionalism and conviction, without the slightest trace of embarrassment or bafflement as to what you’re doing here. Tim Roth will just wither when they see you.

Well, it’s no wonder no Japanese director has ever made the cross into Hollywood mainstream. The cultural chasm is just unbridgeable. The kind of mentality that can make the Scorsese cameo, and frame it with a bizarrely straight sequence of a smiling Japanese tourist in blue jeans traversing a montage of famous Van Gogh brushworks, is simply beyond any Western scrutability. To say this is a deeply personal project steeped in lifetime auteurial themes of heroism, apocalypse, and shame is to stifle bemusement under a mask of glazed comprehension. I doubt it really has much to do with old age, either, when the epics of his seventies have been so consistently zippy, and he adamantly refuses to play the last-film card. Dreams is just a folly, as grand and as daft as any can be: magnificent and ghastly, unmissable and unbearable in equal, inseparable degrees. And as it’s subtitled, you can wait for the video and catch it on fast forward.

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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