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The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)

The creature from the black lagoon is not very frightening. Perhaps sixty years ago it was, but nowadays, it really just looks like a man in a big fish suit creeping around a swamp and lusting after ‘50s pin-up girls masquerading as scientist assistants. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, it’s still a fun movie to watch, but I’d say you’re more likely to laugh than to scream in horror when this creature approaches from the deep, doing its stilted version of the breaststroke (which looks pretty much just like what you’d think it would look like when a stunt man is squeezed into a body suit and told ‘Swim like a lizard, Gerry!’ when its 5AM in 1954).

The creature has it rough in this movie. No sooner is its ancestor’s fossilized arm discovered by an excitable European scientist in the Amazon than a search party begins to look for its like, led by the overly ambitious Mark (an American banker/fundraiser/token greedy heartless bastard) followed by the handsome and openminded anthropologist David and his swooning girlfriend-assistant Kay, along with a charming South American boat captain named Logan, who always seems to awkwardly hold a smile on his cigar-laden face for a beat too long after he’s told someone an interesting tidbit about the Amazonian rainforest. Once this starch-white band of explorers finds the creature in question, Mark leads a nonstop hunt to kill it, bring it to the public, and make “millions”. Of course, the rest of the crew sees the creature in a more scientific, compassionate light, but by the end of the movie, the creature has been harpooned three times, set on fire by having a lantern smashed over its head, chemically poisoned by some strange toxic concoction, caught and trapped in a rope net and beaten with a shovel, although of course it never dies, because there are sequels. Poor Gerry!

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It was hard for me not to feel sorry for this amphibious, mysteriously violent creature from the deep. There are a couple scenes where you see its head close up, and it looks just like a bald, wrinkly old man with gills, slowly puffing its lips out and sucking for air like a little fish does, with these big, obviously fake beady eyes that never really look at anything, just seeming generally disoriented. I was constantly worried it was going to bump into something — watch out! Was the director providing a not-so-subtle metaphor for his fear of aging? That may be a stretch, but was this ever really very scary?

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A mysterious question raised by this movie (or, perhaps we should say: ignored by this movie) is why does it kill? Is it for fun and sport? The creature doesn’t eat anybody…The first thing it does in the movie, besides providing a nice cliched shot of its clawed, webbed arm reaching out of the swamp and grasping at literally nothing is to senselessly murder two local young men and then run away. Was it just having a really bad morning? We are left to wonder. It certainly has a penchant for young Kay, however, as it is enthralled when it sees her recklessly (but very gracefully) swimming in its swamp. If you took the scene where it approaches her from below and grasps at her bare leg a couple times, only to pull its hand away, tortured by its confounding desire and curiosity and yet driven perhaps by a need to kill, or maybe just to get laid (there aren’t many lady-creatures from the deep that we know of), and put it on stage in a nouveau-art dance piece, you might have a cute little scene about longing and repressed desire and the like. Put it in context, however, and it’s a bit strange, and if we were to assume the director was providing some kind of metaphorical physical expression of longing between his two characters, we would likely be giving him too much credit. The idea is the creature is halfway between man and lizard/fish, and so it’s the man-half part that’s into the girl. She, however, is not so smitten. Once again, it’s hard not to empathize.

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Believe it or not, The Creature From the Black Lagoon tries desperately to place its narrative within the sweeping context of evolution, man’s place in the cosmos, and our biological origins as beings who emerged from the watery depths of the sea. The film begins with a serious narration and fuzzy ‘50s visuals depicting the origins of the cosmos, the birth of the world, the expansion of the oceans, and finally pans to a shot of webbed footprints on the earth, symbolizing our journey from the ocean to the land we now live on, and tying our own status as land animals to the mysterious swamp creature we are about to see viciously persecuted for an hour and twenty minutes. The pressing question I want to ask is: why? The answer I’ve come to, after an interesting conversation with my Dad, is that the movie is evidently being pulled in different directions, likely by different creators involved. Why would you frame a creature-feature in such an overwrought evolutionary context, unless it was to try to create a sense of verisimilitude in the same way The Twilight Zone would try to imbue its episodes with the serious tone of a TV series commenting on our actual world? However, if the director was trying to make any serious statement about man’s relationship to his nature by drawing comparisons to the real world, he quickly ceded the investigation when he decided to show absolutely no details surrounding the creature’s origin, its motivations, its natural tendencies, its intelligence, etc. etc., and opted instead to depict it as a randomly violent killer with no further depth to be explored. Perhaps this points to more than one person influencing the movie’s development: maybe the director wanted the tone of realistic science fiction, but the production team needed a senseless horror flick, and decided to cut any sections that brought real sympathy to the creature, because all that would do is make the audience feel something besides fear. Of course, what’s odd about this film as a creature feature is that everyone on the boat besides Mark wants to deal with the creature in a humane way, certainly not kill it — you’d never see that in Anaconda or Alien or Jaws. Sympathizing towards a monster is more like what we read in Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein (but certainly not in the campy movie remake, which is a clear example of a production team pulling sympathy and emotional depth from a story for cheap thrills and shock factor). It seems to me to me that The Creature From the Black Lagoon is a film being pulled haphazardly in a few different directions, and since that makes it lose its focus, it is less successful in actually going somewhere as a film; but the fact that it’s oddly multidimensional makes it an interesting movie to talk about.

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As a creature-feature it succeeds in being fun to watch, and whether that was because of intentional choices or just the joy of watching dated horror, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I recommend it to anyone looking for an enjoyable way to spend a couple hours, and for fans of classic creature features. Enjoy!

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Kes (1969)

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There’s a beautiful moment in the final act of Kes, Ken Loach’s humanizing portrait of a young boy growing up under the shadow of coal mining in North England, when Billy Casper, the young boy we’ve come to know through the film, stands at the front of his class and excitedly tells his classmates about the first time he flew his trained hawk free. Billy is a silent figure throughout most of the film, choosing to bury his hands in the pockets of his tattered blue jeans, lean his frame against a wall or a desk, and pipe up with a Yorkshire-infused ‘I don’t know’ when summoned by one of his teachers to finally speak. But the spark that’s lit when Billy speaks about seeing his bird, Kes, fly over to him for the first time untethered is a glimpse into what we’ve known about Billy all along, and that the teachers and the adults in his life must be blind to ignore: there is much more to Billy than meets the eye, and the innocent spark of passion we see ignited here is hovering just below view all day, not unlike the way his hawk flies along the surface of the ground before meeting him in the field behind his home, a natural instinct to avoid detection.

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The teacher who prompts this side of Billy to emerge is his English teacher, Mr. Farthing, played by the only professional actor in the film, and perhaps he’s a worthy choice as such: he stands out on screen with the weight and presence of a trained actor, just as his character stands out among the flighty, insensitive adults in Billy’s life as the one who’s grounded and listening. Mr. Farthing is an exception in Billy’s world, someone who sees potential in the young boy, sees him as something more than a reticent lad destined for the coal mines (if he’s lucky). The other adults are far less kind: there’s Billy’s cruel and immature gym teacher, who forces him to take a freezing shower because he let in too many goals in a football game mostly played on the field of the teacher’s ego; there’s the principal of the school who’s whips Billy’s hands because he could barely stay awake during the principal’s tiresome lecture, having run his paper route and looked after his bird that morning since 6 AM; there’s his non-existent father, a glaring hole in Billy’s life which leaves his violent older brother as the man of the house after coming home from the mines; and there’s his mother, who’s too busy with her own desperate attempts to find a new husband at the pub to see or encourage the spark of life in Billy’s eyes. They’ve all acquiesced to the life afforded to the working poor in Yorkshire at that time (not that it’s much different now); there’s not much hope in this mining community and if it exists at all it’s in the way Billy lights up when he talks about his bird.

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In the scene after Billy’s speech, Mr. Farthing breaks up a fight between Billy and the towering school bully MacDowell, who seems a bit jealous of all the attention Billy and his bird are getting. Again, Mr. Farthing sees the situation for what it is: a bully picking on a young boy who stands up for himself, and after Farthing pushes MacDowell into the wall and lets him know what it’s like to be bullied, he walks over to Billy who’s covered in soot (they were rolling around of a pile of coal) and asks him why everyone seems to have it out for him. “Are you a bad’un?” Farthing asks. “I know stacks of other kids that’s worse than me, but they seem to get away with it.” Billy tells Farthing about getting caned that morning by the principal, and how his teachers seem perfectly oblivious to the state their students are in: “Teachers, sir, they’re not bothered about it, sir. If we fall asleep they think we’re numbskulls and owt like that, sir. And when they have time, they’re always looking at their watches to see how long there’s left of the lesson. They’re not bothered by us, and we’re not bothered by them.”

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Billy has summed up the major thought behind Loach’s film. Loach gives us a glimpse, through exquisitely human performances, and camera work that sits well at the back of the action, observing without describing, of the incredibly rich inner life of a young boy who likely will not be able to avoid a life in the mines, despite his sensitive talent for understanding and training a hawk, something which we’re told is rarely accomplished by adults, let alone fifteen year olds. But nobody’s bothered indeed.

In fact, ‘they’re not bothered by us’ could be the mantra of the British working class for the decades since the release of Kes. The infamous miner’s strike of 1984 left the coal industry more desperate than ever for good pay for their work, and it seemed that Margaret Thatcher had only alienated the lower class farther from any type of societal respect. It’s been a common refrain, and has led Britain now to the extremes of Brexit, which was of course hailed, at least before the referendum passed, as a sure victory for the working class. Interviewed about the film, Tony Garnett, the adapter of Kes’ script, compares the government’s actions toward the working class to the training of a hawk. “You can’t tame a hawk, but you can train it…or you can kill it”. It remains to be seen what effect Brexit will have on the working class that Loach sympathizes with in much of his work, but in this metaphor, who are the Brexit politicians? Are they like Mr. Farthing who listens to Billy and sees his true potential, or are they like Billy’s older brother Jud, who Billy looks up to in earnestness, but when his back is turned, takes away the one thing that made Billy happy.

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Loach’s film is a stern condemnation of the way England ignores its working class, and has a powerful and sad ending to that effect, but nonetheless it is, to me, a hopeful film. When Billy is burying the bird in the yard out back, he is devastated of course, as a lone flutes plays a quivering dirge in the background. It’s a very moving scene. But as a coda to his story, this scene shows us that the hope we feel isn’t in where we think Billy’s future seems to be going, it is more in the fact that we had a chance to meet him, and to experience his joy at seeing a hawk fly free by his side. After all, growing up isn’t about gaining things, it’s about losing them, so Billy is going through a necessary rite of passage, even if the way it happened was anything other than necessary.

The hope here also lies in the fact that there are boys like Billy in the world, if only we would listen to them. In a featurette about the film, Dai Bradley, who played Billy, is interviewed fifty years after the making of Kes. It’s at first a bit of a shock seeing him directly after watching Kes – he’s old now, gray headed and bespectacled, but much is the same in his demeanour. His whole body still quivers when he gets excited about what he’s saying, as if he could shake the feelings out of himself that are too big for his narrow body to hold – just like how Billy speaks to his class about his bird. Seeing Dai Bradley explain about training the birds for Kes and the joy he had while making the film, I couldn’t help but feel a wave of relief: some boys like Billy really do make it out of there alive. Where Brexit will take them, however, is anyone’s guess.

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