Deep in space, a derelict rocket from the year 1987 – centuries in the past – explodes into splinters of radioactive dust, destroyed by its own nuclear weapons. The pulsing electronic noise that had built-up towards the detonation abruptly stops, and for the first time in a long while we are left with total silence. Back on board the Ikarie, the modern spaceship that discovered this old ruin lost millions of miles from Earth, we see the stunned faces of the crew. In one cabin, two astronauts discuss the crimes of the twentieth century, its wars and its holocausts. One of them begins absentmindedly picking out a few chords on a grand piano, which has a peculiar wing-like double lid. ‘Honegger,’ he says, by way of explanation. ‘Also twentieth century.’
Those piano chords are from the introduction to Arthur Honegger’s dramatic psalm, ‘Le roi David’, from 1921. Composed by one of ‘Les Six’, the group of dynamic young composers who gathered around Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie, in its day ‘Le roi David’ was strikingly modern in its wild eclecticism, borrowing freely from jazz and gregorian chant, Bach and Stravinsky. But for all its lyrical beauty, amid the future sounds of Zdenĕk Liška’s score for Ikarie XB-1 (1963), directed by Jindrich Polák, it sounds positively antediluvian, like the dim ghost of a distant age.
Ikarie XB-1 is released on DVD, newly restored by Second Run, on 23 September 2013..
Born in the small Bohemian town of Smečno just short of a year after ‘Le roi David’ was first performed, Liška would work on many of the classics of the Czech new wave (Vĕra Chytilová’s Fruit of Paradise, Kădar and Klos’s The Shop on Main Street, Juraj Herz’s The Cremator) before embarking on a long and fruitful collaboration with Jan Švankmajer. When, after a long illness, Liška died in 1983, Švankmajer refused to work with any other composer and for a long time used only classical music in his films.
For Ikarie XB-1, he sets out his stall early, and the opening title music is little short of stunning. With a jerky melodic motif resembling one of Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano studies or a John Cage prepared piano sonata, albeit reconfigured for a bank of haywire oscillators, the piece mixes orchestral and electronic tones until they become almost completely indistinguishable. Turning usual practice on its head, it’s the live instruments that here produce the sound effects, while the electronics carry the tune.
This high pitch of strangeness is maintained throughout. The score ranges from dreamy impressionism to tense late romanticism, eerie drones to furious machine rhythms, and in one particularly odd scene in which the spaceship crew have their own dance party, even a sort of dissonant future mambo. With so many different moods and styles, it’s a soundtrack that was as modern and eclectic in 1963 as Honegger’s ‘Le roi David’ was in 1921. A heady stew of robot rhythms and whooshing frequencies, Ikarie XB-1 could be the missing sonic link between Forbidden Planet and Liquid Sky.
James Smythe was born in 1980 in London, and now lives in West Sussex. After gaining a PhD from Cardiff University, he’s gone on to teach creative writing and work as a writer and narrator on video games. He’s the author of The Machine (Blue Door/Harper Collins, £12.99) and The Explorer (Harper Voyager, £7.99) and his novels have been described as ‘an episode of Star Trek written by J. M. Coetze’. He is also re-reading Stephen King for The Guardian website. Eithne Farry
I am Brundlefly/Seth Brundle from Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986). Bzzzt.
David Cronenberg is a genius. I don’t use that word lightly, either. He’s been responsible for some of the greatest pieces of cinema ever made, and he’s done it all while carrying themes and ideas from film to film, always moving forward while constantly nodding backwards. The Fly is maybe my favourite of his (fighting it out with Dead Ringers). It’s based on a story of the same name by George Langelaan, and it’s… Bzzzzt.
Sorry. It’s one of those great sci-fi stories where the main character reaches too far, hubristically heading too deeply into a thing that they don’t understand, and the repercussions are enormous. In The Fly, that character is Dr. Seth Brundle. He’s got a teleportation device that he’s invented, meant to transfer the molecules of something from one portal to another.
There’s a rush of invention for him: as soon as it works on inanimate objects, he wants more. He tries animals, and he loses track of his own safety measures. And, all the while, he’s entering a relationship with Veronica, a journalist. He gets distracted, and drunk, and then… Bzzzzzzt.
Then he decides to teleport himself across the room, despite not knowing if it’ll be safe. A fly gets caught in the device with him, and he starts to change. He becomes Brundlefly. And so, welcome to me as a writer. I get caught up. I find things that are shiny and I try to explore those, and I probably dive in before I’m ready. (Some writers are methodical and take their time. Not me. Blast out a first draft, then worry about making it work. I’m eager, probably over-eager. I write too much, and I throw away and start again.) Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzt.
I’m pretty sure that a fly got trapped inside my keyboard at some point, and he’s what’s helping me write now. Typing words when I’m not looking. I’m not changing physically, maybe – grey hair? Do flies have grey hair? – but still. Sometimes I feel like I know what I’m doing when I write something. But sometimes? Sometimes I’m clinging to the walls, and I do not feel like myself at all.
More information on James Smythe can be found here.
Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010) is director Panos Cosmatos’s first feature: a psychedelic, sci-fi reverse vision of the future set in 1983 in the sinister Arboria complex, where inmates/customers are promised ‘a better happier you’. The film plays out as a dystopian set of power struggles between New-Age neuropsychologist Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands), his Frankenstein’s monster: Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers) and mute daughter Elena (Eva Bourne). Cosmatos says he wanted to create a ‘poisoned nostalgia’ that revelled in all the pleasure of a ‘Reagan-era fever dream inspired by hazy childhood memories of midnight movies and Saturday morning cartoons’. The film is an undeniable example of what music critic Simon Reynolds calls ‘retromania’, where producers of popular culture seem to have stopped in their tracks at 2000, and now make work that frantically cites and recycles music and films made between the 1960s and the 1990s. Beyond the Black Rainbow is seamless in its aesthetic rendition of a film produced in the 1980s.
A familiar cult film trope used by Cosmatos is an investment in sparse dialogue, where symbolic slack is taken up by set, art direction, sound design and score – think of any of Dario Argento’s work, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and AndreiTarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), just to scratch the surface. Here, I’d suggest, lies cult cinema’s ties with the language of experimental and poetic filmmaking. The Black Rainbow script would seem unassuming on the page, such are the restrained, polite exchanges between the characters. Yet, the sound and sets expose these as patter floating on the surface of a brooding and repressed animosity felt by the characters. As such, in Black Rainbow, the audience is invited to sense through sound, a form of sonar navigation.
Black Rainbow is a fan’s film and this is reflected in, to quote Reynolds, the ‘new old’ score. Composer Jeremy Schmidt, alias Sinoia Caves, uses original 1980s synths, such as the infamous Mellotron, used heavily in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s a mesmerising instrument that allows the musician to use a keyboard to play sound samples recorded onto magnetic tape, with choruses, strings and flutes being among the most classic examples used to great effect by Brian Eno and Goblin keyboard player and horror film composer Claudio Simonetti. Schmidt admits to ‘setting’ his music in the period Cosmatos wanted to recreate, and his score is remindful of a spectrum of sources, from New Age electronica styles to Tangerine Dream’s demonic, bassy film soundtracks for Sorcerer (1977) and The Keep (1983), for example. Then it would be churlish not to mention the huge creative homage to John Carpenter’s malevolent minimal synths, as well as some of Wendy Carlos’s psychotic synth-string pieces for The Shining – Carlos being the under-credited or cited synth genius who also produced music for Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange and the original Tron. Notably, her ‘Clockwork (Bloody Elevators)’, used for The Shining’s 1980 trailer, was described in her own words: ‘The sounds are Rachel’s (Elkind) versatile vocals with percussive and brassy synthesizer lines, all quite melodramatic.’ I’m not sure why Schmidt’s extraordinary soundtrack for Black Rainbow has not been released yet, but it should be.
A theme of submersion extends throughout the film. In a flashback to 1966, Barry Nyle is reborn after sinking beneath black, primordial goo in an impressive psychedelic scene where Yves Klein meets Altered States. After this baptism he begins to transform, and takes medication to sublimate his symptoms. Mecurio Arboria retreats from reality and numbs the pain of the past and the future with narcotics. Elena’s psi/chotic abilities are subdued by Nyle’s manipulation of an unnamed, psychic power source: a glowing pyramid situated in the geometric psychological boiler room for the Arboria institute. All the characters are repressing something. So, sound is used to give insight into what is left unsaid and kept hidden. The pyramid energy is given a sensorium: a low frequency, migraine pulsing, oscillating synth. This sonic ident exists in both the symbolic reality of the film – in that it merges with the musical score and the ‘story’ of the film, and it appears to be a real sound when we see Nyle turning the control dial to vary the strength of these ‘energy sculpting’ emissions. It’s this permeability between diegetic and non-diegetic sound in the film, and a well-crafted score, which enable a symbolic reading of the sounds as the unspoken inner life of the alien/ated selves of the characters.
The most poignant example of this, I think, is ‘Solace’ (as it is unofficially listed on YouTube), the stunning piece of music dubbed over some of the scenes featuring Elena. Here, choral layers, detuned reverberating synths and chords, which mainline melancholia, have their own charge – beyond the weight of references to Jean Michel Jarre, Harold Budd and Brian Eno. Notably, the theme of submersion creeps in on this track with a repeated note, remindful of the sonar ‘ping’ used for underwater sensing and measuring. With this sound, Schmidt samples an ubiquitous motif in sci-fi sound design and also suggests searching the void. The track as a whole echoes Elena’s sense of sadness for her familial loss and for her own deprivation, speaking for her while remaining ultimately unfathomable.
To paraphrase the title of his autobiography, Roger Corman is the director who made a hundred films in Hollywood and never lost a dime. Without access to the filmmaker’s accounts, it’s hard to tell if this statement is entirely true, but knowing the man’s reputation, it’s probably safe to say he at least balanced the books every few years. Credited with over 50 films as director and more than 400 as producer or executive producer, typical films in Corman’s oeuvre oscillated between thrift and excess (and often featured both).
While the director was reknowned for making films on the cheap – once famously shooting an entire semi-improvised film in a weekend (The Terror, 1963) after another (The Raven, 1963) wrapped early on the same sets – he didn’t recycle only locations but also entire sections of movies themselves. In the 1950s, Corman had toyed with science-fiction tropes in his films It Conquered the World (1956), Not of this Earth (1957) and War of the Satellites (1958), but in each case the unknown was represented by actors in rubber suitsand make-up and a few wobbly flying saucers. While the start of his technicolour Edgar Allen Poe sequence in 1960 would show that the director could be more adept with a larger budget, freed of monochrome austerity, his tin-foil aesthetic of the previous decade did little to inspire wonder (or terror) regarding life on other planets.
Watch the original trailer for It Conquered the World:
However, contemporary audiences did have an appetite for space opera and creatures from other planets, as exemplified by the trio of Oscar-winning sci-fi films produced by George Pal in the early 1950s – Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953) – that preempted the space race between America and the Soviet Union, which started in the summer of 1955. With the backdrop of the continuing Cold War, announcements by representatives of Eisenhower and Khrushchev of programmes to launch satellites into space cheered and intimidated Americans in equal amounts. Therefore, it’s safe to say that unadulterated Russian cinema of the time which showed the Soviet Union winning the race would be unlikely to find an audience in the US. But, with American sci-fi of the late 1950s looking increasingly inward – with Atom Age monsters providing a clumsy parallel with ‘Reds under the bed’ – there were few films that had the scale and breadth of vision of Pal’s films from the start of the decade.
Similar films were, in fact, being made in the Soviet Union, where a population dreaming of their country winning the technological marathon to the stars could see their hopes realised in darkened cinemas. The 1959 film Nebo zovyot (The Heavens Call) is an expensive Soviet drama about a group of Russian explorers making their first scientific expedition to Mars. The cosmonauts encouter Americans en route who are trying to beat their communist rivals, only to need their help when their mission gets into trouble. Except for the outerspace origins, it’s not a film likely to touch the hearts of farmers in Kansas…
In a 2003 issue of Kinoeye, Roger Corman told an interviewer that: ‘In the 1960s I bought the American rights to several Russian science fiction films. They were made with big budgets and tremendous special effects. They were, unfortunately, filled with anti-American propaganda. I said to the Russians, “I’m going to have to cut the anti-American propaganda out. I can’t show these pictures in America,” and they said that they totally understood.”
Remixing foreign sci-fi wasn’t a new idea, with 1954’s Gojira redubbed and new scenes featuring American actors added, and released in America as Godzilla (1956) to great success. Similarly, a bowdlerised version of 1959’s Swedish monster movie Rymdinvasion i Lappland (Invasion of the Animal People) did well at the box office under the more atmospheric title Terror in the Midnight Sun, with 18 minutes shorn from its running time. Corman though, unlike Godzilla producers Terry Turner and Joseph E. Levine, didn’t care about keeping the majority of the source material intact, as long as the special effects could be repurposed. So, out went the propaganda, with these scenes replaced (along with the Russian dialogue) by rubber monsters to keep fans of the genre happy. The Corman re-edit of Nebo zovyot, with new scenes directed by Francis Ford Coppola and shot by Jack Hill, was released in 1962 as Battle Beyond the Sun, and while the resulting mish-mash does few involved any favours, it has the dubious pleasure of being an early example of a walking carnivorous vagina dentata, later to inspire the likes of Alien (1979).
Watch the original trailer for Battle Beyond the Sun:
Emboldened by the success of Battle Beyond the Sun, Corman next produced a remix of Planeta Bur (Planet of Storms, 1962) with new scenes directed by Curtis Harrington and released as Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965). Harrington was unhappy with the resulting film and asked his name to be taken off the credits. Not only did the producer comply, he decided to have another of his proteges take a stab at the Russian footage, with Peter Bogdanovich directing alternate new scenes that lead to a second remix, called Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968). By a strange coincidence, Bogdanovich also directed under a pseudonym.
I had the pleasure of catching the original Planeta Bur as part of the BFI’s season Red Skies: Soviet Science Fiction in 2011 and am happy to report the original is a fun, kitsch film about a Russian mission to Venus, which features rubbery prehistoric monsters and tin-foil robots quite similar to its American counterparts of the time. It’s telling that in this case, both of Corman’s remixes mainly took the opportunity to add scantily clad women rather than monsters to the mise-en-scene. Because of the film’s similarity to contemporaneous American B-movies, it’s mainly the soundtrack (and its subtitled translation) that is noticibly different, with speeches about the Motherland and loyality to one’s comrades, plus rousing militaristic music contrasting weirdly with the tentacled creatures that attack the cosmonauts. These strange juxtapositions make for a far more memorable experience than any American remix and it’s great that the original versions of these films are now seeing the light of day again.
Like Planeta Bur‘s twice-used footage, scenes from Nebo zovyot turned up again in 1966’s Queen of Blood, a film that Harrington was happy to keep his name on this time. This is a tour-de-force of the film remixer’s art, with the director using not one but two Russian sci-fi films for his smorgasbord. Nebo zovyot provides the spaceship footage, while Mechte navstrechu (A Dream Come True1964) supplies Queen of Blood with its famous imagery of an alien woman with sizable assets luring astronauts to their doom. While Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet saw a down-on-his-luck, elderly actor – Basil Rathbone – supply new linking footage with a touch of phoned-in gravitas, the actor’s second appearance in a Russian remix (shot the next day) sees the former Sherlock Holmes rub shoulders with Corman regulars Dennis Hopper and John Saxon. There’s also a cameo by horror-film afficiando Forrest J. Ackerman. Queen of Blood‘s resulting mash-up is so odd and off-kilter it somehow transcends the sum of its disjointed parts to make for a genuine cult classic.
Perhaps realising the recycled footage was starting to look a little ubiquitous, or perhaps because of the emergence of immediate sci-fi classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes and Night of the Living Dead in 1968, Corman moved away from sci-fi and fantasy and back to exploitation in the early 1970s. Elsewhere, American cult audiences continued to enjoyed dubbed imports (with a Godzilla sequel, for example, released approximately every year between 1962 and 1975). However, with the birth of his own film distribution company – New World Pictures – in 1970, Corman started treating foreign imports with respect. It’s ironic that, if not for the interest of this shameless huckster in releasing such films as Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972), René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (1973), Federico Fellini’s Amarcord (1973), and Volker Schlöndorff’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975), American audiences might not have seen those films. That said, Corman’s company did still occassionally tinker, compressing, for example, a film and its sequel – Sword of Vengeance (Kozure Ōkami: Kowokashi udekashi tsukamatsuru) and Baby Cart at the River Styx (Kozure Ōkami: Sanzu no kawa no ubaguruma), both 1972 – into one: Shogun Assassin (1980). After he left, New World Pictures produced one more strange remix, crafting scenes from Mamoru Oshii’s animated feature Angel’s Egg (Tenshi no Tamago, 1985) into dream sequences for the underwhelming live-action film In the Aftermath: Angels Never Sleep (1988). Their former CEO would have been proud.
Planet of storms and Battle Beyond the Sun are available on Region 1 DVD. Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, Queen of Blood and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women are available on Region 2 DVD.
When Corman himself found he was producing a film that went over budget, such as the strangely familiar sounding Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), he would strip-mine the footage for years to come, with scenes from this film turning up in Forbidden World (1982), Space Raiders (1983), Dead Space (1991) and Starquest II (1997). Music from the soundtrack also turns up in Raptor (2001), a film that already contains recycled footage from The Nest (1988)! This thin joblot of endless copies and stitched-together clips may have somewhat tarnished Roger Corman’s reputation in recent years, but his first round of recycling in the mid-20th century is an interesting sequence of cultural exchange, early directing experiences from great filmmakers to be, and exposure to fantastic scenes from another part of the world. For that, the spend-thrift producer can only be congratulated.
Watch the original trailer for Battle Beyond the Stars:
With the placing of a small silver pellet into what looks like a small lava lamp, a softly modulating drone strikes up. A high-pitched swoop joins, introducing the opening riff of a bassline like bubbles bursting. Shimmering echoes float into space. ‘That recording,’ Dr. Morbius sternly informs us, ‘was made by Krell musicians a half a million years ago.’ Xenomusicology.
The story goes that producers of Forbidden Planet tried to get Harry Partch to compose the Krell music (Partch denies it) and you can understand why. Partch, perhaps more than almost any other composer of the 20th century, seemed to have tried to establish an entirely fresh basis for music. Not just bye bye diatonic harmony; bye bye the twelve-note octave, bye bye the instruments of the orchestra and hello a whole newly-invented band of ‘cloud chamber bowls’, ‘eucal blossoms’ and a ‘chromelodeon’.
But even Partch might not have come with anything quite as genuinely alien sounding, quite as pregnant with the future, as did Louis and Bebe Barron. In any other film, this short burst of alien sonics would have stuck out as thrillingly weird and exotic, but the whole film sounds like this. Everything whirls, and gurgles, and bubbles with the strange ‘electronic tonalities’ the Barrons devised with their home-made circuits.
The Barrons were among the first people in America to own a tape recorder, a wedding gift from a German friend who had imported it himself at the end of the second world war; the very same model used by Adolf Hitler to record his speeches. They immediately realised, however, that their new machine offered far more possibilities than the faithful reproduction of the human voice. Their early experiments in slowing tapes down and speeding them up, creating loops and adding echo, resulted in their first substantial composition, already implying a kind of artificial life by its title, Heavenly Menagerie.
It was around this time, at the beginning of the 1950s, that the couple first met John Cage at an artists’ club in Greenwich Village, and they soon agreed to collaborate on a series of works for tape, which would include Cage’s Williams Mix, as well as their own For an Electronic Nervous System. Louis’s recent discovery of Norbert Wiener’s writing had encouraged the pair to view their circuits by analogy with organic life or the neural pathways in the brain. They copied cybernetic circuits from Wiener’s books and adapted them for sound production, with complex feedback routes and unpredictable, ‘capricious’ natures, prone to self-destruction. ‘Those circuits were really alive,’ Bebe claimed, ‘they would shriek and coo and have little life spans of their own.’
The Barrons’ brief career as Hollywood film composers began when they accosted MGM president Dore Schary at the opening of a gallery exhibition of his wife’s paintings. Before long, the couple had persuaded him of the novelty of their ideas about electronically produced music, and Schary agreed to give them a chance to create some sounds for his new production, Forbidden Planet. From the start, MGM had only anticipated that the Barrons would contribute a small amount of special sound effects to accompany a standard orchestral score by an established composer, but having persuaded Schary to give them access to a print of the film, the Barrons came back six weeks later with a complete electronic soundtrack.
They created quasi-Wagnerian leitmotivs for the alien creatures that beset the astronauts on the planet of Altair IV by building different circuits based on the cybernetic principles outlined in Wiener’s book, Cybernetics. Their idea was to create electronic circuits that would act as though they were alive, like ‘organic’ entities, based on the feedback principles of self-organising cybernetic systems. In the original draft of Forbidden Planet’s screenplay, the idea had been that the aliens – ‘monsters from the id’ as they are called – would never be seen, so in a very real sense, the Barrons’ ‘organic’ circuits were the alien monsters; their only phenomenal manifestation. But what the Barrons found was that these circuits were actually enormously unstable and tended to breakdown in rather dramatic fashion – and it was these sounds, what Bebe Barron would later describe as the sound of a machine having a ‘nervous breakdown’, that formed most of the soundtrack to the film.
Robotics engineer Daniel H. Wilson is the author of eight books, including How to Survive a Robot Uprising, and Where’s My Jet Pack. His novel Robopocalypse was bought by DreamWorks and is being adapted for the screen by Steven Spielberg. His new book, Amped, is set in a scary near-future world, where humanity and technology clash in superhuman ways. Daniel H. Wilson’s filmic alter ego is Dave Lister from Red Dwarf. Eithne Farry
Amped is out as paperback (£7.99) in the UK from 12 September 2013, published by Simon & Schuster.
Look, choosing an alter ego is an exercise in wish fulfilment. So isn’t it natural to choose a person who indulges in all the things that you don’t? Maybe someone who represents a version of yourself that you could never actually allow yourself to be? It’s an alter ego, after all, right?
What I’m trying to say is, ‘Please don’t judge me.’ Because if I could be any sci-fi character, I’d be Dave Lister from the television sitcom Red Dwarf.
As the sole survivor of a radiation leak on board of the Red Dwarf mining ship, Dave is like the only kid in a deep-space candy store. Unlike his rather more accomplished colleagues in the sci-fi canon – from Captain Jean Luc Picard to Commander William Adama – Dave gives not the slightest pretence of being a space hero.
Instead, he’s just a guy who really appreciates Indian food and a tall boy of cheap beer. Dave has got no deadlines, no responsibilities, and free access to all the Better-than-Life video games you could ever hope to play.
Beer and video games forever? Ah, now that’s a space hero after my own heart.
Granted, having been in stasis for three million years means that everyone who Dave has ever known is now long dead. You’d think things could get pretty lonely, but don’t forget that the demented ship-board AI provides solid conversation; there is a hologram generator that can recreate a single (arbitrarily annoying) human companion at a time; plenty of incredibly long-lived androids and skutters are there to pick up after you; and a new race of very self-absorbed cat people has evolved.
How could you ever get bored?
Depending on your perspective, Dave Lister is living in either heaven or hell. I have a mortgage, a wife and two small children, and I haven’t finished a video game in years. The Red Dwarf mining vessel looks like heaven from where I’m standing.
More information on Daniel H. Wilson can be found here.
Daniel H. Wilson
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews