Tuesday 15 May 2007

Hammer Classic All Nighter

Four Sided Triangle (1953), directed by Terence Fisher / Stolen Face (1952), directed by Terence Fisher / Spaceways (1953), directed Terence Fisher / X: The Unknown (1956), directed by Leslie Norman / The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), directed by Val Guest

Despite the otherworldly video game simulations presented prior to the Hammer Classic All Nighter, the selection of films procured by the Sci-FI London crew demonstrated a particular concern with this world and some of its problematics. Cloning and social engineering have been hot issues for most of the latter half of the 20th century and remain so today; ambition and unrequited love have plagued mankind over more extended periods of time. In comparison, eight hours of film seems a small price to pay for these striking themes and, as festival director Louis Savy noted, the screening was cheaper than a hotel.

To begin by summarising the films, then: the first of the evening was Four Sided Triangle, wherein an enduring love triangle is squared away by cloning Lena (Barbara Payton), the object of two childhood friends-cum-scientists’ affection. Unfortunately, the duplication plan backfires: the clone exhibits not only Lena’s love for the lucky Robin (John Van Eyssen), but also her opinion on suicide: having never asked to be born, she feels she has a right to die. Scientific to the end, our dark hero Bill (Stephen Murray) experiments further by erasing the clone’s biased memory. In the process, complications in the lab cause a fire that consumes Bill and his false Lena. The true Lena escapes to Robin who has but a small doubt as to her identity. The tragic ending suggests that there is more danger in the things you desire than in the things you fear.

Stolen Face is another film that manipulates a woman in order to satisfy the urges of the scientist. Now, our doctor is a pioneering plastic surgeon involved in a scheme to change prisoners’ faces so that they may more easily modify their behavior. While on vacation, the doctor falls in love with an engaged pianist and, upon his return to London, he transforms his first patient into the mirror image of his impossible amour. He marries her in testament to the success of the experiment. But the beauty proves to be only skin deep, and the young prisoner is swiftly back to her life of crime. The conflict here is once again solved by killing off the experiment, embodied in the new woman. This film cautions against shallow solutions to deep social and psychological problems, but also supports the assumption that people are static and act independently of their environments.

In the next film, a prominent poster of a man with several measuring instruments boasts the inscription, ‘Man is not lost’. Spaceways portrays a group of astronauts endeavouring to locate humanity in the midst of the stars. A star American astronaut heads up the team, which soon deteriorates in the grips of a spy infiltration. The American’s wife runs off with the spy, and the American is left to defend himself against charges of murder. A beautiful young mathematician and a pesky detective assist him in proving his innocence. This film, too, ends with the death of the errant wife.

In X: The Unknown, an intelligent life form that reverses human understandings of thermodynamic principles arises from the belly of the earth to feed on radiation. Instead of turning mass into energy, this creature turns energy into mass. In its compounded search for new sources of energy, it inadvertently burns – even melts – everyone in its path. The film fits in with a dystopian vision of the atomic age. The heaving precursor to The Blob (1958) is eventually neutralised by a professor using sonic energy.

The Quatermass Xperiment seems more like an experiment in convincing filmmaking than a work of SF. Sent out into space with a team of three, a rocket falls to the earth holding but one astronaut. There is no trace of the others, but no way they could have escaped. This leads to the discovery of an immaterial ambient intelligent life form that seeped into the ship and inhabited the bodies of the two missing astronauts. Apparently because of lack of nourishment they could not survive, but once on Earth the remaining astronaut’s possessed body demonstrates the capability to morph with other carbon life forms, most notably a cactus that eventually overtakes his arm and serves as a deadly weapon. At this point EVERYBODY FALLS ASLEEP. Who could blame us? Free coffee, tea and energy drinks only go so far. We all woke up, disillusioned, to find the DVD menu on repeat – even the projection assistant had dozed off.

A subtle investigation into the themes of these films presented in a chronological order highlights a process of internalisation of danger, and thus of problem-solving. In the first films, Stolen Face and Four Sided Triangle, the danger is something that comes out of concrete experimentation and creation. The act of creation, through its underlying process of externalisation and objectification, is what initially draws boundaries between inside (thought) and outside (product). Later on, the enemy or the danger we are presented with is not created but encountered, pre-existing, albeit in the farthest reaches of the galaxy. With X: The Unknown, the mysterious enemy comes from much closer: it still arrives from the far away center of the earth, but has shared a planetary history with humans and can affect all of them equally. This is in striking contrast to preceding outer space movies, where our heroes – mostly thirtysomething white males – have been specifically selected, trained, and shot into ‘the final frontier’. The enemy has stepped over the frontier and invaded home territories. Finally, in The Quatermass Xperiment, the danger inhabits the body of a loved one. This series of mutations, which took over sixty years for Hollywood and American B movies to accomplish (culminating with David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) – known in the US as They Came From Within), takes place in just over six years at Hammer.

Why are these films so addictive? Kitsch value on its own does not lead sane people to sit through five films of any kind in a row. Nor is the naïve manipulation of cinematic tropes, such as the overperformed montages and the novelistic introductory narratives, enough of a dislocation to prove engaging. Even the righteousness of the scientists as they explain things to the laypeople, and the smatterings of benevolent sexism, are not wholly original. Perhaps these films demonstrate a responsibility to science, which includes and is predicated upon a sense of responsibility ‘to ourselves and others’ that science be used only for the common good. The implicit possibilities for evil that become retroactively apparent imply a necessity for continued reflection throughout the process of research, development, innovation and invention. For science is always already a social and political process.

Much of the action in the Hammer films takes place outside of the lab. The science has real consequences. Thirty years ago, the molecular biologists who launched the era of biotechnology harboured fears about the potential consequences of their new science, and developed a set of foundational guidelines for biotechnology practice. The conceptual core of these rules was the premise of containment. Containment became a steadfast guarantee that whatever happened in the lab stayed in the lab. Today, this idea is no longer a possibility. Similarly, a distinction between contained science and applied science has proven to be a blurred, unnatural opposition. Yet many of the institutions assessing science today are still premised on a confidence in the possibility of containment. Viewing Hammer films now situates science as something that is out of the lab – physically, conceptually, politically and ethically – and forces us to treat it as something very much of this world.


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Resources

The Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival

Internet Movie Database
IMDB - does exactly what it says on the tin

BFI
British Film Institute’s Finest

BFI’s Sight and Sound
World cinema eating its heart out

They shoot pictures, don’t they?
Dedicated to the art of directing

Barbican Film
Some of the most innovative films in town

ICA Film
Independent, political and art-house gorge-fest

National Media Museum
Not nearly as bad as it sounds

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