Tuesday, 25 September 2012

A great future behind us… Journey to The Far Side of the Sun (1969)

The passing of Neal Armstrong was a timely reminder for those of us who grew up in the 60s that the future is not what it was.

When Gerry Anderson was in his pomp, we were in a state of perpetual improvement: life was just going to get better and better. Technology seemed to make everything possible and…we were going to the stars. The Moon first, then Mars and then beyond… science fiction was close to fact and the race for space was going to help mankind put earthly conflicts to one side as looking back on our single insignificant planet of origin we finally realised that there was a greater destiny beyond our petty disputes.

Anderson’s puppet shows tracked the technological obsessions of the decade and got more and more confident as he progressed from Stingray to Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. In all three a global entity addressed world-wide issues whether private sector or quasi-governmental… There were global threats too, but these were just confirmation of our need to act in unity.

By the end of the decade as the Moon landing approached, Anderson was successful enough to finally be trusted with a human cast to accompany the breath-taking vehicles of Derek Meddings and co… These were the men who were making our imagined future happen now.

Journey to The Far Side of the Sun (Doppelgänger in the USA) was an attempt at 2001-style inter-spatial-commentary…a look at the inner human condition from the outer-reaches of space. When I first watched the film in the 1970s it left me disappointed because there were no *real* aliens and, whilst the story arc contained the same let down this time – too literal and thin a plot – there is more than enough to enjoy the film as a whole.

Like so many plots from the time, the film starts off with space administrators arguing over how to follow up the discovery of a planet beyond the Sun. The planet is in completely synchronised orbit with the Earth, same distance from the Sun, same vector and thrust… The director of EUROSEC, Jason Webb ( played with panache by Patrick Wymark) makes a passionate case to send a manned expedition but he struggles to convince the other World powers to fund it.

Ian Hendry and Patrick Wymark
A familiar story perhaps but it just feels a little mannered, as does the character of Dr John Kane (played by the excellent Ian Hendry … a year or two from being sorted out by Michael Caine in Get Carter) who is a scientist with doubts and dubious fitness to undertake this arduous exercise.

The breakthrough is achieved and with NASA’s help, a mission is prepared to be led by experienced astronaut Colonel Glenn Ross (Roy Thinnes, who gives a good performance as a man faced with his own destiny…literally).
Roy Thinnes

We go through the routines of training and preparation which gives Anderson the opportunity to show the futuristic craft that were his stock in trade. The scenes involving all of the craft are universally excellent as you’d expect, given a bigger budget than usual and his army of un-matched effects experts.
Lynn Loring

This is the best part of the film as the enterprise builds up momentum and we look forward to the surprise of just what is on our planetary double. It also provides Anderson with the chance to develop his human assets as well with details of space cowboy’s struggling marriage – partly undermined by his enforced infertility: the chance of irradiated sperm mutating was too high.
Lynn Loring – Thinnes actual wife – plays Sharon Ross and adds some uncharacteristic adult themes to Anderson’s film. Loring was featured in several nude scenes which were eventually cut, but she displays a very human sexuality in a series of contemporary almost there fashions…
Lynn Loring
He has a more sympathetic support from his colleague Lise Hartman, a EUROSEC official (Austrian actress Loni von Friedl) at the space centre… but it’s a sub-plot that’s never really taken anywhere.
The two men are pushed by Webb and it’s hard to see this as anything other than a per functionary attempt to create some tension. The story is pretty basic and might have made a decent hour-long episode of Thunderbirds but it feels a little stretched…

Eventually we have take off and the effects are genuinely special here, not quite a match for 2001 but still pretty good, founded in science-reality and not fantasy. The long trip in suspended animation ends as the space craft approaches the mysterious planet.

For some reason I didn’t catch, they crash land (all the more mysterious given the outcome…) and are rescued by a strange being in a metallic suite.

If you haven’t seen the film look away now…

The men are surprised to find their rescuer speaking perfect English and gradually it is revealed that they have landed on a world almost exactly like our own. Everyone they left behind has a counterpart here and all presume that they had turned the craft round and not completed their mission.

Roy Thinnes...  Mirror-World
It takes some time for the realisation to dawn that this is indeed another world and the exact reverse of Earth… a mirror in every respect with hearts on the right, clocks running counter and cars on the wrong side of the road.

Kane dies and Ross is left alone trying to convince the reverse Earth Jason Webb that he needs to be returned to his Earth and this will hopefully help his double to come home…

But, it is not to be and, for some spurious vaguely-scientific reason, the landing craft of this world won’t dock with the other Earth’s space ship and Ross crashes back down to another Earth.

Roy Thinnes
The film is grasping for some profound meaning here but it is a bit thin (sorry Roy…). Whilst getting tremendously excited about the need for and experience of space travel…it’s conclusion that there’s – actually – no place like home is disappointing. It doesn’t know what to do with itself…

That aside, the acting is sincere with Thinnes, Hendry and Wymark being especially impressive. It’s also great to see future UFO stalwarts Ed Bishop and George Sewell and, indeed, some of the kit from this film were reused in that series – a far more satisfying effort form Anderson and perhaps his best.

The great Ed Bishop
UFO was all about build up and action and never really resolved itself as a story… perhaps that was what Anderson did best. He certainly did it brilliantly!

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is now available on DVD and is well worth seeking out… but I think I’ll stick to my VHS copy... back to the future.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Lisztomania (1975)

Fiona Lewis and Roger Daltrey waiting for a train
Been a while since I braved the loft-archive, but last weekend I emerged with a very dusty off-tv recording of Ken Russell’s tribute to the soul and style of Franz Liszt.

Lisztomania was made in 1975 and came to my attention as a young teen still under the thrall of progressive rock (not that I was waiting to be saved by punk). The soundtrack was written by Rick Wakeman and I remember hearing him discussing the film on radio whilst some of the music was played.

I was especially impressed with his take on Liebestraum No. 3 and welcomed the introduction to this classical great… prog wasn’t entirely evil and genuinely helped open our minds to classical and other music outside the charts. The film sounded interesting but it was an 18 and my interest in cape-wearing synth players was on the wane so... I never got to see the film.

36 years on was it worth the wait or did I make the right call first time round?

Liszt naps with Little Nell (Nell Campbell)
Ken Russell was always a mixed bag of a director with a mix of cheese alongside genuinely original vision. Undoubtedly intellectual he often seemed to prick his own bubble with the outrageous and the unfathomable.

I was impressed with Women in Love, Mahler and even up to The Rainbow (a favourite DH Lawrence book anyway) but distressed by The Devils and unsettled in unfulfilling ways by Lair of the White Worm and other later works. I probably wasn’t understanding him clearly but the films seemed inconsistent in tone and almost slapdash collections of disparate imagery.
Lisztomania was the film Russell made after Tommy and is, for me, a mixed bag. It has some great set pieces early on especially Liszt playing in front of hundreds of screaming teenagers who call out for Chopsticks. But by the end things have deteriorated  as demons rape nubiles, a gun-toating Wagner declares war half a century too early on Europe and Liszt returns from Heaven to exact musical revenge on the composer who inspired the Nazis.
Rock icons...
Maybe Russell deserves a lot of credit for interpreting Liszt’s life in such a way, there are many elements of truth in the story, Wagner was encouraged by the older composer and did end up marrying one of his daughters, Liszt did tour Europe under the patronage of a Russian countess and his love life was certainly complicated… just not this complicated!

Lisztomania did exist as a term at the time as the virtuoso defined the possibilities of the piano in stunning live performances across the continent.
Sara Kestelman
Russell uses a pop star to play the star and Roger Daltrey does a reasonable job. He is rather outclassed by Paul Nicholas as the demonic Wagner as Sara Kestelman as his Russian countess (I saw her at the Donmar Theatre earlier this year and she is still a fantastic actress).
Liszt, Wagner and Thor the God of Thunder
Rick Wakeman plays Thor the Thunder God (who pisses in the fire place) and Ringo Starr, in an obvious piece of typecasting, plays the Pope…
Pope Ringo
The story is heavy on sexual imagery, the Countess’ house has phallic pillars whilst Liszt has an hallucinated ten foot phallus chopped off as the metaphorical quid pro quo for being able to focus on his music thanks to her patronage as he took holy orders…

You keep on asking yourself is this necessary? Isn’t there another way?
So it goes until Wagner turns really bad and is annihilated by the virtuous tunes of Liszt and along with his lovers and daughter, the composer descends on war-torn Europe in a heavenly spaceship.

It definitely means something but it’s hedging its bets. Russell did brash and entertaining and my teenage self would have laughed like mad at this film. I’m glad I watched it but I just had the feeling he could have done it better… and that’s my over-riding reaction to many of Ken Russell’s films after this point.
Flying muses...
Crimes of Passion proved that he could still make good films and he is undoubtedly one of the leading British director's of the last half century.

Lisztomania is now available on DVD and is worth watching as entertainment. It might make more sense though if you know about Liszt, Wagner and the influence of classical music on nationalist thinking in the last century.