Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Crack in the World

It's pretty incredible that I, at age 57, can vividly recall one-half of the soundtrack music (it helps that it is ponderously repetitious) to a movie I saw only once in a movie theater on Yokota Air Force Base, Japan, 45 years ago.  That movie is Crack in the World, filmed in Spain, released by Security Pictures, and just recently made available on DVD by Olive Pictures (no Criterion Collection treatment here).  My recall of so much of the music composed by John Douglas, who also scored Psycho-Circus and Bikini Paradise, says less about my remarkable memory (I am abnormally oblivious to most ordinary sensory perceptions and quick to forget what I do in fact take in) than about the impact this mid-1960s disaster movie had on my impressionable 12-year-old mind.

The movie is about a mad scientist, but suavely mad, as played by Dana Andrews, who has penetration issues.  He's apparently dying of hand cancer, and as the story starts he is in Tanganyika trying to cut a chasm to the earth's core in order to retrieve enough natural energy to fill the world's escalating  energy needs for the "foreseeable future"-- not exactly what the good folks at Exxon and BP would call "long term."  Andrews has been married for just a year to Janette Scott, almost 30 years younger than he and a scientist in her "own right."  They met at the university, where she took him for Thermodynamics.  She wants a baby ... now.  Andrews kids her about the fact that she's married to a very busy old man and raises the specter of her former lover, tall and studly Kieron Moore.  She responds, deadpan,
Stephen, for the umpteenth time, Ted Rampion is not my pin-up.  He's young, brilliant, dances divinely, and plays very good tennis, but he isn't the one I picked.  I picked you.  You're my husband.
(Yes, Janette Scott speaks in occasional italics.)

That Andrews' scientific efforts to drill a well to the earth's magma are largely symbolic on a psycho-sexual level is confirmed (for me) when the scientist demonstrates to a skeptical board of commissioners that a thermonuclear missile, aimed straight down the deep shaft Andrews and crew have already dug, would not shatter the protective volcanic crust, but rather burn neatly through it.  To demonstrate, Andrews lifts a ten-inch metal rod, white hot and aflame, and plunges it forcefully through plate glass.  Janette Scott's reaction shot at this point is instructive.

Through frequent self-treatment with x-radiation, Andrews has severely burned both his hands.  Scott thinks the inflammation is a bad rash and suggests a vacation:  "It's tension, it's psychosomatic," she coos understandingly.  This scene is played out in a bedroom, tastefully decorated with shelves of backlit igneous rocks and other geological specimens, where the couple sleep in separate twin beds.  Quite clearly this is a marriage already on the rocks.

This scene immediately precedes Kieron Moore's entrance--in a helicopter, from which he strides with manly confidence towards the camera.  This guy has played Count Vronsky and one of the 300 Spartans, so you figure "virile, handsome leading man" is not a challenge for this suntanned, brawny Irish actor, though years later he did play a guy named Chief Dull Knife in Custer of the West.

Moore and Andrews disagree over how safely a thermonuclear weapon can be used to tap the planet for lava and its boundless uses for technology.  Moore is of course right ... more to the point, he is right for Janette Scott, who intrudes on Moore's outraged you-are-playing-God resignation speech.  Forget for a moment that Moore unwisely has a photo of himself shirtless embracing his boss's wife on the beach, pinned inside his closet door.  Forget for a moment that Scott brazenly enters Moore's private quarters and offers to darn his worn-out socks:  "If the world is going to come to an end, at least you won't get caught with holes in your socks."  They are only doing what they have to do.  And the smoky theme music lets us know that these two belong with each other.

Not that music and sex were at the top of my mind at age twelve.  There were other things to like about this B-movie.  That it's set in Africa, for instance--continent where I was born (but to the north, in Libya), and home of Tarzan and Bomba,  my pin-ups since age eight.  Also, the special effects, cheesy by today's standards, were not half bad by 1965 (pre-2001, pre-Star Wars, pre-Blade Runner, pre-Avatar) standards.

Andrews' initial success with the rocket is quickly followed by disaster--pay attention, people, the movie is called Crack in the World!  What most impressed me back then was a scene in which a train is derailed by the crack and plunges into a ravine--a special effect surpassed in a similar train-wreck scene--tellingly, more for thrills than for a sense of human tragedy--in 2008's Wanted.  And when I watched the movie again today, I was struck by how precisely I had remembered it--even down to the briefly glimpsed panicked passengers' faces.  (How memory works--and fails to work--is a topic that has intrigued me ... um, as far back as I can remember.)

No, this movie is no great work of art--even by pre-2001 sci-fi standards.  But it's an interesting movie to watch if you're willing to read between the lines or, if like me, it reverberates as a particular memory from your past.  It's interesting to watch Dana Andrews deteriorate--as his downward-turning warhead unsurprisingly destroys the planet.  Soon after all hell breaks loose, we find him wheelchair-bound, in dark glasses, with both hands bandaged in his lap, a sort of impotent Doctor Strangelove figure.  A kid who devoured movies like When World Collide on TV and then as a middle-aged kid rushing to see 2010 just last year, I have a fascination with cinematic apocalypse.  That most of this movie's imagery is taken from stock footage--animal stampedes, cities ravaged by earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions--takes little away from my ability to have fun with it.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

All by Myself

My friend Mary once passed on this wisdom to me:  As you get older, you have to learn to be nicer to people.  Otherwise nobody will like you.

Surliness in youth is, if not exactly a plus, at least forgivable.  Dewy rose-petal lips remain pretty even when they pout.  Not so much in old age.  Being a cranky old guy gets you exactly nowhere.

But what if it's something you can't help?  I've always been an extreme introvert, and the older I get, my reluctance to get out and be with people--to pretend that I care about their grandchildren and their second mortgages, to eat their lemon bars and smile like sunshine just exploded up my ass, to bite my tongue when they speak of how important their personal relationship with God is--gets stronger and stronger.

The older I get, the more I start thinking, "I don't have time for this shit."

Increasingly, with age, I lose patience with people who can't be sexy, magnanimous, or fun--and preferably all three.  To my horror, this escalation is happening right as the world is producing fewer and fewer sexy, magnanimous, and fun people to befriend--and the tee-tiny few that remain do not all want to hang around with me.

Yes, I am learning to keep some opinions to myself ... or at any rate to reserve them for a select few (says the guy blogging near and far about his least likable traits).  The first rule in training a dog is to let him know that the world is better when he's close by you--and the principle holds no less for other people.

I enjoy being by myself.  I value my independence.  But I don't want to live my life alone either.  I need, in reasonable and regular doses, affection, sex, conversation, laughter, help, encouragement, and distractions.

I try to make my crotchetiness amusing, but as a college instructor I find that my phlegmatic dry humor works its magic on roughly a third of the 18-to-21 year olds it did just ten years ago.  Clearly, "my type" of people are thinning out--like black rhinos. 

I generalize, but the very young today are a prematurely jaded crew, who choose (perhaps with good reason) to drown their boredom and lack of job prospects in Hello Kitty, Miley Cyrus, teddy-bear-shaped sugar-frosted cereals, neon-colored plastic bracelets, whatever.  Theirs is a sunny, infantilized, ambivalent, and de-sexed world, for which we have, I suspect, televangelism, helicopter parents, political correctness, and AIDS to thank.  And I haven't a single thing in common with them.  Fortunately, I have never sought camaraderie in the classes I teach--though I have, rarely, unexpectedly, made some friends there.

So I nurture the friendships I have already, and steer clear of situations and confrontations that may jeopardize them.  At the same time, I avoid morons and kvetchers--and try to tread carefully when life forces me into their proximity.  I try to be careful in selecting the company I keep--it is the one area where I am a careful shopper.  I choose quality over quantity.  Or try to.

I am eager, delighted even, to meet almost anyone for the first time.  But I'm less inclined than I used to be to take the time to try to build relationships where there is no immediately apparent spark of simpatico.

I love my friends, near and far, actual and virtual, like a foodie loves truffles--for their rarity, for their rich comforting earthiness, for their unexpectedness, and for their hard-won-ness.  I may be as individual as a snowflake, happily unique, but it's not a snow day if there's only one flake out in the cold.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Things I Missed in France and Spain

 (Picture of me and my hosts Tim and Dave at the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, 16 July 2010,  photographed by our friend Milton.)

I missed my dog Tom Ripley (of course), the smart and sexy friends who did not travel with me (you know who you are), guacamole (and Mexican food in general), brisket, my books and DVDs, my Internet connection (and, thus, my blogs, MySpace, and Facebook), Reuben sandwiches, bacon-cheddar cheeseburgers, True Blood, air-conditioning (as needed).

What I did not miss:  political news, high fructose corn syrup, summer's high humidity, eroto-phobia (and the whole culture of gratuitous hangups about everything--usually involving other people's private business), smoke-free environments (and I don't smoke), blue laws, workaholism, grading student essays, Whole Foods, conformity, fear.

What I will miss now that I'm home: siestas, Coca-Cola with sucre/azucar, the Mediterranean, discos, having a swimming pool, architecture that matters, people congregating in plazas (etc.), cicadas, charming young pickpockets without shirts, Jupiler beer on tap, Carte D'Or ice cream (esp. vanilla, pistachio, and rum-raisin), the amazing colors at open-air markets and the dizzying variety of available goods at supermarkets (I will never believe the propaganda of how many more "choices" we have in the USA again), mojitos clotted with mint and lime wedges, children playing in the streets at midnight, dogs everywhere.

You Are Here

Snapshots of the Languedoc-Roussillon region of (southern) France and Barcelona, Spain, 25 June to 17 July:


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