Half-Arsed: Phase IV (1974)

If, like me, you only had a passing knowledge of Saul Bass, and didn’t know he directed a feature film about hyper-intelligent ants, you’re gonna be curious about that film, now it’s on Netflix, so scope it out. If you have no idea who Saul Bass is, and you’re wondering why I’m gonna talk about an obscure seventies film, let me fill you in.

Saul Bass is known for being a Title Designer, a.k.a. he did the opening credits, and his work is phenomenal. Here’s an hour long video of title sequences he created, here’s a nice video essay about his career, and just for the sake of it, here’s my favourite of his title sequences (and here’s my favourite Saul Bass-inspired title sequence). I’m not gonna spend this whole piece fawning over Bass, but these are the reasons I was excited to see the film, also because Edgar Wright recommended the film in this video, so it was almost automatically written down in my “stuff to check out” list.

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Phase IV is a fascinating film, I would personally describe it being a cross between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jaws (which Phase IV predates by a year). Two scientists team up to study a hyper-intelligent ant colony in Arizona, and after telling a local family to evacuate, they blow up the obelisk-like ant hills. After this, things go to shit, the family didn’t evacuate, so the ants descend on them, they try to flee, but get caught up in the scientists spraying poison from their outpost, only the daughter survives. One of the scientists is bitten after the surviving girl tries to kill the ants that the scientists were experimenting on, the other scientist starts to explore communication with the ants. The ants become immune to the poison, and build mirrored ant hill to heat up the scientific outpost.

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From there on out, it descends into a man vs. nature struggle, they try to radio for a helicopter, but ants got in the right circuit board, they fix the air conditioning, and use sound equipment to destroy some of the ant-hills, but the ants destroy the air-conditioning, thus making their equipment overheat and useless during the heat of day. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but it doesn’t end exactly how you’d expect it, and that’s very refreshing in this day and age. This film sells the concept of hyper-intelligent ants that want to destroy humans, by showing you shots that wouldn’t look out of place in a David Attenborough documentary (Ken Middleham who was credited with ‘Insect Sequences’, was a wildlife photographer, who also worked in documentary). Phase IV shows us ants dragging a chunk of poison to the queen, so she can create new poison immune ants, it shows use dead ants lined up, as if the ants had to take inventory of the dead, it’s amazing to look at the visual storytelling of this film being used to humanise wee creepy little ants. There’s a scene in this movie where an ant is chewing a wire in the air conditioning unit, and as the audience we’re like “oh no, he’s gonna break it”, but then a praying mantis appears, and kills the ant, oddly making the audience breath a sigh of relief at the sight of a praying mantis, but another ant comes along and pushes the praying mantis onto the circuit, causing the thing to short-circuit and catch fire. It’s bananas. If you think of this as a fucked-up sequel to A Bug’s Life, it makes both films better, so there’s that.

This film scratched an odd itch for me, as I’m one of those people who find themselves enamoured with Zardoz, it’s hard to find obscure sci fi that I like. It’s a weird rabbit hole to find myself down, I watched Barbarella not that long ago, and I’ve been slowly reading Danny Peary’s writing on cult sci fi films, so if you’ve got any lesser-known sci fi recommendations (films/books/comics/whatever), gimme a shout.

Half-Arsed: The Breakfast Club (1985)

I have a nice history with The Breakfast Club, as a teenage boy who hung around other teens (boys and girls), this movie was almost inevitable viewing for us after a night of underage drinking. Memories of trying to find a comfy space to sleep on my mates floor, as an eclectic group of teens turned their attention towards a film, older than all of us, that taught us how to be a group of eclectic teens. As a film I’ve only viewed twice in my twenties, yet easily thirty times during my formative years, I may have underestimated the impact this film has had on my life and my creative style.

If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you go and watch it, it’s recently been added to Netflix, and I’ll be talking about specific scenes, so it will help to watch it.

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Example of ‘singles’

A few days ago, I watched this film for the first time in years, fortunately those years have imbued me with a greater appreciation for film and it’s component pieces. The first thing that struck me when re-evaluating The Breakfast Club, is it’s use of ‘singles’ and ‘ensemble staging’, while these could initially seen as way to overcome the fact that most of the movie takes place in a single place, the school library, the use of singles especially bring the audience into the character space. The term ‘Character Space’ may seem a tad wanky/pretentious, but it’s a quick easy way to differentiate the camera placement, as the singles tend to place the camera between/amongst the characters interacting, as the ensemble shots are outside the character space, viewing the characters rather than being amongst them. The use of these singles in the character space put the viewer in the conversation, making the experience feel more active, increasing the empathy we feel for these characters. The use of the longer (wide) ensemble shots serve as establishing the characters in relation to each other, giving us a read on their overall body-language, which you might say “well duh” to, but it’s very important. Body language can be broken down and analysed like any other language, but as we perceive body language throughout a movie, it’s more instinctual and subconscious, when we see a young couple holding hands, we think “oh that’s a young couple”, not “they must be a young couple because they’re holding hands”. When we see the iconic shot of the detention group sitting on the floor in a semi-circle, we just see a bunch of teenagers sitting on the floor, but this is the lowest point for the characters in the movie, they don’t have desks to act as barriers between them, the facade of their characters fall, and they start to see each other as equals, now that’s pretty poetic for a bunch of teen film stars sitting in a library.

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Examples of ‘ensemble staging’

The message of the film as always stuck to me, don’t let your environment or others dictate who you are, crystallised in the relationship between John Bender (Judd Nelson) and Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald), Bender stands as a poor, abused, bad boy, while Claire stands as the rich, privileged, good girl. Bender sees her as his enemy, he acts like an utter dick to her, and she see’s him as lesser than her, until they both realise that they both think that their life is shit, they both realise they didn’t ask for this life, and both hate their parents. As an adult, I find it hard to find the character that “is me”, of course when I was younger I was Bender, but less disadvantaged, but now I’m drawn to Ally Sheedy’s character (without the conventional transformation), or I’m the janitor, the active observer that falls out with the power structure of the story, just there to remind the other characters what’s important, perspective. The film opens with a quote from ‘Changes’ by David Bowie “And these children that you spit on / As they try to change their worlds / Are immune to your consultations / They’re quite aware of what they’re going through”, then that quote explodes into glass, reaffirming the teen rebellion that this film epitomises, breaking away from ideals laid out by parents, teachers, and our peers, teaching us to look inwardly for the answers, rather than being told who you are, you define who you are.

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On a personal note, I’m incredibly reassured after re-watching this eighties-ass masterpiece, as I am unemployed, and slightly aimless, it’s been helpful to reflect inwardly. Setting out to build this website, and try to grow an audience is fucking scary, much like how I viewed adult life as a teen, this is why I’ve chosen The Breakfast Club as the first film to write about in this series, as this is me taking my first steps into a new world, trying to be noticed on the internet. If you ignored me earlier and didn’t watch this movie, do yourself a favour, watch it, and do a bit of reflection, it’s good for ya.

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