Sunday, December 31, 2006

Famous Guns of Filmland No.1

"Mac" lets rip with an M134 mini-gun in PREDATOR

Americans do have their obsessions, but then don’t we all? Sports and movies are right up there, but so are guns. And why the hell not? They’re lots of fun and in the movies, as with real life, people do pay attention when you point a gun. When a movie Director frames his shot of an athletic looking hunk pointing a powerful weapon, and then has the character brave what seem to us impossible odds … well, then you have movie magic! It is a fact that the availability of a new type of exotic firearm can excite the interest of a Producer every bit as much as a perfect new face or a sexy body. Gun designers and brokers clued into that addiction for cinematic firepower decades ago. There have been dozens of movies in which a kick-ass gun is actually a leading character. If you don’t have the Collector’s Edition of JACKIE BROWN, which includes Quentin’s bonus movie “Chicks With Guns”, brother you’re missing out ! Every so often I will choose a “personality gun” from one of the great action movies, and profile it here.

This color still is from an unforgettable scene in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s PREDATOR (1987). Now many of your friends will tell you that Jesse Ventura tore up the screen with a mini-gun in that picture, but it was actually “Mac” played by actor Bill Duke, who ripped up the jungle. Jesse usually posed with one of the two mockup guns, while lucky Bill got to light up “Ole Painless”, a genuine General Electric M134 mini-gun manufactured in the 1960s. The beast was purchased by Stembridge Gun Rentals in 1984 and earned starring roles in several of Arnie’s pictures. Stembridge maintained a vast arsenal because the studios require multiples of key guns be kept on the set. They cannot allow a costly crew to sit around waiting for the techs to repair a gun needed for a scene. This weapon, Serial N313, has been cast in many big films in addition to Predator, including Terminator 11, The Last Action Hero, Iron Eagle 111, The Matrix, and Broken Arrow.

It’s ‘real’ all right, but still a tricked out movie prop. M134s were designed for fixed mounting and are operated by a powerful electric motor which uses mucho juice, so a movie armourer installed a “slower” motor, rated at 1700 rpm. This would produce less torque. At full throttle of an issue M134 the actor wouldn’t be able to hold the weapon steady. The configuration you see in the photo includes a battery carried in the backpack and a prop set of blank firing rotating barrels. Muzzle blast was supplemented with a burning gas source. The weapon was further modified with a vertical pistol grip and an M60 fore stock. While incredibly interesting to look at, the Predator mini-gun would be tactically useless. For example, the length of linked ammunition which seemed to fill the backpack, would only sustain a burst of 3-4 seconds.

This M134 was offered for sale in 1999 for US$125,000. when Stembridge decided to close the gun rental side of their business. California was leading the nation in restrictive gun legislation, and the paperwork and security costs required to move such irreplaceable props around to movie locations became daunting. The display Ad noted “This gun has blank firing barrels restricted to make a nice flash. Included in the package are the electrics, a spare motor, several boxes of parts, a set of new barrels that are live, and some movie prop mounting equipment.” This tiger is now in a museum, but the mockup guns used in Predator are still in rental.

Stembridge Gun Rentals was older than many existing Hollywood studios. The company was formed in 1920 by James Stembridge and Cecil B. DeMille, to supply guns and blank ammunition to the movie industry. For decades its offices and warehouse were on the Paramount Lot. Then in 1999 the decision was made to auction off its inventory of thousands of valuable firearms, many of which were personality pieces used by the biggest Stars. Stembridge had kept records so detailed that in many cases guns could be traced to an actor, scene by scene. They are still "in the business", based in Glendale, California. Up here in Canada we can only look at photographs of such exotic technology and sigh. Tamer memorabilia from Stembridge’s glory days in Hollywood does turn up on EBay, such as empty cartons which once contained blank rounds. Hey, it's something!

Oh yes. Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Leos in Kandahar - the YouTube Phenomenon

Photo: Recovery of Canadian Sperwer Tactical Recon UAV in Afghanistan

Arguably one of the biggest stories concerning personal video in 2006 was YouTube. The growth in popularity of uploading homemade video to the Internet has been nothing short of explosive. It is the obvious creative outlet for film students and neophyte Directors who have a sound stage in the basement. YouTube is a concept that was only waiting for a convergence of technologies to really take off, not least of which is a muscular and affordable local ISP. We are there.

A huge Canadian news story this year was the strengthening of our military contribution to the war in Afghanistan, including the deployment of most of our Leopard tanks. The Leos were airlifted from Canada by chartered Ukrainian heavy-lift aircraft. We also purchased Nyala APCs from South Africa and delivered those directly to the war zone, where they have already saved Canadian soldiers from roadside car bombings. The YouTube site is filling up with amateur and professional video clips uploaded by devotees in "A-stan". One popular video clip, Leos at Kandahar, has already been viewed on YouTube over 24,000 times, which is an astonishing figure. Other clips available for download have such self explanatory titles as Tribute to Canadian Soldiers KIA in Afghanistan, and Canadian Ambushed and CF Dawn Raid on a Taliban Compound. Our troops may be motivated by esprit de corps, but clearly many Canadians are motivated by patriotism in their hunger for video of our deployed personnel and weaponry. Much helpful video sleuthing is being done by the thousands of members of another online community called MilitaryPhoto.Net. Its members inhabit most of the time zones, spotting and alerting each other within minutes of a good new video appearing on the net.

Of course the lighter side of war video is also a staple of YouTube. This genre includes many creative parodies of famous war movies. A few of those I have enjoyed include the cutesy Saving Private Lion and the extremely irreverent Apocalypse Now Recut - Fart of Darkness. I also found a buddy picture produced by a group of Swedish soldiers in a tank unit, who contributed a film called 9040 Bertil Down. It's their winter warfare parody (in Swedish) of Black Hawk Down. Unquestionably my favorite download of the year was and still remains, Alive In Joburg, Neill Blomkamp's hilarious spoof of Independence Day and the minefield of South African politics. Blomkamp is said to live here in Vancouver but his film, a sort of apprentice piece designed to showcase his CG talents, was distributed by Spy Films of Toronto. I actually get a higher quality download from the Google Video site, where it has enjoyed over 136,000 viewings, but several copies are available on the YouTube video jukebox. I seem to watch this film at least once a month because it's just such a hoot. Both movies deal with "alien" invasion. Nuff said!

V For VENDETTA - the two disc DVD

December 29, 2006

D.C. Comics tries to redact** our Popular Culture

It's much too late to review this film, but I was gifted the TwoDisc DVD set at Christmas, and my viewing impressions are still strong. I came away from V with the same distaste I get when I know someone is lying to my face, and thinks he is getting away with it. Though I am willing to give the movie a pass, Alan Moore - the writing side of the original British comic book team, disowned the film. He said in interview, "It's been turned into a Bush-era parable by people too timid to set a political satire in their own country." I see now why he was so upset. Moore is an honest creator, always giving credit where due. In discussing V's origins, the writer repeatedly acknowledged the heavy literary influence of the master political satirists Orwell, Huxley and others. He also understands that an audience hungers for metaphor and relishes the chance to catch the supporting allusions, just as much as we enjoy the creative genius of a new story idea. The Guy Fawkes premise was brilliantly conceived, although the original "guy", an angry Catholic conspirator, was motivated by revenge for religious persecution and not trying to trigger a political revolution. Alan Moore created V as a nihilistic terrorist, but the movie version of his superhero has V trying to foster resistance against an "illegitimate" government, the shrill cry of all Democratic Party activists in the America, including those in Hollywood, U.S.A.

V For Vendetta, the 26 episode comic book story, was conceived at the time Margaret Thatcher was elected to govern a country sliding into economic ruin and social chaos. Those electorally defeated in England writhed in fury, and denounced all reformist measures as heavy handed. They bitterly mourned the Nanny State which, as time revealed, was merely on vacation. (But it was Soviet propagandists who dubbed Maggie the "Iron Lady"). Alan Moore extrapolated a future in which a purely Fascist government is elected to power and then proceeds to crush all opposition with measures comparable to those George Orwell employed in his novel NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR. The words Fascism or Big Brother are never uttered in this film, although both are constantly on display as plot devices and sterile imagery. It becomes painfully obvious that this film is "product" and the producers would not countenance reference to ANYTHING which they did not have copyrighted ownership, or at least a lucrative contract for product placement. Thus the movie rapidly begins to succumb to the ravaging effects that the "Branding" model of business imposes on film production.

The film does of course have qualities to enjoy and admire. The Hugo Weaving performance is very sound and because the mask forces the audience to listen , really listen, the actor was given intelligent dialogue to deliver. The rapid-fire alliterative sequence was great fun. I particularly liked the fact that we the audience are asked to challenge the media's packaging of daily events and political ideas. "Do you think people will buy this? Therein lies the rub, because the producers of this Two-Disc DVD are even more deceitful than the government controlled media V savages in the movie. Is it irony or just gall?

A case in point is England Prevails: V For Vendetta and the New Wave in Comics, a documentary which appears on the second disc. Joel Silver, with thirty years as a Producer and with almost a hundred films under his belt including the MATRIX trilogy, sets the tone. This was his statement about reading the original V source material. "It was the first time I was aware of the phrase Graphic Novel. I had never really heard that before." Ohhh Reeeallyyy?

This short film is a deceitful serving of tripe and it does NOT discuss any "new wave", creative or ideological. It does though demolish the carefully scripted P.R. campaign built around the production of the feature film. England Prevails does not reveal anything about the comics industry in England during the tenure of neo-Conservatism government so despised by Alan Moore. The film merely serves to showcase the role of D.C. Comics in bringing the Alan Moore/David Lloyd comic series to a larger American audience, and of publishing the missing "third act". It serves no other purpose. Only D.C. Comics magazine covers, spanning the Silver Age to the present, are exhibited. A few original B&W pages from England are shown, but not the British magazine they were published in. No other publishers, creators or comics characters are discussed. In true Orwellian style, Paul Levitz, the current D.C. Comics Publisher, dismisses the 1980s upstart publishers as "fragile" and describes how his company rescued British creative talent. In fact the message is abundantly clear - "D.C. Comics Prevails" and will long abide. Messrs Silver and Levitz forget that a literate movie audience is constantly searching for cultural references in the story. We do smell a crafty rat when the big screen is scrubbed by corporate cleansers, and we would never grant the media giants license to redact our popular culture.