Saturday, April 21, 2018

Dark City (1998) Existentialist Noir from The Twilight Zone

Beware of Greeks bearing imaginative movies.

Director Alex Proyas along with two other writers Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer have created a brilliant metaphorical Neo Noir Film about being, life, and essentially an ultimate Noirsville. The film is a high point in the art of studio/stagecraft. The premise of the story in Voice Over, (if you saw the theatrical cut) goes like this:

"First there was darkness. Then came the strangers. They were a race as old as time itself. They had mastered the ultimate technology. The ability to alter physical reality by will alone. They called this ability "Tuning". But they were dying. Their civilization was in decline, and so they abandoned their world seeking a cure for their own mortality. Their endless journey brought them to a small, blue world in the farthest corner of the galaxy. Our world. Here they thought they had finally found what they had been searching for."

The knowledge of their immanent demise has driven them on an odyssey across the universe in search of an elusive something that will save them. When they reach Earth they discover our curious race of beings who individually possess "souls" that spiritual or immaterial part of a human being regarded as immortal. Immortality is what they desire.

The "soul" is a concept that they can't quite grasp, so they "borrow" a sample population of humans whisk them off planet and construct with their reality machine an elaborate experiment, a pseudo flat "Earth" floating out in the void of space that consists solely of the Noirish-Hopperesque mega sized entity "Dark City," cloaked in perpetual darkness and mostly devoid of water.

The alien hive mind has an aversion to both light and moisture. The humans they have trapped in their rat maze are "tuned" every twelve hours. The aliens, who actually inhabit the human dead using them as "vessels," shut down the world and conduct various experiments on their captives. They steal their individual memories and lives and swap them back and forth, back and forth, with others, so nobody knows who they are any more. By interchanging all these individual memories and lives within the human population of their experiment group, they hope to create in effect a sort of artificial hive mind similar to their own and by doing this, hope to isolate the elusive "soul." The hope of isolating this "soul" is the drive of the extraterrestrials and it's possession key to their immortality.

Dr. Schreber -  he betrayed his own race

Dr. Schreber: I call them the Strangers. They abducted us and brought us here. This city, everyone in it... is their experiment. They mix and match our memories as they see fit, trying to divine what makes us unique. One day, a man might be an inspector. The next, someone entirely different. When they want to study a murderer, for instance, they simply imprint one of their citizens with a new personality. Arrange a family for him, friends, an entire history... even a lost wallet. Then they observe the results. Will a man, given the history of a killer, continue in that vein? Or are we, in fact, more than the sum of our memories?

All the humans in the experiment do not even know where they are from, all that memory has been erased, all they know is the city.

Possibly, though I haven't seen it myself, the directors vision, his version of the film would start here.

The film opens with the depiction of this vast megalopolis Dark City. We see Dr. Schreber, the "mad scientist", a human who has betrayed his own kind. The mad scientist/doctor was used also in Classic Film Noir in the films The Man in Half Moon Street (1945), Decoy (1946) and maybe others. Dr. Schreber takes out his watch and as the second hand hits 12:00 O'clock everything in the city "shuts down." the cars, the buses, the trains stop dead in their tracks. All the humans wherever they are, walking on the street, sitting on stools in diners, driving cars, sitting at diner tables, etc., etc., fall down into a very deep sleep.

The Twilight Zone quote credit sequence

After the credits our tale begins with an experiment gone bad. In a nondescript sleazy hotel, a man eventually identified J. Murdock wakes up naked in a tub of water with no memory of how he got there. This amnesia trope quotes a number of Classic Noirs, Spellbound (1945, Somewhere In The Night (1946), Black Angel (1946), Crack-Up (1946), Deadline at Dawn (1946), High Wall (1947), The Crooked Way (1949), and The Clay Pigeon (1949) also Neo Noirs The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Mister Buddwing (1966),

A dive hotel

John Murdock (Rufus Sewell)
A series of quick cuts moves us along the narrative, he gets out of the tub, looks in the mirror, puts on the clothes that are draped upon a chair. He walks out into an alcove, he sees a suitcase with the personalized letters H.K. He opens it. He spots a postcard for a place called Shell Beach among the clothes. He puts the postcard in his jacket.

The ring of the phone jarringly breaks the silence. A caller announces he's Dr. Schreber and he tells Murdock that "they" are after him and to leave immediately. He doesn't understand. He moves further out into the bedroom. He sees a dead woman on the floor beside a bed. Waking up with a dead body trope is used in The Dark Corner (1946), Dead Reckoning (1947) and of course it's exactly the same premise at the start of The Hard Goodbye aka Marv's Story in Frank Miller's Sin City series of graphic novels pub in 1991 and in screen treatment (Sin City (2005)).

The dead woman has weird spirals carved into her flesh. These Fibonacci spirals, here and during the opening credit sequence, reminds you also of the "hypno wheel" spirillic illusion cast by the offset cone in one of the classic opening credits sequence of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone TV Series (1959–1964). Two 1959 Spanish horror films, The Vampire’s Coffin and The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy, were presented with a new innovation added by K. Gordon Murray, an American producer called “Hypnoscope,” In a four-minute filmed introduction preceding the show, a disembodied voice speaking over an endlessly looping hypnotic spiral explains that “you may feel yourself changing from the gentle person you are, to a monster....." (Death Spirals a History of the Hypnotic Horror FilmThe "hypno wheel" was also used in The Hypnotic Eye (1960) as a segment of  the "Hypnomagic" part of the film and it appears again in Ray Dennis Steckler's The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? (1964)

Spirals also symbolically represent the format of a timeless basic building block, a foundation of ever evolving life, repeated ad infinitum, on entities across a spectrum as diverse as our fingerprints, a flower, a pine cone, a sea shell, a hurricane, to the galaxies. We see hints of the spirals throughout the film in iron work, in patterns, on stairways.

Murdock jarred by the sight, knocks a knife off the dresser, it's covered with blood. He flees the room just before "The Strangers" arrive. The Strangers reanimate the dead bodies of humans. They dress in black long floor length coats that resemble robes. When out and about in their city they also wear fedoras. Murdock runs down the stairs to the lobby.

Murdock flees
The Stranger "Mr. Hand" (Richard O'Brien)
Down in the hotel lobby the desk clerk awakens and tells him that the Automat called and that he left his wallet there. He heads out into the city. Its an extremely noirish elaborate set, a series of nocturnal Edward Hopper vignettes that astonishes, kudos to the Production Design by George Liddle, and Patrick Tatopoulos along with the Art Direction by Richard Hobbs and Michelle McGahey.

We cut to a lounge act in a seamy dark cabaret somewhere. A torch singer Emma Murdoch (Jennifer Connelley) is crooning a slightly off sounding, almost drugged out, slowed down version of an old standard "Sway" (first recorded in 1953). The actual singing was done by Anita Kelsey.

Torch singers appeared in Classic Noir, Ida Luoino in Road House (1948), Jean Hagen in Side Street (1950), Lizabeth Scott in Dark City (1950), Audrey Totter in The Sellout (1952), Anne Bancroft in Don't Bother To Knock (1952), Gloria Grahame in Naked Alibi (1954),  Barbara Hale in The Huston Story (1956), and probably a few others.

Emma back stage between sets receives a message also from Dr. Schreber who left his card. He wants her to cone down to his office because he has something important to tell her about her missing husband.

a hallway lit by creepy wall sconces

Dr. Shrebner's Lab.

The rat maze signifying the true nature of the city

Dr. Schreber tells her that John has lost his memory and that if he shows up she should call him. He could be dangerous. Meanwhile, back at the Hotel, the body is discovered and the police are called in. Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) is in charge of the investigation. He shows up in a Film Noir fedora and spouting hard boiled bon mots to the uniforms in the room. It looks like another prostitute murder.

There is a serial killer murdering prostitutes in the city, Noir Classic The Sniper (1952) was one of the first films to depict a serial killer. From the register he gets a name, J. Murdock,  now both the City Police and The Strangers are after him. While Bumstead and his men are investigating the room another man bursts upon the scene. He is Detective Eddie Walenski (Colin Friels) the former partner of Inspector Bumstead. He appears to be quite mad and has to be restrained.

Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt)

Murdock eventually finds the all night Automat. Meets a prostitute outside. Retrieves his wallet from a display and discovers something unusual when this is achieved through some type of mysterious force. On his way out of the Automat he is stopped by two uniform cops and is in effect rescued from their clutches by May the prostitute, who tells them he's her client.

Prostitutes were also a part of Classic Noir. Joan Benett in Scarlet Street (1945), Margo Woode in Somewhere In The Night (1946), Gloria Grahame in Crossfire (1947), Mary Astor in Act of Violence (1949), Cleo Moore and Nita Talbot in On Dangerous Ground (1951), Jean Peters in Pickup on South Street (1953), and Susan Hayward in I Want to Live! (1958).

May the hooker (Mellissa George)

May takes him back to her flop.

Emma is brought in to the city police headquarters for questioning about John, She tells Bumstead that he's been missing two weeks, he left when he found out that she was having an affair with another man. When Bumstead shows her a list of victims names she asks which one is John accused of killing? Bumstead tells her "all of them."

At May's flop May makes small talk with Murdock. He's sitting on the bed while she undresses looking through his wallet for clues. His drivers license tells him his name is John and his address.



Drivers License

John Murdock with all his new info about his identity decides to split leaving May alone. He heads back out into the city but he meets up with Mr. Hand and his men on the scaffolding of a billboard for Shell Beach. Here during the confrontation with The Strangers he again instinctively is able to use his new found ability to "cue" to evade them, apparently killing one of The Strangers "Mr. Quick" (Frederick Miragliotta) in the process.

With his home address in hand Murdock goes to look for his wife Emma.

The Strangers inhabit the bodies of dead humans even children...

The confrontation with Mr. Quick
The end of Mr. Quick

That a human has evolved the ability to "cue" has the hive mind of The Strangers in a panic. Mr. Book (Ian Richardson) the leader of The Strangers orders that both Murdock and Dr. Schreber be brought in.

In the subterranean bowels of the hive mind

Mr. Book (Ian Richardson)
The Strangers visit Dr. Schreber at his small sanctuary in the city, a public swimming pool, to ask him why Murdock can't be tuned and how did he evolve the ability to cue. The doctor tells them that it was a genetic mutation, and that this is what they are looking for, a human who can cue can save them from extinction.

Meanwhile Bumstead has been tailing Emma back to her apartment, and when John Murdock shows up he tries to make an arrest. John evades Bumstead by vaulting over a stairway railing.

another "spiral"
Murdock escapes, again involuntarily using his ability to que. When he finds that he's trapped in the basement of the apartment house, out of need and desperation. he wills/ques a doorway to appear in a blank wall. He opens it and makes his escape, the wall goes back to being blank. Murdock hails a taxi and is whisked off into the bowels of the city.

As Murdock is now immune to "tuning" he observes how The Strangers go about their grand experiment. Murdock explores the city. He watches it change as The Strangers rearrange it. He also realizes that there is never any daytime.

Bumstead in the meanwhile goes to visit Eddie Walenski. He has, like in his office at the police station, obviously become obsessed with the murder case. Papers and notes are plastered about an empty room. Eddie is feverishly scratching spirals on the wall. He too, has become immune to "tuning" and has observed The Strangers switching infrastructure and peoples memories around. He realizes that Dark City is laid out like a never ending spiral, and it's spirals that are consuming his mind. When he relates his "findings" to Bumstead. he thinks Eddie's lost his mind.

Walenski: I've been trying to remember things, CLEARLY remember things, from my past, but the more I try to think back, the more it all starts to unravel. None of it seems real. It's like I've just been dreaming this life, and when I finally wake up, I'll be somebody else. Somebody totally different!
Inspector Frank Bumstead: You saw something, didn't you, Eddie? Something to do with the case.
Walenski:There is no case! There never was! It's all just a big joke! It's a joke!

(This idea about dreaming your life, I first read about this in a head comix in the early 1970's, it was in one the issues put out by The Overland Vegetable Stagecoach Productions the creation of F. Shrier and Dave Sheridan. The comix book titles were The Balloon Vendor, Mother Oats and Meef and in one of them there was a tale that postulated that there was this alien race who lived on a distant planet that had a very slow rotation, which resulted in a nighttime that lasted 90 Earth years. The aliens would sleep and their dreams would be our lives, so we are just the dreams of aliens. These comix were either printed by The Print Mint, or the Rip Off Press.)

Eddie Walenski (Colin Friels)
The Strangers coerce Dr. Schreber to inject the mind of Mr. Hand with John Murdock's most recent memories on the theory that by having John's memories he'll be able to be one step ahead of him always.
Mr.Hand about to be injected with Murdock's memories

Murdock's Memories


Murdock asks humans about Shell Beach a seaside resort everyone knows it but nobody knows how to get to it. He takes The Green Line, a subway line that is supposed to go to Shell Beach, but he finds that the local train doesn't go there. At the 59th Street Station, all passengers are told to get off, a human tells him that only the express goes to the end of the line, but the express doesn't stop at 59th Street. Eddie Wallenski, is at that 59th Street Station also. He approaches Murdock and he tells him, almost confession like, all he knows about The Strangers. He states to Murdock that what makes humans different is that we have free will, and that he knows how to get out of the city. He then demonstrates/proves this by jumping in front of an express train.

Murdock continues his own investigations. From the postcard he carries he gets the address for his uncle Karl.  He calls on his uncle who lives above an aquarium. He visits his childhood room, where he lived after his parents were killed in a house fire. He watches a slide show with Uncle Karl, but he notices that a childhood picture of himself shows a nasty burn scar on his arm, which he doesn't have. He tells his "uncle" that those slides and memories aren't real.

nothing is real

Murdock continues to travel around the city. He watches as The Strangers cue the city to their various whims and schemes. Growing buildings by their sheer wills. He watches as they switch around the memories and life stations of various residents.

When Murdock meets up again with Dr. Schreber, he gives him an inadvertent display of his cuing power. Schebner is impressed.

Dr. Schrebner: You can make things happen by will alone.

Later Murdock and Mr. Hand meet upon a rooftop while The Strangers are cuing the city and they do battle amidst the reforming architecture.

Mr. Hand: Mr. Murdock you've been the cause of much distress.
Mr. Murdock: Start Talking...

 Murdock gets the upper hand putting a knife to Mr. Hand's temple.

Mr. Hand: There's no need for this. There's no escape. The city's ours. We fashioned this city on stolen memories, different eras, different parts, all rolled into one. Each night we revise it, refine it, in order to learn.
Mr. Murdock:  Learn what?
Mr. Hand: About you Mr. Murdock, you and your fellow inhabitants. What makes you human?
Mr. Murdock: What?
Mr. Hand:  We need to be like you.

As a roof peak shoots quickly up they are physically split apart again. Murdock meets up with Bumstead and Dr. Schreber and the three of them go looking for Shell Beach. They drive to the riverfront and take a rowboat as far as they can go. When they get to the end of the city they discover that Shell Beach exists only as a huge poster upon a wall. Murdock frustrated rips apart the poster revealing a brick wall.  Murdock and Bumstead begin to beat upon the wall and Murdock again inadvertently cues and explodes outwardly a hole right through it revealing only the dark void of deep space beyond.


"The City" looking much like a giant space mushroom

Shell Beach

A gorgeous film to look at.

Dark City stars Rufus Sewell (The Illusionist (2006)) as John Murdoch, William Hurt (Body Heat (1981), I Love You to Death (1990)) as Inspector Frank Bumstead, Kiefer Sutherland (Fallen Angels  TV Series (1993–1995), Melancholia (2011)) as Dr. Daniel P. Schreber, Jennifer Connelly (Once Upon a Time in America (1984), The Hot Spot (1990), Mulholland Falls (1996), Requiem for a Dream (2000)) as Emma Murdoch/Anna, Richard O'Brien (The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Flash Gordon (1980)) as Mr. Hand, Ian Richardson (Brazil (1985), From Hell (2001)), as Mr. Book, Bruce Spence as Mr. Wall, Colin Friels as Det. Eddie Walenski, John Bluthal (The Fifth Element (1997), ) as Karl Harris, Melissa George (The Limey (1999), Mulholland Drive (2001)) as May, Ritchie Singer as Hotel Manager / Vendor, Nicholas Bell as Mr. Rain and Satya Gumbert and Noah Gumbert as Mr. Sleep.

The cinematography was by Dariusz Wolski, Romeo Is Bleeding (1993), The soundtrack was by Trevor Jones (Angel Heart (1987), The Last Of The Mohicans (1992) and the Film Editing was by Dov Hoenig (The Last of the Mohicans (1992)).

The majority of the film was shot at Fox Studios Australia, and I must stress again how intricate, amazing, and believable the world that they created is. It hearkens back to the worlds created in the original Hollywood Studio Noirs but it goes light years beyond 90% of them in detail. The originals were basically low budget affairs and what they achieved was through the ingenuity and creativity of their studios and personnel. Here you have that creativity married to a substantial budget.They built fifty-five some odd different sets and shot on them in eighty days. Some work was also done in Los Angeles, California.

The Noir World they created with Dark City, is an amalgamation archetypes from every noir era and bits and pieces of every iconic noir city ever filmed. There's steam vapors arising from the manholes, subways, an Automat, New York City Bishop Crook streetlamps, London Underground signs, rotary telephones, checker cabs, seamed stockings, elevated trains, 40's through to 70s autos, The Los Angeles Globe on concrete post streetlights, Art Deco skyscrapers, suspension bridges, pull shades on windows, fire escapes, cage door elevators with operators, venetian blinds, moving billboards, neon, cobblestone streets with their peeling asphalt veneers,  etc., etc.,

Dark City was produced by New Line Cinema in conjunction with Mystery Clock Cinema.

The theatrical release had the opening voice over. The director's cut  released in 2008, preserved Proyas's original artistic vision for the film. The version I watched was the theatrical release DVD

Metaphorically you can have a heyday analyzing everything that comes at you in the film, if so inclined. John awakens in water. Life began in water. He's born so to speak in water. Humans are 60% water. The Strangers naturally have an aversion to water. When Murdock knocks over the goldfish bowl and saves the goldfish that is flopping around on the tiles he picks it up and places it in water. You can even run ahead of yourself.

At first, from the angle looking upwards, I assumed he put the fish in a toilet bowl. I thought to myself what an appropriately apt metaphor for a Noir tale, saved temporarily only to soon be fated to have a fifty-fifty chance of being flushed by the next human in the room. But no Murdock places the fish in the tub he just exited.

The Strangers aversions to water and light make them almost fungus like beings, they dwell in a cool, dark, faintly blue lit subterranean spirilic Dantean hell. They are living dead. Their abode the grave. They use the dead humans as vessels. Their only physical weapons are the blade, ornamental knives that can obviously be used to lacerate and penetrate the vessel.

In a cinema sense, The Strangers can be looked at as demented screenwriters writing and rewriting, the scripts and scenarios for their human actors.

The spirals can represent the search that all beings must make to understanding, and that search when done correctly is spirally boring ever inward. The Strangers are also on that spiral but their search of the spiral is in the wrong direction, the hive mind is starting in the center and the only direction it can go is outwards towards oblivion.

Curiously in these contemporary times, you can look at The Strangers as Trump, The Republican Party and Fox News trying to "tune" the narrative story of America to fit their wacky version of reality, it's a battle of our culture, no matter how many times they attempt to imprint through the media at their disposal, what are you going to believe? Them and what they on the "Alternate reality" right repeat ad nauseam, or your lying eyes. Dark City is a Noir Lovers wet dream, 10/10. Screen caps are from the New Line DVD.

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