keeping you in the dark:
the Looniverse

director Saul Bass, 1974

A very interesting movie, you can bet.

Must have been a very interesting production as well. Much of it looks, to me, like blown up from 16mm; especially with the huge close-ups of those ants it couldn't have been done otherwise, anyway.
The footage of the ants must have been shot by the guy who made The Helstrom Chronicle, a playing hard-to-get movie which I saw at the San Sebastián, Spain, Film Festival in the early 1970s. It featured a long-haired hippie-type professor telling us about the insect world and how it was pretty sure to beat us at the game. A nice gimmick was that, at the end, they gave away that same professor really was an actor, but that didn't change the facts none. Looked like a typical television documentary of the times—very nice. Both well-done and rare. Those extreme close-ups are extremely hard to do. You have to use enormous lens extensions which eat light; and when you have make camera pans, it's incredibly difficult to keep them smooth.
Rather getting off the well-beaten track, one of the characters whose lifelines have touched mine was Jungle Jimmy, when he visited Holland while we were still living there. He was a friend of Ira Landgarten (who made the titles for Cosmic Comics and also a drawing of my person, we'll go into the rest some other time) and who was more or less living at our Scheveningen place then. Jimmy walked into the place and right away offered Ira a pastrami sandwich, which he'd brought from New York—almost brought tears to Ira's eyes... Jungle Jimmy was an animal trainer, who, among many other things too numerous to mention here and now, had worked at the New York RKO Radio City Music Hall christmas show, O.C.C. (officer in charge of camels). He sat there blowing a joint in the stables underneath the stage, when a director came down to chew him out, because the exhaust fan was blowing the fumes right past the line of Holiday visitors waiting for their chance to get into the theater. At which point Jimmy took out a Polaroid showing him and one of the camels—it was difficult to say who was the stoneder of the two.
Anyway, Jimmy also told us about how he had once worked for a guy who was approached by a Hollywood outfit that needed lots of ants. As it was mid-winter, these were hard to come by. What they finally did was contact a man who used to advertise with mail-order "Uncle MiltonAnt Farms"; Edmund Scientific used to carry them in their catalog as well. A service like that is still around. The man was as good as his word and shipped over truck loads, train loads and shiploads of ants. He got them from Hawai´ (where they must have been relieved to get rid of them—and even get paid for it).
I wish I could finish this little anecdote with a couple of joyful remarks about how Jimmy went on to start a goat-farm in Florida, which is true enough, but that story ends too sad to relate it in full here. Not the proper place anyway; just to grab the opportunity to remark on how small, small, small, small the world of show biz is.
Just to kvetsh a bit, one of the most important shots in the film doesn't make it. There just was no plotter available at the time that could draw a circle, so when this just has to be shown, Saul is obliged to cut away from the essence, the very moment of meeting of the circle arcs. Which, inevitably, he does too late, when it's already too painfully obvious East and West will never meet... Shows you how much he was ahead of his time. Now, even we have had a plotter around for a long time that can do it—the Mutoh Intelligent Plotter. (We also have a Beseler Motorized Agitator and a Westcott Flexible Stainless Steel Ruler.)
Another problem is with the shot where a body gets eaten by ants. Necessarily, it's speeded up but that doesn't make it: You see those ants shooting around like maniacs on speed.

Leininger. Leininger versus the Ants must be one of the most widely read science fiction stories ever, and a very good one too. I first read it when I was ten years old or so, and am ashamed to confess I don't know who wrote it. Positive it's in my collection somewhere but can't find it. Anyway, of course Phase IV contains a reference to it; very satisfactory.
Color Jokes. Apart from the expectedly strong graphic compositions to be admired in the cinematography of this one, keep an eye out as well for the many color jokes. Like when the ants get sprayed with a yellow insecticide, with result the next generation to attack is yellow.
Acting. I have read many disparaging remarks on Saul Bass as a director of actors, but cannot agree. The thing about this movie is, to me, that the acting is purposefully very subdued. No hysteria, which makes the intellectuality of the human reaction against the ant threat come over very strong. There are one or two things I cannot understand, like an actor rather emphatically starting to rub his arm as if it itches, which leads nowhere as far as I can see. (That must have been thrown in the cutting room waste-bin.)

Main Theme & Message
Nobody ever mentions this. You can read about how Phase IV starts where 2001 left off and all that, and it's true enough. Then again, it is written up as a science-fiction film where the very fact that the suspense is so subdued makes it becomes really powerful. But what the film really is about, to me, is the danger of preferring to use emotion rather than intellect.
The Ants are a fascist threat; they hold the attraction of the Mob. It is the scientific intellectualism, ratio that tries to save us from that, and fails, sadly and frighteningly: Only a pair of lovers finally survives and succumbs to it.
This is one of the main problems with Art versus Science, and I am sure that Saul Bass was very well aware of it. Art is emotional and can be very rewarding; but emotions always carry the potential danger of leading us down the path that leads back to the animal kingdom. That last shot, where the pair of lovers emerges from the darkness to join the ant society, is very cynical indeed. Extremely powerful and scary.
I wish I could put this better, but can't. It's all there in the film—a masterpiece that almost backfires.
How I wish there had been more Saul Bass features.
But Saul himself (and nobody ever mentions this either)
thought directing was a terrible job.
I tend to agree.

Phase IV
The ants go marching one by one, until the desert is overrun, in this provocative science-fiction story about ecological disaster in Arizona and how the area's ants band together to attack people. Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy star.
VHS 86 min. DVD U.K. Canada

   What I like?
If you still haven't gathered from the above how and why I kind of like this movie, is it of any use to go on telling you so?

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