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Vol.32 No.4 November 1998

Entertaining the Past, or “How Crime Does Pay”

Mike Milne

November 98 Columns
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At the beginning of 1969 — or perhaps it was at the end of the year before — I had been to see Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001, that had just opened in London. (Actually, I had been to see it several times. If you ever wonder what sort of sad person likes to sit and watch a three-hour film in which only five things happen, that person is me — although I draw the line at Andy Warhol films.) You might remember the famous dissolve between the prologue and the main film, in which a furry australopithecine, having co-opted an antelope’s femur to make the world’s first offensive weapon, and having put it through extensive field trials (murdering other antelopes), finally succeeds in beating off a rival hominid group from a disputed waterhole. In a moment of pure ecstasy and sheer look-at-me-ma-top-of-the-world triumph, the proto-human hurls the bone high into the air, and Kubrick’s camera follows it up as it tumbles lazily, end over end...

...and dissolves to a space station as it tumbles lazily in orbit a hundred thousand years later. It was one of those beautifully simple cinematic statements that are so beguiling to impressionable young men searching for the Meanings of Life, the Universe and Everything, a group to which I firmly belonged at the time — and, at the time, nothing was nearer to the forefront of our consciousness than the Space Race, which was in its last furlong as preparations were under way for the first moon landing in summer. Kubrick’s suggestion was that this brilliant achievement, the pinnacle of Man’s technological prowess, the culmination of centuries of advances in scientific knowledge and good old American know-how, the whole Mercury-Gemini-Apollo shooting-match was nothing more than that same ape-man, now with slightly less hair and a very swollen head, hurling into the air a giant metal bone — “Look at me, Ma! Top of the World!”

Yes, it’s simplistic, I know, but it I found it very satisfying — and I have to own up and say that I still do, every time I see the film again — and I guess that this satisfaction must come from the recognition that there is a core of truthful insight, however slender, at the heart of the metaphor. Incidentally, I don’t get the same thrill from the cinematically brilliant, but intellectually dubious, final sequences. Ah well, it was the ‘60s, after all. And as the ‘60s drew to a close, I found myself discovering my very own Profound Insight, my own mix-and-dissolve from Then to Now. Granted, it doesn’t have the tremendous scope, that traversal of the whole of human history in a hundred frames of celluloid — but it is personal, and ... well, it might actually be true.

In the early autumn of the same year, a couple of months after that Small Step for a Man had been ... er ... stepped, I found myself in Cuenca (the first one, that is, not the later one that was established in Ecuador). If you’re none the wiser, I’m not surprised — Cuenca is one of those unfortunate places that, however charming they might be, or however rich in historical tradition, somehow manage to remain totally unknown outside their own boundaries. I have even seen maps of the Iberian peninsular — produced by Spaniards in Spain — that more or less ignore Cuenca; so it’s no wonder that I, a callow youth in the slanting evening sunlight of three decades ago, had not heard of it either.

I had spent the summer as a disc jockey (probably the world’s worst) in a beach disco (probably the world’s most relaxed) on the southern coast of Spain, and now that I had run out of money it was time to head northwards to colder, but more lucrative, climes. And, for the penniless, what better way to travel than to hitchhike? (Well, almost any other way, actually — but none as cheap). In those days my thumb took me wherever I wanted (and many places I didn’t want) for practically nothing, save the gentle art of conversation; but it is a sad fact that nowadays, in both the U.K. and Spain (and the rest of Europe for all I know), hitchhikers are as rare as horse-drawn carts — I suppose it is the increased expectation of crime that keeps them off the roads. Appropriately enough, crime was the subject of the conversation on that day in Cuenca 30 years ago, when I awoke from a light doze in the cab of a wooden-sided lorry rattling through a small town that I didn’t recognize.

“Where are we?” I asked the driver, brightly, remembering two of the many golden rules of hitchhiking: don’t fall asleep (it’s an insult to the driver), and show an interest in the surroundings (which might be the driver’s home turf). “In the province of Cuenca” came the reply, leaving me nearly as ignorant as before — so I continued, just as brightly: “And what is Cuenca famous for?” The driver looked at me for a moment, and said: “Crime.” I think that a more wide-awake person would have been estimating the injuries that might be sustained when jumping out of the lorry at, let’s see, about 60 kilometers per hour — but I wasn’t that person, so I didn’t — “It’s the climate,” explained the driver, “it gets unbelievably hot in the summer, and very cold in winter — they say that, up in the northeast of the province, it gets so cold that the wolves come knocking at the front door. It’s no wonder that people just go crazy. Murders are common, and sometimes people wipe out their entire families!” At this point, I probably did start to feel a twinge of alarm — and asked, rather fearfully: “and er.. are you from Cuenca? By any chance?” “De pura cepa,” he said proudly, “pure Cuenca stock. My father was from Cuenca town, and my mother was from San Clemente. But when I was a child we lived in Motilla, and I can even remember when the storyteller used to come to town — us kids all used to run after him — that’s how we used to hear about all the crimes.”

Suddenly, I found that I didn’t need to feign interest any more — the idea of a storyteller was intriguing, and I wanted to hear more about him. Actually I didn’t need to ask — the driver was still talking: “We’d hear him as he came into town along the main road from the capital. He’d be calling out as he walked along, leading his donkey” — and here the driver adopted a sort of declamatory, town-crier-like voice — “‘Hear all about the crimes of Cuenca! The terrible, hideous crimes of Cuenca! Hear about all the horrible murders, as I recount them in the plaza tonight!’ And we would be running after him, all of the children, and we’d watch him as he unloaded his boards from the back of the donkey and set them up in the town square.” He explained that the boards, once unfolded, stood up on their own — much like a modern exhibition stand, I imagine — and on them were pasted illustrations of the most exquisitely revolting episodes from the tales that the storyteller would tell. “They were very badly drawn,” the driver told me, “the colours were very unrealistic, especially the blood — there was lots of bright red blood. Of course, we children loved them — but we didn’t have much time to look at them, since our mothers would soon get to hear about the storyteller, and would come running down to the square to drag us away. Then in the evening we would be made to stay indoors with our grandmothers while the adults went down to the square to hear the stories.”

Soon we were out of Cuenca, having just clipped the southwestern corner of the province, and were speeding (well, not quite — it was more like ambling, I suppose) across the plain towards the town of Aranjuez — a haven of green amongst all that red earth. And, having left Cuenca behind, so too did we leave behind the tales of the old storyteller, and the conversation turned to other things. “And what is Aranjuez famous for?” I would be asking, soon, fighting the urge to close my eyes and nod off. (Oh yes — in case you’re interested — it was asparagus and strawberries, I think, and the gardens planted by King Philip the Second).

But I never forgot the crimes of Cuenca, and the story of the old man and his donkey who made his living — sometime at the beginning of this century — by thrilling the villagers with his gory pictures and tall tales. I remember thinking that his profession was not a bad one, really — in the summer, at least. It sure beat the hell out of ploughing fields by standing on a board with a sharpened stick stuck through it, pulled by a mule — which was how the tomato fields in the southern provinces were being farmed right then. I knew that, because I had seen it with my own eyes just weeks before. I also remember thinking, with a grasp of marketing strategy that was quite uncharacteristic for me at the time, that it was the lurid pictures that were the secret ingredient, the magic formula that guaranteed an income for the storyteller. Stories alone are not enough, however well-told — because they can be learned and repeated by anyone, and soon lose their exclusivity — but pictures, now that’s a different story (if you see what I mean). To see the pictures, you have to be there, and once you’re there, you might as well stay and listen — and, of course, fork out the fifty centavos (or whatever the going rate was).

And the relevance of this little tale? Well, that nothing has fundamentally changed in the hundreds of years since the storytellers of Cuenca first plied their trade (for I’m sure that the old man described to me by my driver was simply most recent in a very ancient profession, in that part of the world at least). And that, in the same way as the prehistoric bone-thrower in 2001 has become the space industry today, so the storyteller of Cuenca has become an industry too — and his illustrated boards have grown larger in scale and expense — we call them “effects movies.” And that I, and many of the readers of this journal, are in the same business as that old man — we provide the lurid pictures that hook the audience into the movie theatres. Our pictures may no longer be carried on the backs of donkeys, and they may be vastly more sophisticated and realistic, and they might well travel many times round the world in fibre-optic cables, but nevertheless they are fulfilling exactly the same function. And along with the computer-generated imagery goes that of the prosthetics and make-up artists, the pyrotechnics experts, the miniature model and creature makers, the compositing artists and the stop-frame animators — it’s all on the same family tree, so to speak, all evolved from a common ancestor.

Mike Milne is Director of Computer Animation at FrameStore, which together with its sister company CFC, forms one of Europe's largest digital effects teams. He recently removed the funny part from his tag line.

Mike Milne
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The distinguishing feature of members of the “Cuenca species” is the combination of illustration and description, that cannot survive independently, and the essential mediocrity of both elements — neither the story nor the pictures have to be very good (although, of course, they might be), but in combination they’re irresistible. Thus, for instance, a film of the Sherlock Holmes story Hound of the Baskervilles, while appearing to be a perfect example, would actually be a mimic — because it’s a clever story in its own right, that works perfectly well without visual aids. Illustrated newspaper accounts of bloody atrocities are an example of convergent evolution — the stories have to be reasonably accurate, and the pictures are real photographs of real people, and both survive independently. On the other hand, tabloid newspaper stories with obviously faked pictures (in the U.K., the front runner is the Sunday Sport, which features headlines like “Brussel Sprout from Outer Space Ate My Pal!” and “World War Two Bomber Found on Moon — Official!”) are very definitely Cuenca scions, although attempting to camouflage themselves by adopting the external characteristics of a genuine newspaper story.

Other departed relatives on this ancestral line can be spotted — the “penny dreadfuls” of Victorian Britain, perhaps — but with the arrival of the early effects films in the ‘30s (King Kong is the perfect type specimen), we have clearly discovered the modern animal, albeit in an unsophisticated form — what one might call the Cro-Magnon equivalent. The sci-fi movies of the ‘50s (but only the ones in which we actually see an alien creature, even if only for a single scene in the last reel!) are certainly cousins, while some of the horror movie family — especially the Roger Corman canon and the Hammer films from Bray studios, are definitely direct heirs.

I often wonder what the future will bring for this industry, this strange offspring born of the desire to be horrified (by the events depicted) but at the same time comforted (they’re not real — look at all the fake blood!). I have no doubt that it will survive and flourish, because it has done so for so long, and it is so obviously an ineradicable part of the human psyche. But what of its roots? Did it really start in places like Cuenca, a few hundred years ago, or is it much, much older?

A couple of years after my first visit to Cuenca, I found myself once more traveling through an unfamiliar province of Spain in a stranger’s car. This time, it was in the north, heading for the Cantabrian town of Santillana del Mar. Blearily, I opened my eyes: “And what is..” (peering out of the window and catching side of a signpost) “what is Altamira famous for?” “You mean you don’t know?” asked the driver, incredulously, “it’s the most famous prehistoric site in Europe! It’s where the cave paintings are!” And with that, he turned down the side road deposited me at the entrance to the Altamira caves, insisted that I should see them and drove away.

I shall be eternally grateful to that anonymous driver, because I took his advice and joined the next party of tourists to go into the caves. Nowadays, they’re closed to visitors, whose breath is ruining the paintings — so I feel privileged to have been able to walk through the caves and see the very pictures daubed on the walls by those slightly hairier ancestors of ours, fifty thousand years ago — and I begin to wonder. I know that traditional prehistorians will tell us that these paintings were part of some quasi-religious ritual, and that others will assure us that they were early strategy lessons for hunters, but I’m not so sure. I can just hear that proto-Spielberg, that earlier Ridley Scott, warming up his audience: “Hear all about the horrible creatures outside! See the great killer bison! Hear how it crushed five men!” Well, it sure beats the hell out of hunting mammoth with a sharpened stick, doesn’t it?