February 28, 2009

ARMSTRONG SABIAN: OUR MAN IN ALBANY

GUEST SET LISTS
Spy Vibe continues its series on Spy TV/film production design and the influence of Art and design movements, Playboy, Hugh Hefner, adventure story conventions, and the Space Race.

Guest Set Lists: Lee Pfeiffer, Jeremy Duns, Armstrong Sabian, Steve Bissette, Roger Langley, Matthew Bradford, Wesley Britton, David Foster, Matt Kindt.

Spy Vibe's Set For Adventure here, Set Countdown #10, #9, #8 ,#7, #6, #5, #4, #3, #2, #1.


ARMSTRONG SABIAN: OUR MAN IN ALBANY

Agent ARMSTRONG is the creator of Mister 8, a spy blog and web comic site. If you have not discovered Mister 8, it is a fantastic place to explore scans of rare spy comics, music, and great coverage of classic spy literature, film, and television. Armstrong's Set List:

Like Jason, I'm a big fan of mid-century modern design and architecture, and, like him, I think that love will color my list. My wife and I have just purchased our first house, and wherever possible, I'm trying to let the designs of the Eameses, Saarinen, Knoll and others influence our decor (while at the same time avoiding Ikea). It's not easy, however, because those sorts of things are expensive, the ones that are affordable aren't comfortable, and the style didn't seem to be in vogue around here, judging from the number of colonial and mountain rustic furniture for sale on Craigslist.

I'm hoping to cut loose in Mister 8 though, if my art skills are up to snuff (in other words, don't take this as a promise!), and the following are amongst the top bits of film architecture and design from which I'll be drawing ideas. Inevitably, there will be some crossover with lists that may appear here. I've told Jason that I suspect one particular set will appear on everyone's list, unless they're the type of person who avoids the obvious choice because it's too obvious. I'm not that person, because I love ninjas and rocket ships and volcanoes, and mixing the three is like creating my vision of Heaven on the screen. According to my list, 1967 seems to have been the greatest year of ALL TIME. Or at least the best looking.


5. The President's Analyst (1967) - The Phone Company HQ [Production design: Pato Guzman; Art decoration: Hal Pereira, Al Roelofs; Set decoration: Robert R. Benton, Arthur Krams] SPOILER ALERT! The President's Analyst is a surprisingly biting, still relevant satire with visual design grounded in the psychedelic 60s. The set I've chosen from the film comes from the sort-of payoff scene, where the titular analyst, Dr. Sidney Schaefer (Coburn), learns that the shadowy organization responsible for his kidnapping is the The Phone Company. He's brought, phone booth and all, into the heart of TPC headquarters, an Adamsesque rotating room with blinking light panels, floating neon abstract symbols, and a man at a control panel who turns out to be, as Geoffrey Cambridge points out, a "recording." The set succeeds because it amplifies the satirical commentary that has transformed our utility company into a SPECTRE-esque evil cabal bent on taking over the world (Their plan? Inserting tiny phone receivers into the brain. One wonders if, after Schaefer stops this plot, the Phone Company robots got together and realized they needed an intermediary step: cell phones). This idea of the fear of foreign matters destroying the country, while bigger domestic problems were hiding was understandable in the context of the late 60s, with Vietnam and civil rights and protests in the streets, and with our current financial crisis, as I said, it remains relevant today.

One of the more interesting things about the set is that when Schaefer is rescued by the CIA and KGB agent working together (not through any sort of patriotism or sense of duty -- he's treating both of them and without him, they feel they'd go crazy), the two shut the power off. And so we get to see the set without the special lighting, the blinking neon, and see it in its plain grey, hard metal state. When I went to Disney World last summer, we got to be inside of Space Mountain while they had the lights on to check the track. It was a similar experience watching President's Analyst, sort of seeing behind the magic. It makes you appreciate the work of the filmmakers even more.


4. The Prisoner (1967) - Portmeirion / The Green Dome [Art direction: Jack Shampan; Art department: Ken Bridgeman, John Lageu; Portmeirion designed by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis] There's something about the town of Portmeirion that makes it the perfect setting for the Village, the way it almost seems like a normal place, but the angles and curves, the bright colors, the arches, the miles of steps, the stone boat, and the way the buildings seem to rise from in between the foliage knock that view of normalcy askew. For the Prisoner to work, the Village must appear to be, on the surface, an ideal place to retire. Were it hell, then Number Six's refusal to play along would seem less heroic. But to be offered life in a beautiful Mediterranean villa, with food and tea, and music, and life-sized chess, without having to work to pay for it (why did some Villagers have jobs, for instance, the waitresses or the operator of the general store?)...and then to turn it down because of scruples? At this point in my life, I might abandon my scruples if it meant never having to shovel snow again.


The interior sets of the Prisoner were equally interesting -- among my favorites are Number Six's cottage home, and the gymnasium where the trampoline-swordfight-over-the-swimming-pool game was played. By far, however, the best interior set is the inside of the Green Dome, both the minimalist office of Number Two, with its Aarnio-influenced egg chair and clinical lighting; and the control room, where unnamed watchers rotated on a giant industrial see-saw, constantly peering at monitoring equipment while the electronic eye, reminiscent of the CBS logo (which broadcast the Prisoner in the U.S.), revolves slowly around the room.


3. Danger Diabolik
(1968, though I'm sure filming began in 1967) - The Diabolik Cave [Art Direction: Flavio Mogherini] Danger Diabolik set out to make the ultimate headquarters, and it would've succeeded too, if Ken Adams hadn't already achieved perfection with You Only Live Twice (see #2). Still, the Diabolik Cave is a wonder to behold. Batman would watch this film, as the Jaguar XKE pulls into the vastness of the underground lair, and feel as though the Batcave were a one-room flat. The Diabolik Cave, if Diabolik were ever captured, would become a national monument and visitors would flock to the gift shops to send their friends and family back home postcards of the experience.

I fully expect that host Jason will name this as his top choice (as of this writing, he's only up to #4 on his own list) and so I won't go into my appreciation too much here. But let me highlight my two favorite things: (1) the ultra-modern semi-transparent circles that hang in the shower to obscure the naughty bits and (2) the rotating bed. Sure, you might say, you've seen rotating beds before in these kinds of films. But have you ever seen a rotating bed so vast that you could park a Cessna on it and still probably have room for an orgy? Danger Diabolik takes your concept of a rotating bed and turns it into a cheap feather pillow. Take that!


2. You Only Live Twice
(1967) - Blofeld's Volcano Lair [Production design: Ken Adams; Art direction: Harry Pottle; Set Decoration: David Ffolkes] Only number two? I know, I know, I said this was my idea of Heaven, but the top spot on this list goes to a film whose sets, more than any other, define the ideal of the 60s-modern film set. Still: this film literally set the standard, so that the words "volcano lair" are understood universally, like the choking symbol or the double wink and the elbow nudge. And as I said before, there's plenty to love about this volcano lair, from the fake lava retractable roof, to the monorail system, to the potential for ninjas to swing down on ropes with machine guns. What works best here for me is the mix of the organic and the industrial, the bare rock face almost indistinguishably fading into the concrete and metal. Also: sometimes there's a rocket ship.
1. Casino Royale (1967) - Pretty much the whole damned thing, but at least the last two-thirds. [Production design: Michael Stringer; Art Direction: Ivor Beddoes, Lionel Couch, John Howell; Visual Effects (matte painting): Les Bowie] If you're not a fan of Casino Royale, (David of Permission to Kill), I suggest that you stop reading, put the film in your DVD player, and fast forward to 48:30. Watch this slow motion pan as the beautiful Ursula Andress leads Peter Sellers through her foyer, past the tank of fish who seem to be floating like balloons. Skip ahead to 51:55, and watch Ursula spin and jump on the circular pink bed in front of 180 degrees of floor-to-ceiling mirrors while feathers fill the air around her.


Now jump to 1:05:24, to the school where Mata Hari developed her talents, with sharp angles and planes that evoke the best of German Expressionism. The school houses the monochromatic decoder room seen at 1:11:05, with that wonderful sharp sans serif A anchoring the set. There's plenty to be seen in between, but I also especially like the "fingerprint" room at 1:51:05; Dr. Noah's lair at 1:51:30, with its goldbrick chairs that evoke Goldfinger and the plastic-wrapped art pieces that line the area in front of the desk; his flesh-colored inner sanctum at 1:53:51, lined with shapes and objects with which Freudians could have a field day; and of course the closing sequence where the regal titular casino is home to an extended fistfight between cowboys, indians, paratroopers, gangsters and French policemen.

If you're watching Casino Royale for some sort of plot or characterization, you're going about things all wrong. This is pure visual spectacle, a satirical time capsule of an era now long gone... Or maybe I just like watching Ursula Andress do things in slow motion. Can you blame me?

[The stylized sets of Casino Royale almost made it into the Spy Vibe top-10. I think I balked because of the storytelling... but Armstrong has a great point. Some segments are visually stunning! -Jason]

2 comments:

  1. I never had the impression that Blofeld's volcano lair in "You Only Live Twice" had a fake lava roof. It was colored a turquoise blue and textured with ripples to resemble a volcanic lake. There is even a scene where Bond (Connery) has made his way into the crater to discover where the helicopter has disappeared, and he tosses a stone toward the "water", expecting a splash. Instead, Bond is stunned hear the clank of rock on sheet metal.

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  2. AS - I try to like Casino Royale 67, and every now and then i forget how bad it truly is and watch it again...but apart from a few moments, it drives me crazy.

    But yes, it looks absolutely amazing...like the temple where we first meet Mata Bond.

    But those screencaps are making me want to watch it again, and I know when i do I am disappointed - and then I am going to blame you! 8-)

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