Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Virtual Fools Interview

Hey everybody, last July, Kathryn and I traveled to Williamsburg, Virginia for an evening so I could delivery my presentation about superheroes on film and television at the Williamsburg Regional Library. On that same evening, we met this great young fellow named Kevin Flanagan, who is the co-owner/operator of Virtual Fools (which you'll see is included in my links on the right of the page.) Kevin is a student at William and Mary, and a film lover extraordinaire. He's also been helping me out a lot lately with tons of stuff, especially research.

Anyway, after the show that night, we all went to Starbucks, and over coffee Kevin conducted an interview with me about my career. His questions were great. My answers were kinda rambling, but mostly intelligible.

Now the transcript of the entire conversation is up at The Virtual Fools. Check it out.

Here's a sample.

KF - Why did it take people (scholars and critics) so long to understand films like The Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Could they only be understood when distanced from their direct historical contexts?

JKM - In a sense they were just ahead of the curve. Criticism compares to what has come before. What does a critic do when they are confronted with something new?

KF - They run away!

JKM - They run away, they dismiss it, and they dislike it. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the ten most important film titles in American history, not just because of its subject matter, but because of how it is structured. The film is more shocking than Psycho, because there is no learning or movie decorum. The same with The Last House on the Left. You go into the theater and there are no rules. No movie stars…

KF - …no glamour.

JKM - There is the feeling that anything could happen to you while watching this movie. I don't think that critics could handle that. For The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, most people couldn't get past the title. Critics walked out of these movies. They were not staying and engaging them on their own terms. As a critic I often now reflect on this. A lot of critics often can't do that when they are confronted with something new.

TV REVIEW: A Haunting: "Echoes from the Grave"

Viewing last night's episode of A Haunting on The Discovery Channel, I noticed that it commenced with a black screen and a card reminding viewers that the events depicted in the upcoming episode were "based on eyewitness accounts."

And then, when I listened to the opening narration again, the one about "real evil" existing in this world, I considered the opening narrations of The Twilight Zone, One Step Beyond, even Tales from the Darkside. Pondering these comparisons, I suddenly realized that A Haunting - though it presents as a documentary - is actually the latest in a long and noble line of TV horror anthologies.

Only here's the rub: this series utilizes the prevailing styles popular today rather than the rather staid-seeming approach of yesteryear. In other words, A Haunting manipulates the "real" or "true story" approach of the Blair Witch Project, coupled with the currently in-vogue documentary format we've enjoyed in mainstream theatrical hits such as Fahrenheit 9/11, Supersize Me! and March of the Penguins. I can hardly get angry at A Haunting for claiming to be "based" on true stories. Why? Well, uhm, Last House on the Left, The Amityville Horror, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even The Legend of Boggy Creek all exploited the very same technique. It's a good, fast way of scaring an audience. Most recently, I guess it was The Exorcism of Emily Rose that brought the "true story" card out of mothballs.

But make no mistake, this is a TV program that is designed to scare the pants off you; and to my delight, it works more often than it doesn't. A Haunting is edited and constructed with a tip of the hat to (and a thorough understanding of..) at least the last fifty years of horror cinema history. And that means you've got your P.O.V. subjective shots (from the viewpoint of the spook!), you've got your high-angle shots (which mean doom and entrapment), and you even have the classic "Stay Awake!" shot (wherein a character - after suffering a nightmare - bolts up in bed, sweating profusely...). It's all here, combined and vetted in expert fashion to create an experience that I suppose you might believe is true...if you're gullible. But for me, the show is enjoyable because it's scary and well produced.

Watching "Echoes from the Grave" I realized how infrquently TV is really scary these days. And more to the point, how infrequently stylistic editing techniques are deployed on a TV series to make one so. Night Stalker is sometimes scary. Supernatural every now and then. But so far (and I've only watched three episodes...), A Haunting manages to be scary more often than not.

"Echoes from the Grave" tells the story of Ron and Nancy Stallings in the year 1965. They believe they've found the perfect house, a historic home built in 1920 near Baltimore. But when they move in with their six children, things start to go wrong. A faucet spigot opens by itself. Heavy footsteps are heard in the hallways at night. Nancy's cousin Bill, an attorney, feels an "overwhelming sense of dread" when he tries to walk to the second floor. A priest comes to bless the house, but inconveniently forgets to bless the porch (D'oh!). The ghostly presence(s) continue to raise a ruckus, spurring Nancy to call on the services of renowned paranormal investigator Hans Holzer (from Austria) and his "trans-medium." Perhaps the most disturbing information comes from a notation Bill sees at the Hall of Records: every previous family living in that house has seen a loved one die there before escaping...

My favorite moment on A Haunting this week was that little scare sequence set on the front porch. An innocuous-seeming red-and-white tricycle starts driving around - back and forth - by itself, and the moment is guaranteed to make you shiver. And then - my god - there was that totally insane closing montage. The episode's editor deserves some kind of bonus for the apoplectic burst of nutty, frenetic cutting here. The set-up is that Ron and Nancy (Hey, Ron and Nancy? What kind of joke is that?) have finally sold their house and are ready to leave, when Nancy forgets something important in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Of course, she goes back into the house alone, and the place terrorizes her with two or so minutes of unremitting terror. Faucets turn on and off. Windows lock and unlock. Doors slam and open. A chair races across the floor of its own volition. This was a crazy, inspired, nearly Raimi-esque moment of horror and I really dug it. Again, I'm not going to say I believe in any of this stuff, only that it is vetted exceptionally well by the production company.

Viewed as a spooky anthology about haunted houses, A Haunting is a lot of fun, but I do wonder how the creators of this show can possibly maintain this pace(!) and adhere to a fairly limited format over time. The story structure is a familiar one to fans of haunted house movies, and I'm not sure how to overcome that. Let me diagram the outline: There's the honeymoon stage, wherein a happy couple buys a "fixer upper" that they shouldn't be able to afford. Then there's the uncertainty stage, wherein the family moves into the haunted house and begins to experience feelings of apprehension, nightmares and a general sense of wariness. Then there's the recognition stage, where the occult is acknowledged and steps are taken to get help (either moving, conducting research at the Hall of Records, or bringing in an expert like the Warrens or Holzer). Finally, the beleaguered family achieves a sense of safety after escaping from the house, in the Let's-All-Take-A-Deep Breath Stage.

The Haunting
is a young show, so repetition isn't a factor at all yet, and hopefully the writers will mix it up a little bit, given the above-noted ironclad structure. How about beginning a show with the departure from the house? How about other haunted venues (mausoleums, cars, boats, I dunno...). How about conflicting eyewitness reports? And a dramatization of the same happening from both perspectives? We'll watch over the course of the next dozen weeks or so and see if A Haunting maintains this crazy momentum and visual style, along with story originality...

TV REVIEW: Ghost Whisperer: "On the Wings of a Dove"

You know something? I had forgotten TV could be this dumb. I thought this level of stupidity stopped being broadcast years ago. Apparently not.

This supernatural TV program, hilariously called Ghost Whisperer (and airing on CBS Friday nights at 8:00 pm), exists primarily to satisfy all those viewers still in mourning over the cancellation of Touched by An Angel or Highway to Heaven. Yes, that broad swath of middle America that includes mostly overweight, middle-aged women who collect angel figurines.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Not a thing. It's just not my cup of tea, let me put it that way.

You see, I can't take a show like this seriously. Every pretentious line of dialogue and sincere, compassionate stare just makes me crack up. Even the title is unintentionally funny. Ghost Whisperer? Hmmm, did anybody stop to think that "Whisperer" is a descriptor that has so far been linked to animals, as in The Horse Whisperer, or The Dog Whisperer? Applying the terminology to the afterlife is ridiculous, insipid and insulting. Are ghosts just like harmless little puppies? Or more like stubborn colts? You tell me, spunky little Jennifer Love Hewitt!

Perhaps all new television shows should herewith be re-named to include the descriptor "Whisperer." The West Wing should be re-named Oval Office Whisperer. Lost should be re-titled Island Whisperer. Prison Break could be called Jail Whisperer. That somebody actually imagined we could take seriously a show saddled with this ludicrous title just proves how hilariously out of touch Hollywood is. And yet -- spank me!!! -- this is apparently the number # 1 show on Friday nights. Still, I just can't bring myself to say to my wife, "hurry up, 'Ghost Whisperer' is coming on..."

But I kid Ghost Whisperer. (Gosh, I love typing that title...)

Here's the plot of last night's installment "On the Wings of a Dove:" Melinda (Jennifer Love Hewitt) is apparently capable of communicating with the dead, and so a shirtless, vaguely Hispanic-looking ex-con ghost who died in her husband Jim's ambulance (he's an EMT, you see...) latches on to Jim (David Conrad). This begins to make him act cranky. At first, Melinda thinks Jim's just not that into her anymore, but then realizes hubby's got a monkey (er, ghost...) on his back. So she learns from the spirit that he needs forgiveness from the parents of a man he accidentally killed. When that doesn't work out, Melinda realizes that the spirit can "pass on" to the next world only if he makes peace with his own family: a wife and young son. With Jim's help, she facilitates the spirit's ascent to the afterlife.

And so we get a long, syrupy story wherein everybody is healed because Melinda passes on the ghosts's heartfelt message of forgiveness. Yes, all the characters in the drama learned to laugh at life again!

Gag me.

With a spoon.

Even really bad supernatural shows (like Supernatural...) at least try to appear a little spooky. There's some attempt at mood (mist, night shooting, anything...), so I was shocked at how totally plastic, fake and BRIGHT Ghost Whisperer appears...as though the creators know they are catering to an audience that can't stand the least little bit of ambiguity or reality. Nope, it all has to exist in a perfect, protected, affluent consumer bubble of designer clothes, streetside cafes, boutiques and high-end furniture. And storywise, it must concern earnest Jennifer Love Hewitt's angsty "grappling" with her gift. Based on last night's episode, I'd say she needs to grapple with her hair-stylist (is it a wig or what? It looks terrible...). First things first, Jennifer...

Why am I so hard on Ghost Whisperer when I can give Supernatural, Night Stalker, The X-Files, Buffy or A Haunting the benefit of the doubt? Well, I can make a case-by-case argument for any of those shows, but not a one of 'em so blatantly reduces matters of life, death and spirituality to something so safe, predictable, harmless and frickin' boring as the equation stewed up here, which is an unholy hodgepodge of New Age "forgiveness" and Christian afterlife principles. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that the dead remain in our world because they somehow failed to live up to a Christian moral code in life, and once they pass on their messages of "acceptance," "forgiveness" and the like, they can just hop an elevator to Heaven, going straight up.

Let me whisper this: I don't know if there is a God. Or a cosmic intelligence. Or a spiritual presence. I'm not closed minded or anything, and I do have my own spiritual beliefs. But if there is a God in the traditionally-accepted sense, I just can't imagine that he/she/it will operate by such a simplistic cause-and-effect (and Western-minded) set-of-principles. I mean, I don't think we could ever fathom the mechanisms and logic of God. I just don't. And you know what? We shouldn't even try to do so. We have better things to do here on this planet than trying to second-guess the Divine (hear that Pat Robertson?). And so programs like Ghost Whisperer only reduce the spiritual and metaphysical mysteries of our existence to trite little meaningless parables that allow viewers to wallow in the smug superiority that they know the right way to live. Instead of raising questions about faith, religion, spirituality and the afterlife, Ghost Whisperer just wants to...re-assure people of things they already take for granted, and more so, to do it between commercials.

If I want whispering in the supernatural genre, I'll just rent Sixth Sense again. Now there was a kid who knew how to whisper...

From now on, call me The Blog Whisperer! Or don't.

Ever.

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Space Academy: "Hide & Seek"

Our third episode of this 1977 Saturday morning filmation kid-vid series, Space Academy finds the gang racing to meet a crisis. Commander Gampu, Loki, Paul and Peepo are on board a Seeker in Sector 5 looking out for passing meteors. But Loki is too busy playing with his "liratron" (a flute) to notice when a big asteroid flashes by his screen. Oopsy.

The meteor approaches the Space Academy planetoid, sending Chris and Tee Gar into a panic, and the Seeker is left with only 2 minutes and 10 seconds to catch up with and destroy the offending space debris. A lucky shot from a "spinner" (Space Academy's equivalent of a photon torpedo) destroys the space rock locked on collision course, but the explosion spreads meteor dust everywhere. Don't you hate it when that happens?

However, the crisis has not passed, for when the Seeker returns to the Academy, the hanger bay doors refuse to open. Gampu has Peepo open the doors with the right "autolock" frequency, and the ship lands safely, but the Seeker crew soon discovers that all the cadets and crew have vanished! Worse, the Seeker crew begins vanishing one at a time, too, starting with Gampu.

Peepo determines that the answer to this riddle involves that pesky meteor dust, and has Loki collect samples from the Seeker's hull. Then, Peepo releases "positive ions" from the dust and everybody re-appears safely. End of story. Where did the crew go, and why couldn't we see them? Don't ask; don't tell...

Okay. Whatever. I just keep reminding myself that this is a kid's show. And truthfully, this installment seems a little less juvenile than the two previous segments. For me, the real fun of Space Academy is grooving on the 1970s-era special effects -- which are quite good for that decade. In "Hide & Seek," for instance, there is not only the opening action sequence involving the Seeker chasing and pulping a meteor, but an elaborate docking sequence at the Academy. I wonder how Filmation afforded effects this good in 1977, when I see how lame the special effects on Logan's Run: The TV Series are. I guess Logan's Run had to pay for better actors...

A nice facet of this episode is that we get to see more of the Academy than ever. Not just Command, the Docking Bay (both miniature and full-scale), but new corridors, Cold Storage and more. Amazingly, these sets are all pretty good.

One thing does puzzle me about "Hide & Seek." Why is the Seeker out in space tracking meteors in the first place? Is this common procedure? If so, why don't we see the crew do it again?

Anyway, it's nice to re-visit the juvenile but sweet Space Academy every Saturday morning, especially with a bowl of Life cereal in hand...

Friday, November 11, 2005

CULT TV FRIDAY FLASHBACK: Clerks: The Animated Series "Episode # 4"

Today, animated sitcoms flourish on the tube. We have not only those perennial favorites The Simpsons and South Park, but also newer hits such as Family Guy and American Dad. I'm happy about that...I love the form and believe strongly that animation provides comedy writers all kinds of opportunities that aren't available in live action. Watching any one of the four shows listed above, I'm frequently amazed at how fast twenty-two minutes can pass. I'm also often left impressed with the staggering, unfettered imagination and pop culture acumen on display from all the series' creators, whether it be Matt Groening, Trey Parker and Matt Stone or Seth MacFarlane.

But there is another hilarious animated series from the year 2000 worth noting today, a "cult" show that I would have dearly liked to see survive, because it was truly one of the funniest, most fast-paced, most wickedly satirical animated shows ever aired on American television. The series I'm speaking about is director Kevin Smith's animated adaptation of his 1994 slacker hit, Clerks. The cartoon series ran only for six half-hour episodes, and was ultimately killed by its own network, ABC, which at that time was obsessed with airing Who Wants to Be A Millionaire every night of the week. Well, ABC, we all know how that turned out for you, don't we? Good thing you took a shot on Lost and Desperate Housewives last year...

At first glance, Clerks no doubt seems like an unlikely choice for an animated treatment, featuring as it does the adventure of two foul-mouthed Generation X'ers Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) who perpetually tend shop at a Quick Stop in suburban New Jersey. Yet Clerks: The Animated Series opened up a world that might have felt too narrow or confined with outrageous and dynamic results. In fact, it is very much like a cartoon version of the last View Askewniverse film (thus far...) Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back.

My best evidence of that assertion is my cult TV flashback choice this week, episode number 4, written by Steve Lookner, David Mandel and Kevin Smith. In this tale, the always-sparring Dante and Randal challenge each other to switch tasks for a day, but predictably Randal has trouble managing the convenience store. When Jay (Jason Mewes) slips on Randal's spilled drink, the stoner hires a high-powered attorney to sue Dante and Quick Stop in the People's Court...presided over by Judge Reinhold (playing himself). From there, general wackiness ensues.

Because of the court room setting, Clerks episode IV thus opens itself up to a whole universe of pop-culture references regarding that venue, and they come flying at the viewer faster than you can take a breath. There are jokes about The People's Court, Law and Order and much more. At one point, Randal (acting as Dante's attorney...) calls to the stand such filmmakers as George Lucas, Woody Allen, Spike Lee, Joel Schumacher, and Steven Spielberg and asks them to atone for various films, including Hook, Batman & Robin and The Phantom Menace. It's a hilarious sequence which has nothing to do with "a plot," but it is a wonderful flight of imagination. When I interviewed Jeff Anderson for my book, An Askew View, the actor-director told me this about the scene: "I always said why the hell isn't Kevin testifying, so I could ask him what the hell was up with Mallrats?"

Another utterly brilliant (and hilarious) moment in Clerks' fourth episode finds the program lovingly re-creating a lengthy scene right out of Oliver Stone's JFK. You might remember in that film, how Kevin Costner's character (an attorney in New Orleans) went to Washington D.C. to meet with Sutherland's character, and there, that govt. official laid out every minute detail of the Kennedy assassination and conspiracy against the backdrop of our grandest national monuments. Clerks refashions that sequence, but just imagine it with Randal in Costner's role. It's hysterical.

In truth, I could probably pick any episode of Clerks to champion here on this fifteenth flashback Friday. In episode # 2, for instance, the series vets an inspired riff on the TV cliche of the "clips show" (which I derided here while reviewing Logan's Run's "Futurepast.") This was especially funny and trenchant on Clerks, since only one episode had been produced. By the end of the half-hour, Randal and Dante had resorted to "flashing back" to talks they shared five minutes earlier, and it was quite witty. This was also the episode that featured a quick flash of a movie that combined the prehistoric world of The Flintstones with the terrors of Schindler's List. In bad taste? Absolutely. Drop dead funny? Definitely.

But episode # 4 utlimately wins my heart (and everlasting praise...) because of the immortal court room sequence in which Randal approaches a witness on the stand and asks a totally impertinent question. "I always liked the court room episode," Anderson told me. "I always appreciated the line: 'Show me where they touched you. Show me on the doll where they touched you...'"

So today, I recall with fondness and delight the fourth episode of a wildly inventive animated comedy series, and one that should have lasted on television a lot longer than it did. There's been chatter in recent years of a new animated Clerks, and I'd love to see it happen, because this program was a wicked delight from start to finish. It mocks television, reflects pop culture, and even makes fun of itself in a sometimes brutal fashion. I believe it would have caught on with audiences had ABC just a hair more patience. You know, on this blog I always prefer to champion artists who manage to get their unique voice into television, because that's no easy task. It might be Joss Whedon, Chris Carter, Rod Serling, or in this case Kevin Smith. So much of Smith's wit, his edge, and utter silliness made it into this short-lived show, and it's a joy to behold.

TV REVIEW: Night Stalker: "The Source"

Thus far, I've been a defender of the new ABC series, Night Stalker. Not a staunch defender, mind you, merely a defender. Why? Well, thus far I've enjoyed the mood/locale of the horror series: a dehumanized modern city, where well-lit city streets suggest life, but people seem to have little human contact. I've also appreciate the burgeoning subtext, that monsters are born out of human sin, not external "creatures" like vampires, the Mummy or a succubus. These two qualities, taken together, seem worthy of exploring further. And besides, Night Stalker is a whole lot smarter, scarier and more mature than our other supernatural series in 2005, the dreadful Supernatural on the WB.

Yet, I can't bring myself to write much positive about this latest installment of Night Stalker, entitled "The Source." I found it muddled, lugubrious and tedious, and was relieved when I thought it was ending...only to be disappointed that it was just the first segment of a two-part story.

"The Source" involves Kolchak (Stuart Townsend) in a case that could cost him his career. A DEA agent is a witness to the murder of a drug cartel, and then disappears. But Kolchak must find him, because the agent seems to have lost his wife in the same suspicious manner that Kolchak lost his. And the FBI agent who still wants to nail Kolchak for murder, also wants to find the missing agent. If Kolchak doesn't reveal his sources on the story of the drug cartel murder, the FBI agent will have him locked up. Meanwhile, Perri has her faith in Kolchak tested; uncertain whose side she should take in this crisis.

If that sounds interesting, don't be mistaken. This episode was a snooze-o-rama. Frankly, I had a hard time following the muddled story from point-to-point and an even harder time caring about it. By my thinking, this is the weakest episode of the show yet, and I'm stunned that I now have to tune in to see it continue next week. Hopefully, things will pick up dramatically.

I know that Night Stalker doesn't have many fans right now...and that's a shame. There really are some interesting themes at work in the show and I'd hate to lose it. But the makers of Night Stalker need to tell clearer and more interesting stories than "The Source" if they hope for the series to survive. Especially with NBC's Surface and ABC's Invasion both coming on so strong for November sweeps.

Wake me up when part 2 is over, and Night Stalker gets back to telling interesting stories.

CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: It Came from Outer Space (1953)

Breathlessly described as "the most thrilling picture in years" by the Universal International publicity department, Jack Arnold's It Came from Outer Space, a classic 1950s sci-fi film originally lensed in 3-D, is actually a splendid mood piece...much more so than either of Arnold's other outstanding ventures, including the action-packed Creature from the Black Lagoon and the fantastic The Incredible Shrinking Man.
It Came from Outer Space
depicts the story of Johnny Putnam (Richard Carlson), a science writer living in the desert town of Sand Rock, a hamlet "sure of the future...so very sure." Johnny and his girlfriend, Ellen (Barbara Rush) spy a mysterious, fiery meteor crash to the ground one evening while stargazing, and after investigating the enigma, attempt to convince the sheriff (Charles Drake) and the local press that an alien ship has actually landed at the bottom of the newly-formed crater. Meanwhile, the meteor - a damaged extra terrestrial vehicle - is buried in a rock slide, making Putnam's truthful story look all the more unlikely.

But soon, strange things begin to occur in Sand Rock. Two telephone repairmen, Frank (Joe Sawyer) and George (Russell Johnson) disappear in the desert, then re-appear in town, strangely altered...unemotional. Putnam learns that benevolent aliens are indeed visiting Sand Rock, seeking electronic parts to repair their damaged craft. They boast the capability to change form to disguise themselves (and their hideous, true nature...), and are holding many townspeople, including Frank, George -- and ultimately Ellen -- hostage while they use their images. All that these aliens ask is the time they need to correct the damage to their vessel, but the town sheriff, Warren, grows increasingly paranoid and organizes a mob, a posse, to take back the missing townspeople, spurring a dangerous final conflict. Now it's up to Putnam to help the stranded aliens, lest they resort to violence and kill the woman he loves.

I call It Came from Outer Space a mood piece because much of the considerable suspense (and eeriness) of the film generates from one finely crafted element: a a remarkable sense of place, in this case, the town of Sand Rock and the desert surrounding it. This is a town in the American West, but it is a frontier in more than one sense. It is the frontier of human/alien contact.

The film opens with another one of those great, portentous 1950s voice-over narrations and a terrific visual. A slow-moving camera ascends over a craggy mountain which overlooks the small town. "This is Sand Rock, Arizona, a nice town knowing the past and sure of its future," Carlson intones as Arnold's camera climbs the rocky monolith (which could be Mars, or the moon, for that matter...) only to reveal below a tiny town carved out of inhospitable desert wasteland...a monument to human ingenuity and pioneer spirit.

Later, Carlson describes this desert as "alive and waiting...ready to kill you if you go too far...there's a thousand ways the desert can kill...," and to support that assertion, Arnold's deliberate, slow-moving camera never loses track of this realm that feels so alien. For instance, there are multiple shots of telephone poles (and wires) in the desert, overlooking vast, empty highways. These ubiquitous man-made outcroppings symbolize the only connection between towns (and therefore civilization) in that vast, barren region. Again and again, the camera tracks at almost eye-level with the telephone wires, gazing down on a speeding car or truck, and all the action is thus braced by this reminder of man's attempt to control and manage the harsh terrain.

There's a great (and now classic) sequence in It Came from Outer Space wherein telephone repairman George asks Johnny Putnam to listen to the sounds coming across the wires...a kind of strange, unfamiliar, but oddly beautiful, song. "Sometimes you think the wind gets in the wire and talks," Frank describes, and this idea of mystery and things-not-yet-understood-by-man fits in perfectly with the alien mystery. Forget outer space for the moment, there are some places on Earth we still haven't mastered, and I think that's certainly part of It Came From Outer Space's subtext and moody undercurrent.

Outside of the desert's chaotic terrain, there's another beautifully composed shot that captures the mystery of the alien menace perfectly. In a wonderfully creepy moment that still gives me the chills thinking about it, Putnam finds the "alien" versions of Frank and George hiding in a narrow hallway in the town. These two man stand braced by the narrow walls in darkness, their faces blackened by shadows, their true nature uncertain...inscrutable. Rarely in cinema history has a sense of the uncertainty been captured more palpably. The visual imagery - of two men who should be "friends" but instead represent the unknown -- tells us everything we need to know about the nature of Putnam's fear and the threat our world could face. Or more appropriately, how we would react to a perceived threat.

I know the film was made over fifty years ago, but I was rather impressed with the design of the alien creatures in their "true" form. The aliens appear not remotely humanoid, but neither are they ridiculous and utterly fanciful. There are recognizable elements there - a bulbous head; a shroud of long, icky hair, and of course, a cyclopean eye. But because the aliens are often depicted in the fog, the well-placed mist covers up any obvious problems with the alien costume. For me, their appearance works well, and I enjoyed how Arnold also relied on the tried-and-true technique of the P.O.V. stalk shot, the first-person subjective shot from the alien's perspective. That made the movie all the more creepy. Another fine detail: the aliens leave a glittering slime trail wherever they go. Ick.

The screenplay by Harry Essex (story by Ray Bradbury) reminded me of a good Twilight Zone (which came several years after It Came from Outer Space...) in that an alien encounter reveals more about human nature than it does about an extraterrestrial threat. Here, Putnam tries his best to avoid violence...and yet still kills an alien. The Sheriff is even worse...unable to wrangle his fear and resorting to the mob mentality. I felt it daring that the villains in the film - the sheriff and his men - carry rifles and wear cowboy hats, because those accouterments clearly went hand-in-hand with the silver screen heroes of the age (cowboys). One thing is certain, we don't want cowboys managing our first contact with aliens...

On the other hand, I did have to laugh at the characterization of Ellen. Twice during the film, she screams in horror at things we wouldn't even take note of. The first time, she lets loose a blood-curdler at a Joshua Tree. The second time, she yelps in terror at a kid wearing a Space Cadet helmet. In Ellen's character, It Comes From Outer Space shows its age (and context.) We still needed our women to be retreating, fearful and in need of rescue. In other words, a damsel in distress.

Finally, there's a great moment in It Came From Outer Space when Putman makes an example of Sheriff Warren's urge to kill that which he doesn't understand. In the desert, the two men debate about the aliens, and Warren kills a spider...all because it's different, because he doesn't understand it. Putnam's point is that we can't be trusted (yet) to go to space and deal with aliens because we would kill that which we don't understand...just the way we kill a spider in the desert.

Watching It Came from Outer Space, I wondered if humanity has changed all that much in fifty years. Are we yet ready for that first contact with beings from another world? "It wasn't the right time for us to meet," says Carlson at film's end. "But there'll be other nights, other stars to watch..."

I wonder how we'll do on that night...

Thursday, November 10, 2005

CULT TV BLOGGING: Logan's Run: "Carousel"

Back on the Logan's Run Carousel. Literally.

In a freak mishap, Logan gets shot with "memory warp" dart and forgets the entire last year of his life. Realizing that his old buddy is now an amnesiac and doesn't recall his act of treason back at the Domed City, Sandman Francis brings Logan back to the City to renounce runners and Sanctuary. Meanwhile, Jessica and REM must negotiate their freedom from the weird locals who shot Logan with the memory warp dart in the first place, return to the City of Domes, and rescue their confused buddy.

In the City of Domes, Logan undergoes a "truth" scan and picks up his old life as a swinging single. In particular, there's a hottie named "Sheila" (played by Melody Anderson, Flash Gordon's Dale Arden) who would like to pick up precisely where they left off a year ago. Realizing (with REM's help) that the way to get to Logan -- and spur his memory -- is to seduce him, Jessica dresses up as a sexy chick named "Jerri 4" and pays a slinky visit to Logan's bachelor pad. But before anything too much fun can happen, Jessica wimps out and reveals to Logan who she is. Shucks.

All in all, "Carousel" is another pretty entertaining episode of Logan's Run, and it's always nice to be back at the City of the Domes (i.e. a shopping mall), watching attractive young people flit around in tight clothing and their Farrah Fawcett hair styles. However, "Carousel" does establish (in dialogue) the fact that Logan and Jessica fled the city over a year ago. Okay, so we're to believe they can just drive back to the City of Domes (AGAIN!) in like a half hour or something? This reminds me of Star Trek: Voyager, where the ship was in Kazon territory for two years, and stopped at every outer space anomaly it encountered. Nice way to try to get home in a speedy fashion! The same must be true of Logan, Jessica and REM. Apparently they drive and drive and drive in their solar craft, but don't actually go very far. "Hey Logan, that grass over there looks interesting. Let's stop and take a look!"

Watching this episode, I kinda felt sorry for Francis (actor Randy Powell), our hapless pursuer. He could have killed Logan in this episode and been done with the whole bloomin' mission, but he didn't. You get the sense that he just wants Logan to come back to the City and be his best friend again. And that's really sort of sad/pathetic. I remember I interviewed Dorothy Fontana once, and she said that had Logan Run continued as a TV series, Logan and Jessica would have converted Francis to their side, and all three of them would have returned to the City of Domes to wage a war of insurrection against the Council of Elders. Too bad that never happened. A plot like that would have better served Francis, a character who is constantly made to look either foolish or just plain incompetent. It also sounds like a cool way to continue the show, especially since the "civilization of the week" thing wasn't exactly going so well.

Interestingly, at one point during "Carousel" Logan declares that Sanctuary (his goal...) is just a place "invented by runners to encourage other runners." After seeing this many episodes of Logan's Run and watching the characters visit dream clinics ("Futurepast"), psych wards ("Fear Factor"), alien spaceships ("The Collectors") and the private estate of a hunter ("The Capture"), you know, I think he's telling the truth. Does he know he's telling the truth? Is Logan aware he's on a wild goose chase? That's one of those questions that never gets answered on this show...

A HAUNTING BLOGGING: "Hell House" and Beyond

I hope you've had the opportunity to catch the new Discovery Channel paranormal series, entitled A Haunting. So far, two episodes have aired: the premiere (entitled "Hell House") and last week's "The Haunting of Summerwind," which reruns this Friday night at 11:00 pm. The third new installment, "Echoes from the Grave," debuts an hour earlier on Friday, at 10:00 pm.

Here are my thoughts on the show at this early stage. Firstly, I think "Hell House" was a really creepy mini-masterpiece, thanks in large part to the aggressive editing and canny use of horror movie techniques. I particularly enjoyed the effective atmospheric and location shots intercut throughout the drama, and felt that the piece moved at such a pace that I was often left feeling breathless.

At least one moment -- involving an endangered character in her bedroom, and a high-angle shot looking straight down at her as something black and amorphous whooshes under her bed -- was downright terrifying. Therefore, from a visual and stylistic viewpoint, I appreciate how the episode was handled and suspect that a talent very schooled in understanding "horror movie" grammar is ensconced in the editing bay.

Secondly, I noticed that the creators of the show have taken special pains, at least thus far, to remain accurate to the literature concerning hauntings and parapsychology. They get all the lingo absolutely 100% correct - "rapping," "automatic writing" and the like - and that's rewarding.

When I wrote my monograph about 1959-1961's One Step Beyond, another paranormal anthology for a very different age, I reviewed the series based on its accuracy in vetting the principles of the paranormal, not whether or not I actually believed in the phenomena depicted. I submit you must utilize the same test in assessing A Haunting. If you're not inclined to believe this stuff, the breathless approach, the ominous-toned narrator, the carefully-arced tales, and the hellish depiction of the supernatural probably aren't going to meet with your approval. However, if you've studied the paranormal, you'll detect that the series remains quite faithful to case studies, and furthermore, nicely explores all these great little tangents of the supernatural world.

"The Haunting of Summerwind" felt like a more unconventional, more surprising narrative than "Hell House," though it didn't quite jell at the same level of nail-biting suspense. It wasn't a story I'd seen a hundred times, so even though the denouement wasn't at the same fever pitch as "Hell House," I enjoyed the show overall.

Frankly, my biggest concern about A Haunting is that the series focuses purely on - as the title obviously suggests - hauntings. It seems like it will be tough to treat similar material differently after a few seasons. After all, One Step Beyond had all of the paranormal world (spirit possession, bilocation, astral projection...) to investigate in its 96 episodes, and still repeated some tales, so the makers of A Haunting will have to prove exceptionally clever so as not to tell the same story twice.

I had the opportunity to get back in touch with Joseph Maddrey, associate producer on A Haunting, and wanted to get his thoughts on these matters, how the program is going, and how it's being received. He was kind enough to grant me another interview, and answer all my questions.

MUIR: Now that "Hell House" has aired, what has been the response from the real family and the investigators involved in the case?

MADDREY: The Beckwith family was very happy with the show – Bonnie said that it was more accurate and more frightening than she had expected. Investigators Lorraine Warren and Mike Roberge were also pleased. They hosted a paranormal-themed event on Halloween night and showed clips from the episode, and I hear they got plenty of “jumps” out of the audience. These individuals put a great deal of faith in us to tell their story, and I’m glad we could do it justice in their eyes.

MUIR: One of the things I really enjoyed most about A Haunting was the aggressive, skillfull and gonzo horror movie-style cutting. Can you tell me a little bit about the editing? One sequence involving a moving shadow in the bedroom actually made me and my wife jump...

MADDREY: Andrew Monument is the supervising editor on A Haunting. He cut the first episode and established an aesthetic that has come to define the entire series. Among all the technicians who worked on the show, his contribution is probably the most obvious onscreen – and he deserves to be recognized for it. From day one, Andrew was eager to take the project to the next level – not just because he’s a great editor, but because he’s a big fan of the horror genre.

The scene in which a moving shadow disappears under Jennifer’s bed was well edited, but it’s worth noting that the scene was also well conceived (by the humble team of writers and producers). Jennifer explained that she was awakened one night by the feeling of a fist coming through the bed and striking her in the back. She stipulated that it did NOT feel like a fist striking the underside of the mattress, but like it was punching THROUGH the mattress. She never physically saw anything. This was problematic for us since we’re working in a visual medium. Our solution: The audience sees the shadow go under the bed… so we know there’s something under there, even though Jennifer doesn’t. It’s a tried-and-true horror movie tactic for generating empathy and suspense.

MUIR: When last we spoke, you mentioned an edict about A Haunting episodes, one that you share with the writers. Can you share it with us?

MADDREY: This is a quote that series producer Larry Silverman often makes reference to. It’s from Francois Truffaut’s book of interviews with Hitch:

“There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise,’ and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean. We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath the table. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the décor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb underneath you and it’s about to explode!’

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

MUIR: I know there has been some criticism on the Net that A Haunting is airing on The Discovery Channel, and well, it's obviously a gung-ho, go-for-the-throat dramatization not an objective, staid documentary. Any thoughts on this? Is it a valid complaint?

MADDREY: One reviewer bitterly complained that “you won’t hear a skeptical voice in this alleged documentary.” Aside from Jennifer’s tongue-in-cheek comment that she didn’t know what to think of “ghost busters” coming to visit, this is a fair statement. I suppose it’s also a fair criticism from someone who expects a more traditional documentary.

It seems to me that, in recent years, most documentary filmmakers have made fewer efforts to appear objective. (It’s worth adding here that I don’t believe any documentary can be objective, which kicks off a scientific / philosophical debate about subjectivity and objectivity…. A debate that is also applicable to enquiries about paranormal activity but which, for the sake of the reader’s patience, I will avoid.)

Many documentaries reflect the beliefs and attitudes of the filmmakers (see Fahrenheit 9/11). By comparison, each episode of A Haunting is intended to reflect the attitudes and beliefs of the interviewees. Our Internet critic writes: “This would be a good ghost story for Halloween if it weren't being passed off as the truth.” To which I respond: We are conveying the stories of real people, without judgment. For them, the stories ARE true.

MUIR:
I would just point out here that One Step Beyond walked the same line, only using the techniques and styles popular in its day. It always treated the paranormal as "real," and its dramatizations didn't strive for objectivity, but for chills.

MADDREY: A Haunting is a strange hybrid of documentary and drama, but this is nothing new and it’s certainly not an anomaly on The Discovery Channel. New Dominion Pictures also produces The New Detectives: Case Studies in Forensic Science and The FBI Files similar reenactment-based shows that have headlined the network’s Tuesday night lineup for years. The current lead-in for A Haunting – a program called I Should Be Dead – is cut from the same cloth. I’d argue that the reviewer’s real criticism is of the beliefs of our interviewees, rather than the show itself.

MUIR: In "Hell House," I guess there was also a question of logic that we should talk about. Lorraine Warren indicated that the spirits might follow the family from house to house, but this was an idea that wasn't pursued in the episode.

MADDREY: We presented Lorraine’s explanation that “the ghosts will follow you” at face-value, but some viewers have asked for a justification of this... so here it is: Lorraine says that spirits are attracted to a human being’s aura – a kind of energy field that derives from an individual’s state of health, emotions, and spiritual well-being. I interpret this to mean that the family experienced the haunting partly because of their own specific auras, and that different individuals may not have experienced the same things in the same house.

Readers who want to know more about the beliefs of the “Hell House” investigators can refer to Ed & Lorraine Warren’s website, www.warrens.net, or Mike Roberge’s website, www.drcri.com. Details of the specific investigation can be found at http://www.warrens.net/main.htm -- click on “Investigations,” then “Recent Cases,” then “Stamford.” Names and locations have been changed in this document. Mike is the webmaster for all of these web pages, and he’s always willing to provide candid responses to honest questions.

MUIR: Your second episode repeats on Friday night. Can you set that up for us?

MADDREY: The idea for “The Haunting of Summerwind” came from a book called “The Carver Effect” by Wolfgang von Bober. I think it’s one of the most atmospheric episodes so far. The art director, Jack Ryan, did a particularly good job on that one.

MUIR: I've seen that one, and quite enjoyed it. It was different enough from "Hell House" to have its own unique energy. I liked the setting, and also the surprising turn involving a family's return to the house.

And now the third new episode debuts on the same night too. How about that one?

MADDREY: The idea for “Echoes from the Grave” came from a book called “Show Me One Soul” by Nancy L. Stallings, and it features world-renowned investigator Hans Holzer. I’d love to talk more about it after it airs...

All right then, "Echoes from the Grave" airs this Friday night at 10:00 pm, eastern standard time on the Discovery Channel, and I'll be blogging it (and more of A Haunting) right here!

Sci-Fi TV's Wisdom of the Week

"We must keep faith and believe that for us -- for all mankind -- there is a purpose." - Commander John Koenig (Martin Landau), Space:1999, "The Testament of Arkadia."

Retro Toy Flashback # 16: Photonovels

Before TiVo, before DVD box xets, before VCRs even, the intrepid genre fan really had to do some deep searching to find good ways (other than catching the right rerun...) to relive his favorite episodes of Star Trek, or a favorite genre movie like Alien. There were comic book adaptations, of course, and lavishly illustrated storybooks (the subject of a future flashback here!) and even novelizations. However, once upon a time, there was also another great avenue in which to relive your favorite production, the strange and unusual collectible known as...a photonovel.

Now, I have to say, I grew up with photonovels, and I love them with a passion. I'm sure there are elitists out there who say that photonovels are basically nothing but elaborate picture books, but I would counter that they are much more than that. I have always believed that film and TV are first and foremost visual art forms. That the images we see, and how we see them, tell us as much about a story (if not more...) than dialogue does. After all, without visuals, film and TV are simply...radio (which is way cool too; but a totally different medium). The great thing about photonovels is that they re-capture the images of a particular film or TV episode and re-tell the story in a kindred fashion, in images (with cartoon balloons in some cases, like comic-books, providing the pertinent dialogue.)

Now, children may not care about the visuals in movies; but I certainly appreciate this aspect of the photonovel today. As a kid, what I did care about primarily was that photonovels grant one the opportunity to linger on things, on details such as make-up, sets, and costumes -- things you don't necessarily get to see much of in a film for long; and certainly not in detail. For instance, the photonovel from the film Alien provides beautiful images not just of the film's exquisite (and trademark) hardware, but its terrifying central creature too.

My fascination with the form of the photonovel begin in the late 1970s with a trio of books: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Battlestar Galactica and the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I was a big fan of all three productions, and the chance to hold images in my hand from these films was a great gift. Again, moments that passed by quickly on film or the boob tube could be studied in detail. I could check out Princess Ardala's mid-riff in one book (!) or Caprica's skyline prior to the Cylon attack in another.

And then I discovered the Star Trek photonovels from Bantam and Mandala Productions. There were ten of these "fotonovels" in all, each featuring 300 "full-color authentic" scenes from favorite episodes. Published in 1978, these fotonovels took me back to classic tales such as "City on the Edge of Forever," "Where No Man Has Gone Before," "The Trouble with Tribbles," "A Taste of Armageddon," "Metamorphosis, "All Our Yesterdays," "The Galileo 7," "A Piece of the Action" and "Day of the Dove." Many of these episodes I had seen only once or twice at that point, so to be able to experience them again in this form was a treat. I don't think WPIX had ever rerun "A Taste of Armageddon" while I was a kid in 1978 (at least not that I saw...) so the photonovel caught me up on an episode I had missed.

I recall that "Where No Man Has Gone Before" was my favorite of all the Trek fotonovels because I had the opportunity to go over in detail the differences in production design from this pilot to the regular TV series. I could look at the phaser rifle, the differently-designed communicator, the gooseneck monitor on the captain's chair, and other seemingly small things. I could even linger on Captain Kirk's (incorrect) tombstone, which read James R. Kirk. This was just fascinating to me (and still is). In some way, I still groove on this earliest Star Trek design most of all. It's very cool.

Another great thing about the Mandala/Bantam fotonovels was all the back material. After the episode proper, each story featured a glossary (including terms such as "Sensor" or "Horta" or "PXK Reactor") and then there was even a quiz about the preceding story, with multiple choice answers. Finally, each fotonovel culminated with a lavish two-page preview spread for the next edition. It was just fantastic....everything a starving Star Trek fan could desire, save for a new series.

The Star Trek: The Motion Picture photonovel was also quite beautiful - in full, glorious color - and it allowed me the opportunity to again pore over every detail of the Star Trek universe. I could look at the new design for the Klingons (bumpy heads) and marvel at the baroque design of their battlecruiser bridge. I could gaze in awe at V'Ger, or at the re-designed and gorgeous Enterprise in drydock, or the interesting new costumes. Boy, did I wear that photonovel out! There was also a second photonovel, for The Wrath of Khan, but it seemed like a cut rate production by comparison to other photonovels. For one thing, it was all in black-and-white, a cost-saving expedient, I guess. For another, in the two versions I bought, there was a pagination error, where the story was told out of sequence for a number of pages. It seemed like a quick, made-for-a-buck rip-off, especially compared to the lovely Motion Picture book.

Some of the large size photonovels are also worth mentioning. Published by Avon, the Alien "movie novel" features over 1,000 full-color photographs, and is much larger than the little paperback editions for Star Trek. Selling at $8.95, this gorgeous book re-told the entire Alien story in all of its gory glory, including the infamous dinner/chestburster scene. It is simply a gorgeous book, and I only wish there had been a photonovel of the sequel, Aliens.

Another favorite comes from a less popular film: the 1981 space western movie Outland, starring Sean Connery. This book features 750 full-color photographs, and sold for $9.95 from Warner Books,. The layout was basically the same large-sized format as the Alien book. Outland is an underrated film, featuring some genius art design and sets, and you can get a feel for its atmospheric, gritty, frontier world by reading the photonovel.

I recall that some teachers complained about the photonovels -- about the idea of reading picture books - but I actually think that photonovels helped me come to understand the mechanics of "film grammar," the value of each frame, and how characters exist (or are blocked...) within it. The photonovels encouraged my love of the visual arts, and gave me hours upon hours of fun reading.

Anyone out there collect these (or other) photonovels? Are these things still around? I still have many of mine as you can see from the photos here, but they are well-used, and starting to show their age...

TV REVIEW: Invasion: "Fish Story"

It may just be me, and the fact that Invasion's latest episode, "Fish Story," reflected aspects of a personal trauma my wife and I suffered exactly one week ago today, but this was one humdinger of an episode. I found it harrowing, in more ways than one.

No, not merely harrowing, but actually almost horror movie harrowing. In this episode, expectant mother-to-be Larkin (Lisa Sheridan) experiences a terrible car accident, gets lost in the Everglades, is kidnapped, and then nearly miscarries. This poor woman! The distrubing, extended (and graphic...) sequence wherein she finds a rotting hurricane victim in a parked station wagon - impaled on a tree branch - is something I never thought I'd see on TV.

So here is this poor pregnant woman who -- after cutting herself on glass and nearly drowning in her overturned SUV --tries desperately to pull an overweight corpse out of his vehicle so she can drive away to safety. When she can't lift him out of his seat, Larkin climbs on top of the car's hood and pulls out the branch pinning his chest and holding him in place. Yuck. Normally I love this kind of stuff - and indeed, this was a great sequence - but I must admit, it disturbed me. Again, in just a word...harrowing. Maybe I'm just sensitive this week.

Otherwise, I knew that the mysterious and twitchy pick-up truck driver who runs into Larkin "by accient" was in on the conspiracy. His job was to scare the wits out of Larkin and make her believe that the mystery of Homestead involved not aliens, but actually a giant squid. It was a cunning (but obvious, if you watch much TV...) kind of diversion. Terrorize a woman seemingly by random, then showing her just what she needs to see to clear up the whole mystery. I guess if I lived on a TV show, I'd fall for it too...

Overall, Invasion has suffered, I think, from being a little slow-paced. So much so, in fact, that Surface has almost (but not quite...) overtaken this fine Shaun Cassidy series in my affections. But last night's episode was suspenseful from start to finish (and after Lost, I don't know how much more I can take!), and was probably one of the best Invasion episodes of the season.

I guess it really is November sweeps time after all!

TV REVIEW: Lost: "Abandoned"

Lost is officially back on track.

Last night's story, "Abandoned" was one of the creepiest and most suspenseful of the season, and it boasted a knockout of a climax. Best of all, the dreaded flashbacks were shorter (which I've been advocating for weeks now...), and most of the tale stayed confined to the present on the island and the ongoing crises there. This is a good thing, because - let's face it - we're all tuning in to find out what the hell is happening on the island, not about the minutiae of every back story of every single one of the characters. I'm still waiting for the dog's flashback.

The point is simply that we know these characters well enough now to go without any further back story, so the flashbacks serve only as torturous time-wasters this season (except maybe for Locke's tale a few weeks back...)

In "Abandoned," Shannon (Maggie Grace) gets busy with Sayid (Naveen Andrews) in a little beachfront love nest, but then the afterglow gets spoiled when she has a terrifying (and jolting!) vision of the missing Walt. He whispers something unintelligible, and terrifies Shannon, but nobody - not even Sayid - believes her story. So Shannon heads off into the jungle to find Walt, at the same time that Sawyer, Mike and Jin attempt -- with their new friends -- to make it back to their enclave of survivors. Along the way, Shannon relives memories of being dismissed and disbelieved in the past, but in this case her inner demons lead only to a terrible reckoning. Also, the mysterious "Others" take another crash survivor this week, though they are invisible and stealthy in this installment, their presence heralded only by creepy whispers.

When Lost is good (as it is in "Abandoned") it is very good indeed, and when it's not good, it's simply infuriating. The serial format and interesting premise of the series keeps us coming back week after week with anticipation. When the right alchemy is forged - and the story moves forward - this show is riveting television. When we focus on a character's inner "trauma," we're just treading water. Imagine, if you will, a Star Trek episode wherein Captain Kirk is about to beam down to a planet to engage the Klingons over their interference in a primitive society. He clips on his phaser, steps onto the transporter pad...and then we get a five minute flashback about the time his parents hurt his feelings as a teenager, while he was living on a farm in Iowa. It just wouldn't wash there, and I don't think it works well on Lost either. I could buy the conceit last season, when the flashbacks introduced the characters and the manner in which they found themselves in this predicament. But enough is enough.

So I hope the trend of reducing and shortening the bloody flashbacks continues. This week was the most riveting episode since the season opener, and I'm still hooked on the damn thing. It looks like there will be some real fireworks next week given the gory ending we got in this installment. Sayid appears ready to go ballistic. Also, it was great to see Ian Somerhalder (Boone) again.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

TV REVIEW: Surface, Episode # 7

Okay. I'm really, really getting into this sci-fi TV series now. Although it was off the air for a week or two, the momentum from Surface, episode # 6 has certainly carried over here to the seventh show. This was one of the most fast-moving and entertaining installments yet...and it also featured a long, lingering look at star Lake Bell (playing Laura Daughtery)stripping down to panties and bra. Yowza!

The story this week moves the story arc along quite a bit. After a special effects "teaser" that depicts a small jet breaking up in a storm (caused by a herd of the sea monsters...), the continuing plotlines all develop nicely. The government conspiracy takes another step forward, with the late Cirko's project "de-funded" and dropped by the military, relegated to a concern of the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Far away, in North Carolina, young Miles (Carter Jenkins) finds himself in deep legal trouble after stealing a car to protect the baby monster, Nimrod, and ultimately must send his lizardly-friend back to the ocean in a finale -- I must admit -- I found moving. I'm just a sucker for the boy-pet relationship, and having lost pets myself, I felt more than a little sad when the duo split up. Of course, I don't think we've seen the last of Nimrod. I think he'll be returning to the school of sea monsters, and maybe he'll turn the tide at a critical moment, saving humanity, because of his experiences with this boy. Or maybe not.

Elsewhere, Dr. Daughtery and Rich (Jay Ferguson) set up camp on a remote beach, and share an interesting experience with a secret marine specimen and a refrigerator (!). Here we see the alien (is it alien?) lifeform sucking energy from a power outlet, and learn that these creatures may have a home deep down in the sea, inside a wide crater. Thus Rich and Laura decide to build a makeshift submarine to investigate. I presume we'll find out next week what they find down there. I also liked that this week Rich acknowledged how hot Laura is. I mean, come on. She's a major league hottie, and even though he's a married man, he'd still notice.

As I've said before, Surface is an unholy amalgam of all the best "family" sci-fi movies of the last thirty years...yet still incredibly entertaining (and getting more so with each story). As I watched it this week, I admired the fact that the writers are willing to let the story develop. Things aren't just staying stagnant. The Miles/Nimrod story has no changed irrevocably, and I'm glad we're not going to stay with the housebound lizard hijinks anymore. Time to move on.

If Surface keeps moving at this pace and keeps providing new discoveries, it's going to become the most compelling sci-fi drama on TV. I started out feeling very ambivalent about the series, but now I get excited every time Monday night rolls around.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

CULT TV BLOGGING: Logan's Run: "Futurepast"

The early 1970s created a particular breed of horror in the mass media. It was known as "the clips show." In this episode of your average sci-fi series (like Buck Rogers or Logan's Run), no significant new story would be told, and instead the episode would feature a jumble of "flashbacks" of previous adventures -- and masquerade them as something fresh. As late as 1989 and the Star Trek: The Next Generation second season finale, "Shades of Grey," genre programs were still trotting out this terrible convention of television...hurting us all; making us suffer.

The suffering generated by the "clips show" is so great because you tune into your favorite show with the expectation that it is a brand new adventure. Then, to your chagrin - as the clips begin - you realize that you've been set up for an elaborate hoax. You get half a new episode, with the rest of the running time filled by these clips you've already seen. It's like a rerun wrapped up in a new show, and that makes it especially insidious.

Well, you know where I'm going with this, don't you? "Futurepast" is Logan Run's clip show. Here, Logan, Jessica and REM find a "dream clinic" in the woods; one run by an android and "dream reader" named Ariana (Mariette Hartley). Every time REM is near the lovely Ariana, sparks fly out of his body (hey, I've had that happen to me!) In other words, it's android love. But while REM and Ariana court, Logan and Jessica decide to avail themselves of the dream clinic and go to sleep. They begin to experience a high level of nightmares -- actually clips from "The Collector" and "Pilot." Logan dreams he has run into another Sandman, and Jessica dreams she is in Carousel. Then there's some footage thrown in from "The Capture" too, just for good measure. Help!

REM discovers he can't wake up his friends until the cycle of nightmares is over because they're in "Cycle C" sleep and going deeper, towards "Cycle D" -- which means death. And worse, Francis and another Sandman have arrived at the clinic too, creating some false jeopardy from the hapless pursuer.

Well, this is the biggest Logan's Run time waster so far. At one point, Francis tells Logan that Sanctuary doesn't exist, and you know something - I agree with him. Nothing Logan and Jessica have discovered outside supports their belief that an objective "Sanctuary" exists. All I can say is that you know a show is in trouble when you don't believe in the hero's quest anymore...

Catnap Tuesday # 17: Ezri in the Fern




Well, it's nearly winter time, with temperatures here in North Carolina now occasionally dropping down below freezing at nights. And that means bringing our plants in out of the cold...and the cats going absolutely nuts over it; like it's their Christmas time. Above are a few shots of Ezri discovering a fern in our dining room...

Monday, November 07, 2005

STAR WARS BLOGGING: Episode I: The Phantom Menace

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...

George Lucas's great, galaxy-ranging space opera begins with those very memorable words; an invitation to a modern, technological fairy tale.

In the first episode (released in 1999) of the Star Wars saga, The Phantom Menace, the audience learns that "turmoil has engulfed the Great Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is "in dispute." The greedy Trade Federation, the scrawl tells us, has ceased all shipping to the small planet called Naboo, and two Jedi Knights (Qui Gonn Jinn and Obi Wan Kenobi) have been sent by Supreme Chancellor Valorum to negotiate with the Trade Federation Viceroy, Nute Gunray.

What the Jedi Knights discover, however, is a shadowy conspiracy involving a Sith Lord called Darth Sidious. He is the master manipulator, the puppeteer behind-the-scenes, encouraging the Trade Federation's clearly illegal invasion of Naboo.

Obi Wan and Qui Gonn manage to rescue Naboo's Queen Amidala from certain death by getting her off the planet (along with a Gungan named Jar Jar Binks), but their spaceship (A Nubian class) is damaged during the escape. They set down for repairs on a backwater desert world on the outer rim called Tatooine, and Qui Gonn meets a young boy named Anakin Skywalker - a slave - who may prove to be the living embodiment of a prophecy about a "Chosen One" bringing balance to the Force, the mysterious energy field that binds and connects all living things. For Anakin, you see, has a midichlorian count of more than 20,000; a count higher even than that of Master Yoda, who sits on the Jedi Council.

After Anakin helps the Jedi get their spaceship repaired (by winning a dangerous Pod Race), the Jedi get Amidala to the Galactic Senate on Coruscant, only to see the congress bogged down in "endless debate" over the Trade Federation Invasion. With the help of Senator Palpatine, Amidala comes to recognize that the Galactic Senate nees stronger leadership than Valorum can provide, and votes for a special election. As Palpatine becomes the new Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Republic, Obi Wan, Amidala, Anakin, Jar-Jar and Obi-Wan fight a multi-front war to seize back control of Naboo. In the process, the Jedi must defeat the apprentice of Darth Sidious, a devilish creature called Darth Maul. Later, Obi Wan promises to train young Anakin as a Jedi Knight, even though the Council, led by Master Yoda has grave reservations about the boy's future.

Well, in broad strokes, that's the plot of the first Star Wars film, our introduction to this sprawling, exciting universe. I have owned The Phantom Menace on DVD for years, so you can say that I already voted on the film with my wallet, and yet it is a movie that I did not necessarily hold in high regard for a number of reasons. The weight of all the previously produced Star Wars movies (Episodes IV through VI) was too great, and somehow I found this first prequel...lacking. I disliked how it looked; how it was edited, and what it had to say.

However, today - and looking at all the films with a fresh eye - I must say that I have badly underestimated The Phantom Menace. It is not a perfect film to be certain, but it is - ultimately - a fascinating one; and indeed, it is far more successful as an introduction to George Lucas's universe than I think I ever realized. It sets up everything we need to know about this six part movie series.

Firstly, I love the title The Phantom Menace, not merely because it harks back to 1930s episodic adventure serials made by Republic and Columbia Studios, but because it perfectly captures the theme of this film. You will notice that the opening scrawl discusses such things as "the taxation of trade routes" and such. Not exactly earth-shattering stuff, but indeed, that's the artist's point. This adventure begins at a time that is dangerous - but here's the rub - nobody (not even the Jedi) realizes that it is a dangerous time. The danger is thus a "phantom" danger, and even the film's dialogue heightens this feeling of foreboding. Qui Gonn notes that the trade negotiations are something "trivial," and surely nobody is expecting that out of this "dispute" over trade and taxation, the Republic will eventually fall. A phantom is defined as something "apparently seen, heard or sensed, but having no physical reality," and that is surely the nature of the threat embodied throughout the film. Notice that in his introductory sequence, Obi Wan states that he senses something "elusive," "elsewhere" -- yep it's that Phantom Menace of the title; something only detected but not understood or even addressed.

Young Anakin too represents a "phantom menace" of sorts. He will one day grow up to be Darth Vader, a terrible force for darkness in the universe, but that menace (which Jedi Knights Yoda and Mace Windu sense here...) is also still but a "phantom." Not developed. Elusive.

So right off the bat, Lucas's story resonates strongly with his chosen title. As in real life, we are led in the Star Wars universe to understand that a seemingly small thing can lead to much bigger, much more dangerous things. And remember too the context of the year The Phantom Menace was released! President Clinton had been impeached in the United States for personal ethical misconduct (and in the film, Valorum is "mired by baseless accusations of corruption," presumably like Whitewater, Travel-Gate and all the other scandals that failed to secure even a single indictment against Clinton or his staff).

So the impeachment was not unlike the "no-confidence" vote forced by Palpatine in the Galactic Senate, and behind this blatant power grab in real life was a leader named not Nute Gunray. but Newt Gingrich. Coincidence? Well, certainly one might make the argument that the impeachment trial distracted the American government (both parties...) away from Osama Bin Laden and terrorism leading up to the attacks of 2001. This was a time when a newly elected President (Supreme Chancellor?) was able to piece-by-piece reduce our Civil Liberties (The Patriot Act), resort to torture, and lead us into an unnecessary war in Iraq. A small thing (baseless accusations of corruption) led in real life to a big thing (an attack and an endless, Orwellian War on Terror.)

But enough of earthly politics. We're in a galaxy far, far away not Washington D.C. Suffice it to say that The Phantom Menace reveals how a seemingly "trivial" thing can serve to give a duplicitous leader the reins of power on a promise of restoring honor and dignity to government. In the Star Wars universe, that's just what Palpatine achieves, and the movie ends with him serving as Supreme Chancellor.

Another thought that struck me while watching The Phantom Menace is that George Lucas - like John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg and other movie "brat" directors - is a great visual classicist. Many of the set-pieces in this film not only refer to baby boomer history, but to famous imagery from classic Hollywood films. The Phantom Menace shows us a Tatooine that is not unlike Humphrey Bogart's Casablanca, a meeting place and trading square for different alien races with varied motivations; where a criminal underbelly operates. But more to the point, I believe that the Pod Race is a direct allusion to William Wyler's Ben Hur (1959), and in particular, the central set-piece: a chariot race. Here, Lucas has co-opted the spectacular imagery of a well-attended race, but colored it with a technological sheen, to update a classic Hollywood movie moment. And notice too that both movies are overtly religious in nature. Interesting, isn't it?

I believe much of the background dynamics of The Phantom Menace arise from George Lucas's history both in terms of favorite movies, and the recent history he grew up with, in particular World War II and pre-World War II imagery...the context of a young baby-boomer. The people of the Trade Federation speak in a manner that I can only term Pidgeon English. Their eyes, if you look closely are made of lightning-bolt like "slants" (a derogatory name for the Japanese) during World War II. Now, this is either a direct reference to World War II, or simply another movie reference to the so-called Yellow Menace as it was depicted in adventure films of the 1930s-1940s, or maybe both. I also feel that the imagery of the vast Trade Federation war machinery rolling through the wide avenues of a very-European-looking Naboo directly relates back directly to the Nazis in Paris, or some other World War II vision. This period represents the rise of fascism in Europe; and it's no coincidence that in The Phantom Menace, totalitarianism is also beginning to rear its ugly head.

I detect this World War II, 1920s-1930s metaphor even in the (outstanding) art and production design of the film. You will notice that the spaceships and skyscrapers of the Galactic Republic and its planets resemble not the lived-in, almost junky universe we are accustomed to in Episode IV, but rather the Flash Gordon standard of the 1930s. The spaceships bear tipped wings and are unbelievably ornate and beautiful, cast in glittering, reflective silver. The buildings are ostentatious and gorgeous, representing a 1930s "futura" fashion of art-deco design. This design works perfectly because the Galactic Republic at its height does represent a sort of idealized or perfect "space age." The symmetrical, smooth designs reflect the perfection of a democratic society, and also the more perfect age of "innocent" space adventures in the cinema like the 1930s Buster Crabbe serials. This is before "real" space travel in the late 1960s changed spaceships of the imagination to be less aerodynamic, less beautiful and more utilitarian (like the Discovery in 2001; or the Eagles of Space:1999).

All of this subtle design works quite beautifully in The Phantom Menace. I know many people (myself included) worried that the new films would look so much more advanced than the old films, even though they occur earlier in time. But George Lucas creatively found a way around this problem (which Enterprise failed to do...). He reveals to us a "more civilized" age with the art-deco designs, the spaceships with needle-noses and the like, and we buy it as an earlier, better time, before the dark ages of the Empire. It's a clever conceit. If A New Hope reflects a 1970s ideal; the prequels represent 1930s ideal, and so historically we can accept these movies.

The Phantom Menace also (if we are going in sequential order...) gives us the first example of another favorite George Lucas tenet: that the primitive can defeat the advanced in battle every time if their cause is just. Throughout the Star Wars film cycle, we see this again and again. Here, Gungans destroy a Droid Army. In Revenge of the Sith, Wookies win a key battle against the Trade Federation, and in Return of the Jedi, Ewoks win a critical battle against the Empire on Endor. The idea that appeals so much to Lucas is apparently that primitive societies may have lesser weapons than their technologically kitted-up nemeses, but ultimately more heart...and more cunning. We see this again and again in Star Wars, though I think it is imperfectly presented in The Phantom Menace because the Gungans obviously do possess a technological society, at least by our standards. They have gleaming underwater cities, large explosives called "boomers" and other items that we would consider beyond our current capacity to construct, but of course, as Obi Wan may say, this is all based on "a point of view." To the Trade Federation (and even the Naboo, I'd say), the Gungans do indeed represent a more "primitive" race, so perhaps the metaphor does hold here. If not for the audience, then at least for the participants in the drama.

Again, I think Lucas knows his history. The attack on Naboo by the Trade Federation is not unlike the attack on Ethiopia by Mussolini in October of 1935. Though the beleaguered leader of Ethiopia petitioned the League of Nations (The Galactic Senate?) to intervene on its behalf, the League of Nations was unable to do anything but impose mild economic sanctions. So again, I think you can see how Lucas in The Phantom Menace is actually combining history and myth and filmmaking to tell a story of "star wars" not unlike our second World War. It's interesting that he tells his story with metaphors we are familiar with (from our history), but with contemporary touches (like Clinton/Valorum's impeachment), thus creating a warning for today's audiences. As one character says in Attack of the Clones, "the day we stop believing democracy can work is the day we lose it."

Now, I'd like to offer my thoughts on Jar-Jar, one of the most controversial aspects of The Phantom Menace. I don't like him; and I don't like his brand of slapstick humor -- I just don't think it's funny. But as a character in the saga, he bothered me less on this viewing than ever before. Honestly, I think people probably overreacted to him (the way people overreacted to Adric, or Wesley Crusher, or Neelix, or any other "unpopular" character in a well-loved franchise). Looking at Jar-Jar this time, I hold by my assessment that he's no Chewbacca. But 3PO is certainly equally annoying. I definitely decry the need for childish humor in these films, but Jar-Jar is ultimately put to interesting use in this trilogy, and I think his presence augments Anakin's tragedy. I mean, the sweet little kid who played around with the farting, belching, tongue-snapping, clumsy Jar-Jar Binks is also the kid who became Darth Vader! That's pretty devastating, isn't it? And it's all part of The Phantom Menace conceit too. We can be distracted by the hijinks of a Jar-Jar Binks, all right, because we think there isn't that much at stake. Of course, we're wrong to think that...

One of the scenes I absolutely once hated involving Jar-Jar saw him accompany Qui Gonn and Obi Wan through the planet core of Naboo in a transport called a "Bongo." I hated how calm Qui Gonn was in that scene; and how over-the-top Jar-Jar was in his panic. But watching this film as though it were the first in a cycle, I didn't feel that way. I realized that this scene serves a critical purpose. This is Episode I (and early on, at that), and we must understand that the Jedi are cool customers. That they are calm, not impulsive or passionate, and the scene with the giant fish attacking their bongo perfectly expresses this fact. Jar-Jar reacts as WE would - with utter terror; but the Jedi are a different breed. This scene, which I once thought was simply an excuse for special effects, actually tells us some important information about the Jedi Order, and the demeanor of the Jedi Knights. It's amazing how if you try to watch this film with an open mind (and with a blank slate), you can see all kinds of values that you once missed. The things which once seems ridiculous or out of place instead seem quite motivated by the needs of a committed storyteller.

I know I promised not to fuss about the oppressive use of CGI in the Star Wars prequels, but I also figured out what the heck my problem is with CGI (and with the appearance of Jar-Jar) while watching The Phantom Menace. I consider this an important epiphany. Here's my thing: special effects exist to augment the story and make it seem more real. The best special effects you ever see are the ones that you don't realize are special effects, right? They look so real that you don't think twice about them. My philosophy is that special effects shouldn't draw attention to their own cleverness, but instead should fit seamlessly into the tapestry of a cinematic work. My problem with Jar Jar is not his silliness, but that he violates this edict. I can pinpoint one scene as an example. Jar Jar plans to lead the Jedi down to his underwater city. He steps to the bank of a river, and dives into the water. But he doesn't just dive into the water as you or I would. He leaps up into the air about twenty feet, does a big perfect flip, makes a silly cry, and disappears under the surface. So, from this one motion, we see that Jar Jar defies gravity, has perfect form, and is...silly.

The scene would have been much better had Jar Jar slunk into the water like one of us; or some animal in nature (like a crocodile maybe?). If we had recognized his movements as being natural and real, rather than being show-offy, it would have worked much better. Jar Jar's terrific leap and back flip into the river is an example of a special effects man drawing attention to himself, trying to do something funny with his work rather than accomplish something believable. But ultimately the silly dive only points to the unreality of Jar-Jar as a creation, I think. He would be so much better if he didn't stand out; if he didn't draw attention to himself. He could still be funny, but he shouldn't be a "look-at-what-I-can-do" spectacle.

I'm frankly ambivalent about my next observation. I don't know if I'm missing something or what. But early in the film, Qui Gonn states that "nothing happens by accident." Yet, so often in The Phantom Menace, things do seem to happen randomly. I can accept that it was fate, prophecy or the Force that brought the Jedi to Tatooine to meet Anakin. No problem. But isn't it an accident when a gun gets stuck on Jar Jar's ankle and starts blasting droids? Isn't it an accident, when Anakin ends up in the cockpit of a fighter and then, finally, in the hanger bay of the droid control ship? An accident that he should fire torpedoes in exactly the right direction to destroy the ship? I don't know! Maybe the Force is indeed guiding all of these actions, but I have a hard time reconciling Qui Gonn's statement about "accidents" with Jar Jar and Anakin, who seem to continually benefit from seeming accidents.

I have much more to say about this film, but I think I'll stop here for now. I'll sum up by saying that there is much more going on in The Phantom Menace than I ever gave it credit for. The presence of Jar-Jar, the oppressive over stimulation by CGI effects and a weak plot all conspired to keep me from enjoying the film on its own terms. What I found on an objective watching this time is that the plot is actually visually rendered in a brilliant sort of way...it plants all the seeds that will pay off later. More to the point, the film is layered with cinematic and historical allusions that speak directly to us and the times we live in. Many of these come up as notes of production design: the look of things. And since I believe film is primarily a visual art, these touches are welcome.

What about you? What do you think? Join the Star Wars experiment: watch this film again and see where it leads you...

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) is available on DVD.