Saturday, April 08, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Land of the Lost: "Tag Team"

Nothing too Earth-shattering occurs this week on Land of the Lost. "Tag Team" (by Norman Spinrad and directed by Dennis Steinmetz) simply finds the Marshalls in a vegetable patch contending with Dopey, the Pakuni, and - inevitably - Grumpy the Tyrannosaurus.

While Marshall, Will and Holly spend time collecting oversized carrots and turnips from the patch, the Paku steal their loot. There's a stand-off until Grumpy shows up and chases everyone in their separate directions. Will, Holly and Cha-Ka get stuck on a ledge at the crevice, and Grumpy and Big Alice (the series' allosaur) shout at each other over opposite sides of the precipice. The stranded kids have three choices: go up and play tag with Grumpy; jump down into the river far below; or stay where they are until Rick can manage a rescue.

"Well, I'll be a dinosaur's uncle," not much else happens here in terms of narrative, except that neighbors (Pakuni and human) learn to trust one another. I've always thought it's neat how the human population balances the Paku population, and felt it was some kind of comment on how everything on Earth is balanced so that every population has a chance of survival. Here, the populations must share the bounty of the Earth (or rather the Land of the Lost), rather than fight over it. The kindly Marshalls thus give the Paku a "lesson in harvesting vegetables." Even Dopey gets into the act, munching on an oversized carrot.

The only ones who don't get food this week? The Sleestak. But I have a feeling they'll be back...

Friday, April 07, 2006

McFarland's April Book Release Schedule

Every month, I check in with McFarland to see what new film and TV titles this great publisher has on tap, and this month is a doozy. There's a lot to choose from here (including a soft-back re-release of my Blake's 7 book...). Also, I have to say that Eric Greene's book on Planet of the Apes is one of the finest scholarly film books I've ever read. It's amazing, so check it out below. I own the hard cover from years back, and it's a prized possession.

Literature into Film-
For most people, film adaptation of literature can be summed up in one sentence: “The movie wasn’t as good as the book.” This volume undertakes to show the reader that not only is this evaluation not always true but sometimes it is intrinsically unfair. Movies based on literary works, while often billed as adaptations, are more correctly termed translations. A director and his actors translate the story from the written page into a visual presentation. Depending on the form of the original text and the chosen method of translation, certain inherent difficulties and pitfalls are associated with this change of medium. So often our reception of a book-based movie has more to do with our expectations and reading of the literature than with the job that the movie production did or did not do. Avoiding these biases and fairly evaluating any particular literary-based film takes an awareness of certain factors.Written with a formalistic rather than historical approach, this work presents a comprehensive guide to literature-based films, establishing a contextual and theoretical basis to help the reader understand the relationships between such movies and the original texts as well as the reader’s own individual responses to these productions. To this end, it focuses on recognizing and appreciating the inherent difficulties encountered when basing a film on a literary work, be it a novel, novella, play or short story. Individual chapters deal with the specific issues and difficulties raised by each of these genres, providing an overview backed up by case studies of specific film translations. Films and literary works receiving this treatment include The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Lady Windemere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare’s Henry V. Interspersed throughout the text are suggestions for activities the film student or buff can use to enhance his or her appreciation and understanding of the films. This volume also discusses the attributes of effective film translation, considers the rights and responsibilities—if any—owed to the parent text and explores the theoretical aspects of critical analysis, written or verbal, of such works. Appendices provide an aesthetic rubric; a sample decoupage and storyboard; and a list of Shakespeare’s plays translated to film. A glossary aids in understanding film and literary terms. Photographs and an index are also included.

Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington-
Before the unprecedented televised presidential debates of 1960, most Americans were able to relate to their leaders in little more than an historical context. In the era of televised elections, however, the media have allowed Americans to witness the paternal, moral and intellectual qualities of their president up close. Television has been so critical to this process of political socialization that, for many Americans, the televised image of the president is the president.As the acclaimed television drama The West Wing demonstrates, fictional representations of the presidency can also be significant civic forces. This book examines how film and television drama contribute to shaping the presidency and the way most Americans understand it, and particularly the processes of political education. The text discusses The West Wing’s didactic potential, its representation of White House politics, and its depiction of race and gender, with commentary on how fictional representations of the presidency become important elements of American political consciousness.

The Art of Laurel and Hardy-
From the early days of film came Laurel and Hardy, a comedy team that created slapstick hilarity from life’s simplest situations. Some seventy years after their heyday, Arthur Stanley Jefferson and Oliver Norvell “Babe” Hardy are still remembered for the comic chaos they created in film shorts. They gave us something to laugh at by reminding us of our own foibles, in a way that was genuine and unpretentious. The lanky Stan Laurel (1890–1965) and portly Ollie Hardy (1892–1957) had but one objective: to create as many laughs as would fit in one short film. And that, they did.The book begins by exploring their comedy in the early days of film. A chapter is dedicated to each of “the boys”—Laurel from Ulverston, England, and Hardy from the state of Georgia—as a person and performer. Further chapters explore the slapstick and gags of Laurel and Hardy and how the pair survived the transition to sound that left behind many actors of the day. It was only when they began to work for large studios, churning out cookie-cutter scripts, that their art began to lose its way. The book takes the reader through the ups and downs of their careers and to a final comeback. A filmography lists works from 1917 to 1951 with information on availability.
British filmmaker Peter Greenaway says life offers only two subjects: “One is sex and the other is death.” Greenaway uses both and romanticizes neither; indeed, his goal is the antithesis of the sanitary and sentimental portrayal of humanity. Although his films have met with outrage from some viewers, cult audiences praise them for insightful messages: that people are detached from violence because they fail to see others’ bodies as identical to their own; that predatory capitalism has caused humans to lose sight of our shared physicality and mortality; and that taboos are simply a system allowing people to exercise power over others.This book examines nine of Greenaway’s feature films, dedicating a chapter to each: The Draughtsman’s Contract; A Zed and Two Noughts; The Belly of an Architect; Drowning by Numbers; The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover; Prospero’s Books; The Baby of Mâcon; The Pillow Book; and 8 ½ Women. The author examines the characters and plot, studies the structure and elements of the story, explores Greenaway’s motives and reactions, and reveals audience reactions, including comments from viewers. A filmography lists films written and directed by Peter Greenaway from 1962 to 2004.

Planet of the Apes as American Myth-
Eric Greene

How do political conflicts shape popular culture? This book explores that question by analyzing how the Planet of the Apes films functioned both as entertaining adventures and as apocalyptic political commentary. Informative and thought provoking, the book demonstrates how this enormously popular series of secular myths used images of racial and ecological crisis to respond to events like the Cold War, the race riots of the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement, and the Vietnam War. The work utilizes interviews with key filmmakers and close readings of the five Apes television shows to trace the development of the series’ theme of racial conflict in the context of the shifting ideologies of race during the sixties and seventies. The book also observes that today, amid growing concerns over race relations, the resurgent popularity of Apes and Twentieth Century—Fox’s upcoming film may again make Planet of the Apes a pop culture phenomenon that asks who we are and where we are going.


The Reel Middle Ages-
Kevin J. Harty

Those tales of old—King Arthur, Robin Hood, The Crusades, Marco Polo, Joan of Arc—have been told and retold, and the tradition of their telling has been gloriously upheld by filmmaking from its very inception. From the earliest of Georges Méliès’s films in 1897, to a 1996 animated Hunchback of Notre Dame, film has offered not just fantasy but exploration of these roles so vital to the modern psyche. St. Joan has undergone the transition from peasant girl to self-assured saint, and Camelot has transcended the soundstage to evoke the Kennedys in the White House.Here is the first comprehensive survey of over 900 cinematic depictions of the European Middle Ages—date of production, country of origin, director, production company, cast, and a synopsis and commentary. A bibliography, index, and over 100 stills complete this remarkable work.


A History and Critical Analysis of Blake’s 7, the 1978–1981 British Television Space Adventure-
John Kenneth Muir

Blake’s 7, Terry Nation’s science fiction tale of cosmic freedom fighters, became a hit series in Great Britain when it premiered in 1978. Eight years later, the show quickly became a cult program in America. A dramatization of futuristic outlaw heroes who defend the innocent from both alien and human conquering forces, the series might better be said to be equal parts Robin Hood and The Magnificent Seven. The series defied traditional genre elements of science fiction television, and developed the concept of the continual “story arc” years before such shows as Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine.This book provides a critical history and episode guide for Blake’s 7, including commentaries for all 52 episodes. Also included are analytical essays on the show, dealing with such topics as themes, imagery and story arc; a consideration of the series as a futuristic Robin Hood myth; cinematography and visual effects; and an overview of Blake’s 7 in books, comics and videos. A detailed appendix lists the genre conventions found in the series. The author also includes information about Blake’s 7 fan clubs and Internet sites.

The Films of the Eighties-
Robert A. Nowlan and Gwendolyn Wright Nowlan
The 1980s had more than its share of both emerging stars and final tributes paid to luminaries, as well as smash hits and bombs, memorable and boring performances, and new trends and tried-and-true formula offerings.The Film of the Eighties includes numerous examples of all of these. Each entry has the year of release, production company, country of origin (U.S., U.K., Australian, Canadian), leading performers and the characters they portrayed, and comprehensive credits. A brief description, review, and evaluation of the film’s cinematic values (if any) are also provided. Replacement volumes can be obtained individually under ISBN 0-7864-2738-8 (for Volume 1) and ISBN 0-7864-2739-6 (for Volume 2).

Children of the Night-
Randy Rasmussen
There are six of them: heroines, heroes, wise elders, mad scientists, servants and monsters. One of the most fascinating and also endearing aspects of horror films is how they use these six clearly defined character types to portray good and evil. This was particularly true of the classics of the genre, where actors often appeared in the same type of role in many different films. The development of the archetypal characters reflected the way the genre reacted to social changes of the time. As the Great Depression yielded to the uncertainty of World War II, flawed but noble mad scientists such as Henry Frankenstein gave way to Dr. Nieman (The Ghost of Frankenstein) with his dreams of revenge and world conquest. This work details the development of the six archetypes in horror films and how they were portrayed in the many classics of the 1930s and 1940s.


Lugosi-
Gary Don Rhodes

Foreword by F. Richard Sheffield

He was born Béla Ferenc Dezso Blasko on October 20, 1882, in Hungary. He joined Budapest’s National Theater in 1913 and later appeared in several Hungarian films under the pseudonym Arisztid Olt. After World War I, he helped the Communist regime nationalize Hungary’s film industry, but barely escaped arrest when the government was deposed, fleeing to the United States in 1920.As he became a star in American horror films in the 1930s and 1940s, publicists and fan magazines crafted outlandish stories to create a new history for Lugosi. The cinema’s Dracula was transformed into one of Hollywood’s most mysterious actors. This exhaustive account of Lugosi’s work in film, radio, theater, vaudeville and television provides an extensive biographical look at the actor. The enormous merchandising industry built around him is also examined.


White Zombie-
Gary D. Rhodes
Foreword by George E. Turner

The 1932 horror film White Zombie starring Bela Lugosi has received controversial attention from film reviewers and scholars—but it is unarguably a cult classic worthy of study. This book analyzes the film text from nearly every possible viewpoint, using both academic and popular film theories. Also supplied is an extensive intellectual history of the predecessor works to White Zombie, as well as information on the significance it carried for subsequent books and films, its theatrical release around the country, its modern cultural influence, and the attempts to restore the film to its original state. Other noteworthy features of this work include an in-depth biography of White Zombie director Victor Halperin, the first complete study of his life and career, and 244 images and photographs.


Gary A. [Allen] Smith
Foreword by James Bernard

There has been a tremendous amount of renewed interest in the output of Britain’s Hammer Films. But there remain a great number of worthwhile British horror films, made at the same time by other companies, that have received little attention. The author provides a comprehensive listing of British horror films—including science fiction, fantasy, and suspense films containing horror-genre elements—that were released between 1956 and 1976, the “Golden Age” of British horror. Entries are listed alphabetically by original British title, from Vincent Price in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) to Zeta One (1969). Entries also include American title, release information, a critique of the film, and the film’s video availability.The book is filled with photographs and contains interviews with four key figures: Max J. Rosenberg, cofounder of Amicus Productions, one of the period’s major studios; Louis M. Heyward, former writer, film executive and producer; Aida Young, film and television producer; and Gordon Hessler, director of such films as The Oblong Box and Murders in the Rue Morgue
.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK #35: Coloring Books!

I post today in praise of coloring books, those fun little booklets that allow children in some small way to be "a part" of the adventure. I've written about this subject before in relation to novelizations, colorforms, model kits and other toys, but I've always believed the MSM (that's the mainstream media...) has it all wrong regarding television.

So many reports and academicians mistakenly view TV as some sort of passive activity - vegging out on the sofa or some such thing; couch potato-ism - whereas I don't think that's the case at all. I'm speaking for my generation now because that's where I have experience: Gen X. But I firmly believe that we grew up watching TV shows like Star Trek and movies like Star Wars and then took that love - through novelizations, through coloring books, through action figures, whathaveyou - into our own universe of creativity.

When reading a coloring book, for instance, with crayon in hand, we are taking control of the universe we admire and like and actively engaging it, deciding what colors (and crayons...) to use, and for how long. Simple you say? Perhaps so, but it never ceases to amaze me how many folks who started out with coloring books and action figures are now writing their own books, drawing their own comics, filming their own movies, or otherwise fully immersed in the creative process. I think this must have indeed started very young, with just such "products" as film/tv-related coloring books. Doesn't matter if it was Holly Hobbie, The Sunshine Family, or Roy Rogers.

For me, my earliest memory of a coloring book is from about 1975. I had a Planet of the Apes coloring book emblazoned with a yellow cover, and remember laying on the carpeted floor in my grandparents' home in Verona, NJ, coloring away while my folks visited. I remember everything about that evening: the red sofas lining the wall, where the TV was positioned, that this was the first occasion wherein I learned the word "jabberwocky" (because I heard my parents use it...) and so forth. Perhaps because - even at age 5 - I was engaged in some kind of creative activity - my antennae were up and in "receiving" mode.

Over the years I collected a number of coloring books. There were some great Space:1999 coloring and activity books (which I sadly no longer own...) wherein children could de-code alien languages, create a kind of "film strip" for the Big Screen in Main Mission, and so on. I've also collected Star Trek, Black Hole and Buck Rogers coloring books over the years and though I don't actively color in them (god forbid, they're collectors' items!!!) I always appreciate them because I see them as the beginning of creativity. Even choosing a color and putting a crayon in hand...that's the starting line for individuality and creativity, even if the images come from a TV show.

I don't mean to be pretentious or make an overreaching case for coloring books. I simply mean to say that they're cool and fun, and valuable for the kiddies. I know when I'm a Daddy, I hope to spend time coloring with my child; sparking his or her imagination. It may not be high art, but coloring books nonetheless lead one to an appreciation of art or at least to the knowledge that one can actively participate in it. You think?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 20: Manimal (1983)

Not a man; not an animal; Jonathan Chase (Simon MacCorkindale) was...Manimal!

In 1983, NBC was suffering from the pre-Cosby Show doldrums and searching for new series - ANY new series to help the once-proud Peacock restore its ratings glory. Thus oddball series such as The Rousters (which promised to "sink the Love Boat!") were added to the prime-time line-up along with the short-lived superhero program from Glen Larson and Donald Boyle, Manimal.

Manimal chronicled the strange adventures of Jonathan Chase, a man who, according to William Conrad's ominous introduction each week, had "the brightest of futures, the darkest of pasts." To wit, Chase had learned from his father the secrets of transformation; the secret that "divides man from animal, animal from man."

In other words, Chase would solve crimes working with the NYPD and would every episode turn into animals such as a hawk or a black panther in the course of solving a crime. His sidekicks were Brooke Mackenzie (the lovely Melody Anderson) and Michael D. Roberts as Ty, another cop. The incredible Steve Winston was the magician behind the special effects, which looked a lot like the transformations spotlighted in such werewolf movies as An American Werewolf in London (1981) and The Howling (1981).

Imagine a series in which every week, a hero gets in trouble, and at just the right moment, transforms into an animal to escape the predicament. It's kind of like The Incredible Hulk, only with a panther, a hawk, a bull and the like substituting for the big green fella. That was Manimal in a nutshell. Unfortunately, because the special effects were expensive, the same dramatic (and occasionally impressive-for-their-time) transformations were repeated shot-for-shot each segment of the series, which only stayed on the air for eight weeks.

The height of Manimal's absurdity came with an episode called "Breath of the Dragon," which aired December 10, 1983. In the series' de rigueur Chinatown episode (ever notice how every superhero show has an episode set there?) Chase had to fight off a Chinese gang. He thus duly reported that the study of martial arts began with animals; in the observation of how they strike and defend. In keeping with that illuminating bit of sociology, the episode culminated in a straight-faced fight sequence in which series star MacCorkindale bounded absurdly about his opponent, adopting the movements and characteristics of a mountain gorilla. This is something that must be seen to be believed...

TV Guide named Manimal one of the 50 worst shows of all time in 2002 and noted it was "an astonishingly silly, unintentionally hilarious crime series." (TV Guide, July 20-2006, 2002, page 22). People Magazine trenchantly asked "Would you believe a crime-fighting professor with the superpowers that enable him to turn into a variety of animals?" (October 3, 1983).

As if Manimal wasn't enough, creator Glen Larson (also the man behind Galactica:1980) simultaneously provided audiences another strange superhero series in 1983: Automan! I'll confess, I've always enjoyed Automan more than Manimal. It had a certain campy charm, whereas Manimal - played woefully straight - is one of the most bizarre superhero TV shows of all time.

Obviously, audiences hated it and the critics despised Manimal. It ran on NBC's Friday night for a few weeks but was mauled by Dallas. Then it moved to Saturdays when The Rousters got cancelled. Guess what sunk Manimal and The Rousters?

The Love Boat...

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

CULT TV FLASHBACK #19: Galactica: 1980

Who says all cult TV flashbacks are good ones?

Today, the "re-imagined" Battlestar Galactica is a (modest) hit on the Sci-Fi Channel, but as long time fans of the outer space franchise will recall, this isn't the first series to attempt to recapture the magic of the 1978-1979 original starring Richard Hatch, Lorne Greene and Dirk Benedict. There is another chapter in the Galactica's history...

In fact, it was January 1980 when a short-lived series called Galactica:1980 appeared on ABC.

I'll never forget opening an issue of TV Guide and seeing the black-and-white advertisement that heralded the news: Galactica had found Earth. The ad revealed two generic Colonial Warriors looming over an Earth city, like giants. This was my first cause for suspicion and cynicism: the two warriors were generic enough that they could have been Apollo and Starbuck. Or not. I began to get a sinking feeling: would any Galactica show be worthwhile without those who had starred in the previous series?

I watched with excitement and trepidation on Sunday, January 27, 1980, as the first installment of a three-part episode "Galactica Discovers Earth" aired. As I feared, there had been a lot of weird and unnecessary changes (although at least - in fairness - Starbuck wasn't a woman, Tigh wasn't a drunk, Apollo didn't hate his Dad, Boomer wasn't a woman, and the Cylons hadn't become T-100s...).

The series picked up twenty yahrens after the original show, as a bearded Commander Adama (Lorne Greene again) is counseled by a teenaged genius named Dr. Zee (Robbie Rist). It turns out, Earth is nearby, but does not possess the technology to defend itself against a Cylon attack. In other words, the shining quest is over and the Galactica has come a long way for nothing. Worse, with the Cylons in pursuit, Adama has merely led the exterminating machines to one more human outpost...

Proving his theory, Zee shows Adama a speculative film of what the destruction of the Earth would look like at Cylon hands (or pulsar cannons). Want to know what it looks like? Conveniently, just like stock footage from the Universal movie Earthquake (1976) only with Cylon ships superimposed over the action. Every time a building in L.A. is about to crumble (from the earthquake), instead a blue Cylon blast hits it, making it look like a laser salvo. Cheap isn't the word for this sequence. It's insulting.

The mattes in the Los Angeles attack scene are terrible too. Black lines are visible around the strafing craft at all times, scale fluctuates, and the black hooks used in the motion control process are visible on the tails of the Cylon ships throughout. It all looks slapped together to make a quick buck.

Welcome to Galactica: 1980.

From there, the series involved Adama and his grand-son Boxey - re-named Troy - trying to figure out a way to bring Earth technology up to speed so it can resist a Cylon attack. Adama and Zee want to do this by secretly delivering Colonial technology to kindly scientists (like the Brady Bunch's Robert Reed...) but a renegade scientist among the fleet, Xavier, is impatient. He believes he could travel back in time and alter Earth's history so that it will be ready now, in 1980, to assist. The premise (not counting the time travel angle...)was basically a variation on The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951): advanced aliens interact with humans to offer superior technology and peaceful co-existence.

Maybe that's not the best premise in the cosmos. Maybe it's not even particularly promising. But it certainly seems that it could have been workable, right? But where Galactica:1980 failed rather dramatically was in executing the premise

To wit, the first episode found Colonial Warriors Troy and Dillon riding space-age motorcycles that could actually fly, a ludicrous concept again made even worse by bad rear-projection and process work. They battled with a motorcycle gang, and there were lots of double takes and foolish reaction shots as the Colonials flew off into the sky...

If that wasn't bad enough, succeeding episodes were actually not that good. The second story, "The Super Scouts," found Troy and Dillon rescuing a group of Colonial children (ugh!) and hiding them on Earth as boy/girl scouts (ugh! ugh!). The children had little devices which could render them invisible (ugh! ugh! ugh!). Also, Earth's gravity rendered Galacticans super power and strength so they could jump like the Six-Million Dollar Man or Bionic Woman (ugh! ugh! ugh! ugh!). The story was a meditation on the dangers of pollution but it was really just playtime for the kiddies. One scene depicted the invisible children tossing apples at corrupt local policemen.

What treasures laid ahead for Galactica:1980 after this triumph? "Spaceball" -an episode I refer to as Chariot of the Gods meets The Bad News Bears (1976). This tale found the super scouts playing baseball at a camp for underprivileged children! Just image what wacky fun that was! Then came "The Night the Cylons Landed" on April 13 and April 20th 1980, which found the Cylons (led by an android named Andromus) crashing on Earth and seeking the help of guest star Wolfman Jack to "phone home" to the Empire.

The final episode of the series (the sixth story...) aired on May 4, 1980. It was called "The Return of Starbuck" and was a flashback story that saw guest star Dirk Benedict back as Lt. Starbuck. Stranded on an alien planet, he befriends a Cylon named "Cy" and helped a strange woman named Angela (Chapman), who is actually Dr. Zee's mother, get back to the fleet. As bad as this no doubt sounds, it was about a hundred times better than any other episode of Galactica:1980, a series that re-used all the props of the original 1978 space adventure but had none of the heart.

The science fiction press was not kind. "If Galactica fans were expecting the worst when the sequel arrived in 1980, they certainly weren't disappointed," wrote Epilog Magazine in 1993. "The stories were a complete waste of time" opined Michael Cassutt in The Best of Science Fiction Television (Harmony; 1987). And TV Zone called the show "an embarrassing, child-oriented mess." (June 1995, page 5).

I'm afraid Galactica:1980 finds no additional love from me, even in retrospect. Indeed, I was a ten-year old kid in 1980, and even at that age, I was insulted. This was, perhaps, my first exposure with the idea that entertainment I loved could be corrupted and destroyed by the very people who had crafted superior material. To put it bluntly, by my reckoning, Galactica:1980 is the nadir of televised sci-fi. Indulging in fan hyperbole..it was the worst show. EVER.

If you want to see for yourself just how bad Galactica:1980 is, please feel free. It's airing on the Sci-Fi Channel this Thursday morning (April 6). I recommend you watch it. Because if we don't remember history, we're doomed to repeat it.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Back from the Grave and Ready to Party


I'm baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!

My thanks to all the readers who communicated here and privately about the medical crisis demanding my attention. There were some tough days last week, but the situation is better. My family is doing well, and getting stronger every day.

So, here I am. Ready to get this show on the road again...