Friday, July 07, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 43: Tom Corbett Space Academy Set (Marx Toys)

A couple months back, I had the amazing good fortune to find a neat old sci-fi collectible at a flea market in Deltaville, Virginia...a Tom Corbett Space Cadet thermos from Aladdin!

For those of you who may have forgotten, Tom Corbett Space Cadet was a CBS (and then Dumont) TV series from the early 1950s, and a forerunner of Star Trek. The series imagined a futuristic and golden space age in which responsible, decent-minded cadets like Tom patrolled the universe in rocketships such as the Polaris.

Well, this past weekend, my really incredible parents surprised me yet again with another treasure (after last week's Micronauts find, no less...) My father brought down from the attic a boyhood toy he had enjoyed with his best friend, Bob. In fact, on a recent trip to New Jersey, Bob had revealed to my Dad that he still had this toy in his attic, and that he wanted to give it to me. How can one guy be so lucky? I often wonder...

What's that toy my Dad played with back in the early 1950s? Well, it's the much sought-after Marx Toys Tom Corbett Space Academy playset..

Now, as you can see from the photographs decorating this post, what remains of this official Space Academy set (issued from Louis Marx & Co. Inc, the "world's largest manufacturers of toys"), is basically the small Corbett figurines (including space helmets on some!), several of the out-buildings, one vehicle, and several key accessories (chairs, desks, laser posts, control panels, an easel and the like). The protective outer/perimeter walls of the space academy, as well as the central buildings are long gone, alas.

But heck, this is still a real retro treasure from a great manufacturer of toys in the 1950s and 1960s. Marx used to make playsets like Fort Apache (with cowboys and Indians...) as well as this one, and as a kid, I remember owning some kind of Viking fort with figures, also produced by the company.. Anyway, this particular toy is made all the more special because my father and his best friend played with these very cool "action" figures fifty years ago. Some day, maybe my own son will be interested? Hopefully...

Trading Card Close-up # 1: "Fate of the Klingons"

I launched one of my new blog features yesterday ("Sci-Fi Characters I Love") and today I want to usher in another new brand of post. Trading Card "close-ups" will feature looks at - you guessed it - sci-fi card fronts and backs from years past.

I usher in the series with a card from Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the year 1979. Card # 4 of the set, in fact, entitled "Fate of the Klingons."

I selected this card to begin with because of the unusual nature of these particular Klingons. You may recall, before Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Klingons looked like sweaty space pirates. No bumpy foreheads. Only goatees, mind-sifters and agonizers.

So when I first cast my young eyes upon this trading card (before I even saw the movie, I think...), I was fascinated by the transformation of the familiar alien race. Plus, these Klingons look really, really cool. Klingons in later Star Trek productions ended up looking a lot less severe and alien, don't you think? Mark Lenard, Spock's father, even plays the Klingon Commander you see in this card.

Also, "the fate of the Klingons" is what opened up Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The destruction (by V'Ger) of three Klingon cruisers remains the most exciting and cinematically interesting aspect of Robert Wise's picture, if you ask me. It was a special effects show-stopper in 1979, and a way to start the movie with a blast.

As a bonus on this card, the back features a "key" to the puzzle that you can assemble by collecting all 16 cards from puzzle "B!" Yep, it's the U.S.S. Enterprise crew, replete with Persis Khambatta, and Admiral James T. Kirk, here wearing his stylish two-tone uniform. The Star Trek crew never again wore these uniforms.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Coming Soon: Horror Films of the 1980s.

Yep, it's almost here. The long-awaited sequel to one of my most popular, critically acclaimed and widely-read books (Horror Films of the 1970s).

I toiled long and hard on this one, and hope you'll give it a gander. The stats: 328 movies covered; almost 200 photographs; a dozen interviews; eleven original illustrations. Tons of reviews, horror conventions (or cliches), memorable ad-lines, the 80s hall of fame and much more ghoulish, bloody fun.

This baby's up at McFarland, available now for pre-order. I'll let you know more about the street date, but it looks like this one might arrive in time for Halloween. I'm really excited about this book for many reasons. It's nice to "come home" in a sense, to horror, because I've been away since 2004's The Unseen Force: the Films of Sam Raimi.

Here's McFarland's book description:

John Kenneth Muir is back! His Horror Films of the 1970s was named an Outstanding Reference Book by the American Library Association, and likewise a Booklist Editors’ Choice. This time, Muir surveys 300 films from the 1980s. From backwards psychos (Just Before Dawn) and yuppie-baiting giant rats (Of Unknown Origin), to horror franchises like Friday the 13th and Hellraiser, as well as nearly forgotten obscurities such as The Children and The Boogens, Muir is our informative guide through 10 macabre years of silver screen terrors.

Muir introduces the scope of the decade’s horrors, and offers a history drawing parallels between current events and the nightmares unfolding on cinema screens. Each of the 300 films are discussed with detailed credits, a brief synopsis, a critical commentary, and where applicable, notes on the film’s legacy beyond the 80s. Also included is a catalog of the author’s “star” ratings for both 1970s and 1980s horror movies, as well as his ranking of the 15 best horror films of the 80s.

Sci-Fi Characters I Love # 1: Lydia (from V: The Series)

In the mid-1980s, the name of the game in sci-fi TV was V (not for Vendetta...), but for "Victory," in particular in the global war against those reptilian extra-terrestrial fascists, the Visitors. V, V: The Final Battle and V: The Series were all a crucial part of that decade's genre programming, and truth be told, likely a powerful influence on later productions like Independence Day (1996). V is one of the few programs in American network history that concerns a leftist resistance battling an overpowering right-wing hierarchy, one that scapegoats enemies (like scientists...) and manipulates the power of the media to its own ends. Wonder how that got by the network executives?

Regardless, V (the original mini-series in 1984) introduced the villainous and ambitious Visitor second-in-command, Diana (played with gleeful relish by Jane Badler), but it wasn't until V: The Series aired on NBC Friday nights that this character came up against a truly effective foil amongst her own kind. Oh, Sarah Douglas did a fine job playing such a character in V: The Final Battle, a fleet commander, but she was too easily bumped off by Diana's Machiavellian schemes.

However, in the blond, big-haired, British-accented Visitor officer Lydia (essayed in delicious fashion by June Chadwick), Diana finally countenanced a nemesis as scheming, manipulative and avaricious as she was. Consequently, viewers could pretty much forget or ignore what was happening with the Resistance down in Los Angeles (and with the series' protagonists...). The reason to watch V: The Series quickly became the Mothership sparring matches, the ongoing battle of wills, between Diana and Lydia. They fought over romantic lovers (like Duncan Regehr's Visitor, Charles), and tried to gain ultimate power, always making their opponent look bad in the process.

As part of my new blog series, "Sci-Fi Characters I Love," I'll be gazing back at some of my favorite dramatis personae in the genre's long history. My choices hopefully won't be obvious (at least to start), but rather genuinely stimulating and interesting ones. It's fascinating to consider, but the best characters in sci-fi dramas aren't always the leads. Sometimes they are the support characters; sometimes aliens instead of human; and sometimes...oft-times, they're villains.

Back in 2004, while I was writing Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest and Company, I had the most welcome opportunity to chat with Ms. June Chadwick, who played Lydia on V: The Series. She had also proven herself quite memorable a presence as Jeanine Pettibone, David St. Hubbins' irksome girlfriend in This is Spinal Tap (1984). The subject of the interview was Spinal Tap and the process of improvisation in that film, but I couldn't resist the temptation to ask Ms. Chadwick about her terrific performances as Lydia, and her memories of V: The Series.

Firstly, I wanted to know how Ms. Chadwick came to be involved with the sci-fi series.

"They bumped off a character, played by Sarah Douglas, who was British, and I think they wanted somebody European, and it was quite a small role to start with," June Chadwick explains. "I seem to come across a lot of roles the same way, which is the hard way, going into auditions. Sometimes they [these roles] come along, where I'm thinking, gosh, 'the glove doesn't fit.' And sometimes I think 'this is totally my glove.' V was one of those. I loved the humor of it."

And what was it like working with the Alien Lizard Queen, Diana, otherwise known as Jane Badler?

"Jane was doll...a doll," Ms. Chadwick emphasizes. "We became good friends. In fact I saw her fairly recently. I seem to come in late on projects, and I came in late on this one. It had been a mini-series and everybody had got used to each other. And it was a family sort of thing and I was newbie again. And Jane was very generous and welcoming, and I don't think all actresses are like that. Some actually take the competitiveness too far, into reality, and she absolutely didn't do that."

"And we did have a very good time together, and I remember we'd actually watch the episodes together. We'd be walking down these long corridors together and go hysterical because she and I both had one leg slightly longer than the other, and we kind of tipped to one side a tiny bit when we walked. And she tipped one way and I was tipping the other way and that's all we saw..."

And how did the role of Lydia, the Visitor officer, develop?

"Initially I had all these scenes walking up and down the corridors saying 'the Leader won' be pleased.', Chadwick jokes. "I think the character progressed from there. I think that there's something about being British. You can say those things with great aplomb and authority. With an American accent, it might not sound so official. But if you say them with an English accent...and it sounds pretty official, which is why Star Trek sometimes has British actors. I did a Star Trek CD-Rom game and I played a character, and it had loads of techno-jargon and it was a lot of fun to do."

"It (the character of Lydia) did develop," Ms. Chadwick continues. "Initially, I remember one of the producers telling me he wanted me to be meaner. And so it was interesting because I don't play 'mean' per se. I play a lot of mean characters, but I always play them in the way that she has something she really cares about. And my premise with this one (Lydia) was that humans were like ants to me. Not there's anything bad about humans necessarily, but they are totally useless and don't mean anything to me. And again, Lydia had a really big cause, and if someone was going to get in the way of that cause, they had to be demolished somehow."

In one of V's most memorable episodes, Lydia and Diana - fully made-up to appear like members of an outer space-going KISS cult - duke it out in ritualistic hand-to-hand combat. That female-on-female smackdown is one memory from the series that personally, I will always cherish. It was the equivalent of Linda Evans and Joan Collins sharing that catfight on Dynasty...

"Oh god I loved that," Chadwick recalls. "We had two fabulous make-up artists and they were sort of old-school make-up artists, and they went to town on us, which did half the job. I've trained as a dancer, and Jane is a good mover. It's basically choreography, as many fights are. We had a giggle. It's very fun when someone says 'action' and off you go, and you're doing all this stuff, and the minute they say 'cut' you dissolve into giggles."

And did Ms. Chadwick have any recollections of the fairly graphic (for television in the 1980s) Visitor dining scenes? Remember, these reptilian aliens feasted on all kinds of mammals (from guinea pigs to human beings...).

"Whenever possible they had you munch on something that was at least reasonable," Chadwick explains. "What used to fascinate me was when we had the banquets, they had this food - you might call it - on plates all day. They'd say 'cut' at the end of the day, and all the extras would dive in and eat the food. And I thought, 'oh my god, they're eating melting rats.'

Lastly, I had to ask Ms. Chadwick a delicate and rather provocative question about her character. I tip-toed around it. You see, I sometimes I got of Diana and Lydia. Like...hmmm, how should I put this?

"You mean the bi-sexual potential?" Chadwick noted, courteously ending my discomfort. Yep, that's what I mean.

"I don't think I ever went there, per se, in my mind," Chadwick relates. "But I definitely think we had a chemistry that was a bit of a kind of a love/hate thing, even on screen. And I think we did encourage each other. We did sort of stimulate each other. In terms of stimulation, well I guess I can only speak for myself, but she definitely stimulated me. Yes, she's a very sexy woman and it was a challenge, I think."

Now that V: The Series is on DVD and gaining new fans, any thought on its enduring popularity?

"There was a V convention I think at the same time Spinal Tap had its premiere, and I was thinking 'I can retire now, I've been in a cult movie and a cult TV series,''" Chadwick jokes. "I couldn't believe the number of people who came to this convention who were all wearing the costumes. They were just real sci-fi fans, and it still has this huge following. I think I got a repeat (royalty) check just yesterday on it, which is nice! I'm glad. I think it was a little sad it was stopped when it was. I remember Brandon Tartikoff, the head of NBC, saying it was the biggest mistake he ever made, canceling it when he did."

"I was also personally sad because the next six scripts were all about Lydia and Diana, and the two of us were hunting each other down on another planet. We were told the storylines, and as an actress it was disappointing for me, because the character had grown from being very small, to being beside the lead of the series..."

So today, on the blog, let's eat a guinea pig (or maybe a chocolate bunny) in honor of the gloriously evil Lydia, Diana's regal and scheming opponent. V: The Series ended on a cliffhanger note more than twenty years ago, so as far as I'm concerned, Lydia is still out there on another planet, making mischief, forked tongue and all...

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW: Superman Returns (2006)

Back in the years 2000-2001, I occasionally jobbed as a contributor for a prominent genre magazine (one no longer in business...or rather, under the same ownership). While submitting article ideas for this publication, I was informed in no uncertain terms that all prospective articles in the magazine had to target sixteen year-olds.

Which means that I couldn't write about Space:1999 or the old Battlestar Galactica, or anything, for that matter, pre-mid-1980s. This edict was a shock to my system; I couldn't accept that popular mainstream magazines would focus only on the "new" and pretend that genre history didn't exist. Indeed, part of the reason that this blog exists today is to serve as a response to that policy. Here I write about whatever the hell I want to write about...old or new.

But that hard lesson about "business" was not so tremendous a shock to the system as Superman Returns, Bryan Singer'scinematic superhero event of 2006. Why? Well, this movie serves as a genuine anomaly in terms of modern Hollywood business-planning. Because Bryan Singer forged a Superman movie for me...a thirty-something year-old guy who remembers and adores the Christopher Reeve films of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  And you know what, today, by-and-large, fans hate, hate, hate it.  It is described often as being too reverential, or "boring."

I found it a pretty satisfactory follow-up to the original films of the 1970s and 1980s, and felt that, in some way, this movie proved that there is no certain approach to reviving a classic film series.  If you re-boot with faith, like Superman Returns, people complain.  If you change everything up, well...people complain.

I hasten to add in regards to this film that there are no sixteen year-olds walking around on this planet who remember these old films from their theatrical runs. Yet despite that fact, Singer has loyally re-used John Williams' stirring Superman theme, and marshaled archival footage of the late Marlon Brando as Jor-El, Superman's father. Furthermore, Singer has crafted his 2006 film as a direct sequel to Superman (1978) and Superman II (1981).

This is a revolutionary notion in corporate Hollywood, make no mistake. Bryan Singer's approach flies in the face of conventional wisdom, and the tack other films and TV shows have steadfastly adopted. Tim Burton's re-imagining of Planet of the Apes (2001) was not the continuation long-time fans desired or prayed for, but rather a bizarre dead-end, a pocket universe that today nobody even remembers (or likes). 

And Ron Moore has recreated Battlestar Galactica for his own personal amusement and political agenda rather than crafting a faithful continuation of what originated in 1978. Why? Because Hollywood cravenly pursues the dollar of the sixteen year-old above all others. So yeah, at least so far as entertainment is concerned, we live in the world of Logan's Run (another reference for older fans...).

But give Bryan Singer his due for his central conceit here. He has adopted a more respectful, more faithful stance than many of his peers might have taken and consequently given all those "old" Superman fans the movie we wanted back in 1983...when we got Richard Pryor in Superman III instead.  So, the film is faithful to the cinematic legacy of this character; not necessarily the comic-book legacy. 

I guess you have to pick your battles...

So, really, considering his creative decisions, Bryan Singer had me hook, line and sinker at "it's a bird, it's a plane, it's..." because he actually took my generation's hopes and dreams into account...something that almost never happens with blockbuster movies anymore. 

Singer made a movie he thought Generation X would like and cherish, and overall, I believe he succeeded in that endeavor. He also made a good movie that audiences of all ages can enjoy together; one about fatherhood and the passage of generations.

Of course, even as I harbored high hopes for this new movie, I went into Superman Returns with the iconic portrayals by Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman rolling around my brain. It's a compliment to say that Kevin Spacey erased Gene Hackman's Luthor from my mind, playing a far more menacing variation of the scoundrel Lex (yet one who could be interpreted as being the same man...given a few hard years in prison). 

As for Brandon Routh...I liked him. This young, mostly unknown talent did a more than respectable of re-casting Superman in his own image. I thought he was very good, very powerful in the difficult role. Routh evidences that sense of innocence that we desire from Superman; that notion of alone-ness, of standing-off and being different from those around him.

For me, Reeve perfectly balanced vulnerability with strength. Routh looks like he was hatched from a Christopher Reeve clone farm (Clonus, perhaps?), and certainly boasts the physical grace and sincerity to be this generation's Superman. However, I did miss Reeve's sense of humor in the role; which was never overpowering, just always percolating under the surface. Reeve was an underrated and accomplished physical comedian (especially in his scenes as Clark Kent), and Routh seemed more mopey and lugubrious in those parts of Superman Returns. Maybe it was the script...or again, merely what we demand of our superheroes today.

A sidenote regarding Routh and Superman. Have you noticed all the buzz recently about "is Superman gay?" This idea really irks me. Not because a superhero couldn't be or shouldn't be gay, but because Superman is being labeled "gay" for all these crazy sociological reasons, and make no mistake, it's meant in a negative, derogatory fashion. Our society has unfortunately come to associate contemporary manhood with swagger and arrogance; with violence and hatred and revenge meted out as "justice." But Superman is not born from such pettiness. He is not born of vengeance or swagger or arrogance. He is a man of decency, objectivity, sensitivity...and true justice. This is how Brandon Routh (accurately) plays the character in Superman Returns, but our society has grown so homophobic that any man who dares to openly express qualities of gentleness or kindness or even brotherhood towards another man is instantly deemed gay. Imagine the headlines when the new Star Trek movie premieres. "Is Mr. Spock gay?" they will shout. Why...he's a...pacifist, after all! He won't fire the phasers and wage war until he's tried to resolve a problem peacefully!!!! What a wimp...must be gay!!!!

It's really sad that our media and politicians are demanding that manliness be judged by the barrel of the gun and by cowboyish military adventures overseas rather than innate qualities of fairness and honesty, dependability and kindness. Must all our heroes be bad boys, I wonder, filled with darkness, angst and the big brood? If so, then that's a shame. Superman has always been my favorite superhero because -- although he carries difficult baggage with him -- he hasn't succumbed to the baser instincts. Truth, justice...well, you know the rest. And, I also admire Superman because throughout the wide pantheon of superheroes, Superman is the one forever in love with a dark-haired beauty of whip-smart intelligence and sharp edges. I'm in love with a woman like that; so I identify with his yearning for Lois Lane.

Which brings me to that reporter for the Daily Planet. I'm not going to say much nice here about Kate Bosworth's version. Bosworth is beautiful and generally acceptable in the role, but she definitively lacks the acerbic spark of most historical Lois Lanes. Margot Kidder was sharp, brainy and truly independent. She needed Superman because she'd always get in over her head...but she didn't know she needed Superman. Bosworth's Lane is bland and boring. Where was the snark? The edge? Heck, I would have taken Teri Hatcher's "Ally McBeal" variation of Lois Lane over Bosworth's lukewarm soup. Lois should have moxie; not be Mommy. Not that Lois can't be a mother but must motherhood blunt all edges, or preclude all traces of independent personality? But again, that's what society expects, I suppose? A woman can't be a Mother and a person all at the same time, right? Just one or the other.

But really, getting two characters right (and one wrong...) isn't too bad, is it?

Outside of the characterizations, I felt Superman Returns was strong and entertaining not so much for its lumbering narrative (which is occasionally tiresome and truth be told, a little dull at points), but rather in the registering of the emotional states of the characters. Superman goes through a lot in this film., and that was the most interesting arc for me (since I will be a father soon...I may have been more susceptible to this plotline than some). The details of Luthor's evil scheme were not particularly memorable or original, but they at least gave Superman something to play against.

I also found that the new film is not nearly so jaunty and good humored as the old ones. I guess we've come to expect our superhero movies to be serious business, and humor would have been inappropriate. But the original Donner film remains superior because it playfully acknowledged the things that are funny about Superman's life without mocking him. Maybe that's too delicate a balance to achieve in our cynical twenty-first century.

Thematically, Singer's Superman Returns picks up all the important strands left dangling by the collapse of the franchise in 1983. More than any version of the Man of Steel legend, Donner's film captured the religious nature of the Superman tale. Jor-El, a wise, God-like representative of a distant, highly-advanced planet, sends his only son (Jesus Christ) to Earth to live among humanity. The fact that Krypton is almost totally and immaculately white (without dirt, grays or other discoloration) suggests that the world is some sort of utopia or Heaven. That the Kryptonians in that film wear reflective, glowing uniforms (and in many cases boast white manes of hair...) further develops the Heaven metaphor.

But the Christ analogy goes futher. Immediately before sending away the child messiah, Jor-El and his "angelic" people have proven themselves victorious in a war against an insurrectionist named Zod (representing Lucifer). Before being "cast out" to a Hell dimension (the Phantom Zone), this villain threatens to one day return to battle Jor-El and his heirs, an Armageddon that is highlighted in Superman II.

Once on Earth, Kal El is adopted by kindly, bewildered parents (the Kents), regular humans (like Mary's devoted husband, Joseph) and both of them are at a loss to explain his miraculous arrival. Not quite immaculate conception, but close enough for jazz. Then of course, a mature Superman becomes nothing less than mankind's savior as he performs miracles (like saving Air Force One). That Superman is gentle, loving, kind, powerful, and honest also harks back to the stories regarding Jesus.

Superman Returns develops this idea about as far as it can be taken without beginning The Church of Superman. Superman is referred to throughout the film as a "savior" and Lois Lane has won a Pulitzer Prize for an article "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman." It could have been titled, "Why the World Doesn't Need Christ," right? And then, of course, Superman is stabbed in the side by Lex Luthor, reflecting the Gospel of John, which reports how a Roman soldier stabbed Jesus Christ in his side. More immediately obvious as a Christ parallel is Superman's telltale pose after saving the world from the emerging Kryptonian continent. He hovers in space, his arms outstretched horizontally, as if he is pinned to a cross. Christ metaphors are a dime a dozen in horror and science fiction films (see: Alien 3 and The Omega Man), but in the case of Superman, the comparison has been earned since Superman: The Movie, Superman II and now Superman Returns all rigorously develop the notion.

Visually, Bryan Singer has come a long way since X-Men (2000). I didn't like that film as much as many fans did, in part because of the astoundingly weak visuals. The final mutant battle atop the Statue of Liberty was a mishmash of incoherent perspectives and was so corrupted by incongruous cuts of close-ups that it looked like a bad television show (Mutant X, anybody?) I liked X-2 much better, and Singer appeared there to develop an understanding of the full breadth of the cinema frame, and how to use scope and composition to vet his storyline. I'd say that arc is just about complete with Superman Returns.

Although it lacks the lyricism of Superman: The Movie (just compare Lois's flight with Superman in that film with Singer's anemic, less-effectively scored version here...) Superman Returns does boast a few shots that are downright beautiful....and touching. For instance, this is the first time in film history I can remember that Superman's x-ray vision has been utilized to such stunning - and emotional - impact. That's a development of technology as much as anything perhaps, but that's not the point. Singer is finally proving adept at using his filmmaker's quiver in all senses, from CGI to blocking to mise-en-scene.

Although some fans will argue for X-Men as the reigning champion of superhero franchises, I guess I still point to Sam Raimi's Spider-man series as representing the best of the modern genre. However, that reckoning only came about after Spider-Man II; when that sequel actually made re-watching the 2002 original a much richer, deeper experience. I think Superman Returns may be the same story. I long to have the film on DVD and watch it in sequence with Superman: The Movie and Superman II. The sequel to Superman Returns may add even greater luster to this new Man of Steel...we'll have to wait and see.

All niggling quibbles aside, Superman Returns is a glorious encore, and a fresh take on a hero who has been with America for nearly seventy years. One of the film's finest conceits, and one rarely mentioned, involves the climax. Superman doesn't catch the crook in the end. Instead, the film ends on an emotional note, not a plot point, and perhaps I sensed in that tiny development a new direction for the superhero genre. One where CGI wonders can finally be eclipsed by the wonders of the human heart again. After all, we've seen Superman fly, Spider-man vault from building to building, and even the Hulk go green. The only world left to conquer is inner space; the domain where the super must countenance the mundane and reckon with that. For Superman, his greatest feat - his greatest failure? - could be...fatherhood.

For a fascinating and erudite review of Superman Returns, check out film scholar Kevin Flanagan's take at Virtual Fools, here.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

TV REVIEW: Edge of Outside: A TCM Original Documentary

Since July 4th - Independence Day - is now upon us, it seems quite right that Turner Classic Movies is marking the holiday with a celebration of the independent filmmaker and his filmic tradition. Edge of Outside is the network's first fully in-house produced documentary, and this enjoyable, fast-paced effort premieres tomorrow night (July 5th) at 8:00 pm. Directed by Shannon Davis, this enterprise is eminently worthy of viewing attention, especially if you love film - and in particular, film history.

Edge of Outside defines "independence" quite broadly, which simply means that director Davis seizes the opportunity to discuss with today's finest filmmakers such legendary talents as Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray, as well as Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles and John Cassavetes. Since the definition of independent is quite liberal here, the examined movie maker doesn't even necessarily need to work outside the studio system to be considered for inclusion. He just needs to understand how to manipulate the system so as to bring his unique personality and artistry to a celluloid project.

Even the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, is gazed upon in terms of his "independent" streak here. And if there's a downside at all to this interesting TV documentary, that's probably it: some film scholars will no doubt quibble with the filmmaker selections. For instance, other than Roger Corman, no horror movie makers are discussed in Edge of Outside. For quite a long a time, John Carpenter's Halloween and George Romero's Dawn of the Dead were the highest grossing independent films of all time. That might merit a mention at least.
Also - no women filmmakers are highlighted in this production. No Jane Campion or Mira Nair to be found anywhere...and that feels like an omission. Also, let's face it, a strong case could be made that George Lucas was an independent filmmaker, at least regarding the original Star Wars. True, his movie became a blockbuster immediately, but that doesn't change the fact that he accomplished his personal vision while facing enormous stress and adversity. This is where, perhaps, a more narrow reading of the term "independent" might have benefited Edge of Outside.

But no matter. The strong value of this loosely-structured documentary arises from the wonderful on-camera interviews. Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Arthur Penn, John Sayles, Peter Bogdanovich, Ed Burns, Gena Rowlands, Darren Aronofsky and the like discuss the reasons they admire and cherish Woody Allen, John Cassavetes ("the standard bearer" for independence), Samuel Fuller ("the greatest unknown director in the world") and "Bloody Sam" Peckinpah. Any network program that acknowledges and cherishes Cassavetes, perhaps the most authentic filmmaker in cinema history, wins major points with me. Basically, this documentary is like enrolling in a film study class with high-profile director lecturers. Each interview will hold your rapt attention.

One of my favorite moments in the documentary highlights Orson Welles' adage that "accidents are the friends" of a director, as well as his explanation about "dream sequences" freeing a crew from the trap of conventional logic. When in archival footage Welles notes how two percent of film is "movie making" and 98% is hustling, you realize again what kind of craziness this brilliant talent contended with. I also enjoyed the discussion of low budgets, and that they can actually be a strength. Welles said that "the enemy of art is the absence of limitations." That one line better sums up Hollywood in the CG era than just about anything I've read or heard elsewhere. It is very, very true, and I'm glad it is featured here.

Buttressed with clips from classic movies like Rebel Without a Cause, The Getaway, Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lolita and more, Edge of Outside is like a survey of your favorite movie makers, and the documentary will remind you again about all the films you want to return to and sample. Personally, I'm motivated to queue up a Cassavetes marathon and then go back and re-examine the French New Wave. I've always been a huge Truffaut fan (and I watched The Four Hundred Blows again recently...) so it will be fun to return to his work (and Godard's) in light of the points made in the documentary.

According to the documentary, independent filmmakers are "born out of conflict," evade "lucrative traps" and "haven't seen the sun in ten years." They are "self-destructive" and can see outside "the hierarchy of the moment." Those are mostly good descriptors, and a fine place to begin a discussion of independent filmmakers.

Accordingly, TCM is following up the airing of the documentary with a month-long tribute to filmmakers who have worked on the fringe of Hollywood. In fact, at 9:15 pm on Wednesday night, immediately following Edge of Outside, TCM airs John Cassavetes' 1968 masterpiece, Faces. The following Wednesday, (July 12) films by Charles Chaplin, Erich Von Stroheim, Frank Capra and Orson Welles are featured. On Wednesday July 19, Nicholas Ray, Kubrick, Fuller and Peckinpah fill out the slate.

So here it is: let Edge of Outside serve as your informative overview and primer for a month of great independent movies. I guess the TiVo will be working overtime at the Muir house this July...

July '06 Far Sector Column Posted!

My July '06 media column at the web zine Far Sector is now live. My subject this month is - appropriately enough - Superman and his legacy. I'll be offering my review here of Superman Returns in the next few days, but before doing so, I wanted to pause and remember the Superman of the 1950s, and in particular, a B-movie production starring George Reeves called Superman and The Mole People.

Here's a sample of the piece ("Superman Returns...but from where?"):

"...the low-budget effort parted ways with character lore and comic-book tradition by taking reporters Clark Kent and Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates) out of Metropolis and into the American heartland; to a small Western town called Silsby. There, the reporters attempted to solve the mystery of two diminutive “mole men,” creatures that inhabited an advanced civilization beneath Earth’s surface.

These two “explorers” had found their way topside when an oil company drilled deeply and recklessly into their terrain. Radioactive and therefore dangerous to humans, these aliens from “inner space” had no idea that their very presence was fatal to the good townsfolk of Silsby. The film’s villain was not a super-powered freak, not a madman bent on global domination, but rather an ordinary man named Benson (Jeff Corey) who reacted with prejudice and hatred towards the Mole Men and sought to incite a mob to destroy them.

A native of another world himself, Superman attempted to broker a peace between the two distrustful races, and Clark Kent alone saw the dangers of the mob mentality unleashed. Thus, this Superman film concerned not elaborate special effects, nor an operatic attempt to be “true” to a long-established character continuity, but rather human nature: man’s propensity to fear that which is different. Thus it serves as a revelation (and make no mistake—a statement) about the conformist 1950s; the age of Senator McCarthy and the Red Scare.

“It’s men like you that make it difficult for men to understand one another,” Superman tells Corey’s Benson late in the film, and a cogent point is forged. Bent on stopping hysteria and intolerance instead of a colorful, cartoony villain, Superman proved in this early cinematic outing that he could be a hero of great dignity and even objectivity…an important quality absent from even our supposedly “fair and balanced” news media in today’s world.

Steady, smart and strong, Reeves portrayed the Kryptonian immigrant as an evolved man, a decent man, a wise men —hence, a super man. It wasn’t his strength that made him a hero; it wasn’t that he could leap tall buildings in a single bound. Instead, it was his morality that made Kal-El above the norm..."

Check out the rest of my column at Far Sector, as well the other offerings at the zine, including short stories, editorial commentary and interviews.