Saturday, June 21, 2008

Muir goes One Step Beyond the Grassy Knoll...

I recorded an interview yesterday with the website, Beyond the Grassy Knoll. This site has been around since July 2002 and deals mostly with conspiracy history, yet also devotes coverage to socio-cultural issues, events, and epochs. It has often covered such topics as rock and roll, and pop culture.

In particular, we spent about 90 minutes discussing the 1959-1961 paranormal anthology, One Step Beyond, hosted by John Newland. The interview was a lot of fun because we talked about the real paranormal cases (and the evidence behind them...) that formed the basis for many of the half-hour episodes. In particular, we discussed -- in detail -- about ten or so episodes that followed documented cases, provided eye-witnesses and the like. I researched all that material for my 2001 book, An Analytical Guide to TV's One Step Beyond, and it was great to revisit some of it.

The interview will be posted by Monday morning, June 23rd here, so I hope you'll check it out. Some of this stuff is very creepy. What I've always appreciated about One Step Beyond is that even when it took clear dramatic liberties with tales of the unexplained; it also attempted to explain the parapsychological concepts (such as crisis apparitions, apports, automatic writing, re-incarnation, psychometry, etc.) with a high degree of fidelity and accuracy to the literature about such phenomena.

I hope you'll check out the the interview. You can also read a transcript of my chat with the late host (and director) of One Step Beyond, John Newland, right here.

Yet Another Reason I Love The Seventies:


Friday, June 20, 2008

Muir on The Allan Handelman Show Today

Hey everyone,

I'll be a guest live on The Allan Handelman Show today from 4:00 pm to 6:30 pm, EST. You can find Allan here. He does a great show, and I've enjoyed my previous visits, where we've discussed everything from rock & roll movies to horror films of the 1980s, to monster movies. The show often includes live calls, which can be a really fun experience.

We'll be talking about a variety of topics from my writing career, including horror movies, 1960s genre television, and even my web production, The House Between. It's gonna be a great, eclectic time, so I hope you'll tune in.

I may also have another radio show announcement to make today. More on that soon...

There Is Still Only One...

Theme Song of the Week # 18: The Greatest American Hero (1981-1983)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Star Wars Blogging: Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

I'm old enough to remember when this film (or this "episode") was titled simply...Star Wars.

Yep, I was in the second grade when I first saw Star Wars in May of 1977 and it was -- without exaggeration -- a film that changed my life. It is easy to be disdainful or dismissive of such claims, I suppose, if you weren't there, or didn't live through that time. How can any movie -- especially a "fantasy" about a "galaxy far far away" change someone's life? Well, part of what I hope to blog about today is the manner in which Star Wars got so many details right. George Lucas's film was carefully crafted, so intelligently conceived, it opened up a new universe of possibilities in terms of cinema science fiction and in that way, it inspired a generation (maybe two).

First of all, I'd like to begin the discussion with the idea of Star Wars' antecedents and the considerable creativity it draws from them. In making his spectacular film, creator George Lucas gazed back to the space adventures of yesteryear. In simple terms, this means primarily the 1930s adventures of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. In fact, Lucas had sought to option the Flash Gordon property first...before deciding on creating his own original universe.

In 1987, Lucas also noted (on stage with Gene Roddenberry) that he had watched Star Trek reruns while writing Star Wars. You can also point to many important similarities between Star Wars and other literary and film epics. In broad strokes, C3PO physically resembles the robot from Metropolis (1927). Luke's home world of Tatooine is not that different conceptually (down to the giant critters...) from Frank Herbert's description of Arrakis in Dune. Much of the space combat (deliberately...) evokes memories of the aerial battles in 1949's Twelve O'Clock High. And as Roger Ebert once pointed out, the characters of R2-D2 and C3PO pay tribute - after a fashion - to characters and situations appearing in Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958).

None of this matters, however, in the long term, because George Lucas made a derivative film in an inspired, utterly genius fashion. He re-combined diverse elements in Trek, Flash Gordon, Twelve O'Clock High, Metropolis etc. into something daring, original. swashbuckling and new. He did what the best artists always do: he took the best and left the rest. Lucas didn't steal "the essence" of those earlier (popular) productions and books, but instead captured their spirit, the things that people enjoyed about them. He thus emerged with something cereative and different.

Contrast for just a minute that approach with the one might have taken, had he re-made Flash Gordon. We are now living in the Remake Age, and know what that's all about, don't we? I see artists today remaking the things they loved as kids (as Lucas picked up on things he loved in various productions), but despite co-opting the property name, failing to capitalize on the spirit and essence of the subject matter. I must admit, I was highly disappointed in George Lucas when he sued Universal over Battlestar Galactica, because he was claiming that series "stole" his ideas in Star Wars when they really weren't his ideas to begin with. No, he took the ingredients from other productions, mixed them together...and emerged with utter joy and genius. Lucas shouldn't have attempted to deny others the same creative process. But that's a discussion for another day.

So one thing that Star Wars got very right in the final analysis, was its re-shaping and synthesizing of old influences into a new and creative original. Lucas picked remarkably well, if you think about it. He found a model for his space battles that made them seem realistic (from World War II aerial combat) rather than confusing; he granted his inhuman characters (droids) human characteristics thanks to Kurosawa's film, and so forth. Again, I'm not saying he stole anything. I'm saying he used familiar ingredients but mixed them in an original and creative way.

But Star Wars also got so many other things right. Foremost among these was his decision to create a "lived in" universe. Go back to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Space:1999 (1975-1977) -- two productions I love, by the way -- and you see a marvelous view of man's technological future. It is white-on-white, minimalist and also remarkably sterile. While I groove on that vision, it is not difficult to see how Lucas went in the opposite direction, imagining a messy universe where spaceships don't always operate right, where there are items stored in every corner, and where robots have carbon scoring and dings on their mechanical bodies. The brilliance of this is that the universe does not look like it was created in a day by a production designer; but that it has been there all along...aging, gathering dust, falling apart. That viewpoint adds tremendously to the "realism" factor of Star Wars. Make no mistake, Star Wars represents a huge shift in the cinema's visual paradigm. The next step (after Star Wars) was represented by Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982).

Go back and study the interior of the Jawa's Sand Crawler for moment to see evidence of what I'm talking about here. This cramped, dark locale is almost anti-futuristic in conception. It is home for droids of every possible variety and so looks like the greatest yard sale or flea market or thrift store in the galaxy. The level of detail is amazing, but more to the point, Lucas's approach to photographing this setting is amazing: he doesn't linger. He doesn't explain. He doesn't provide background, exposition or detail on who these droids are, where they were made, or how they got here. What's important is that they are here, and speak to the "history" of the Sand Crawler's journey. Each droid has a story, no doubt, but we are not privy to it. (Sequel?)

What I'm writing about here is the confident and dedicated manner in which Lucas creates in one film - from whole cloth - a universe that boasts a history and therefore resonates with viewers. Again and again, this is the case, and I find it rather amazing. For instance, look at the Dianoga (the creature in the trash compactor): it's somebody's pet alligator that got flushed down the toilet, right? How did it get there? When did it get there? Who, specifically put it there? Those questions are left unasked and truly unimportant. But from the setting ( a trash compactor), we get the idea, and the monster itself is just another shade of this highly-detailed universe.

Also, I love the shape and cadence of the dialogue preceding the final confrontation between Ben Kenobi and Darth Vader in A New Hope, because it's all about history. History that - the first time you saw this film -- you had no knowledge of. "You should not have come back," says Vader [italics mine]. "The circle is complete." "When last we met I was but the learner. Now I am the Master." Etc. These characters constantly reference situations which we, as audience members, know absolutely nothing about. This is the end of Ben Kenobi's journey and yet this first film in the Star Wars cycle (though fourth in the chronology). We are spoon-fed nothing. In fact, we're asked to keep up, really.

I suspect George Lucas doesn't get enough credit for the "generational" aspect of the Star Wars mythos. He had no idea if his film would ever spawn a sequel (or prequels, for that matter). He could have set the story simply in the "now" of Star Wars with no sense of history, scope or scale. But instead, he seeded the mythic, generational material deeply into the film, providing the sense of both an age past (the Age of the Jedi) and the age in process (the Age of the Galactic Empire). In some senses, Lucas might have made a simpler, more straightforward (and much more manageable...) film without all the references to "ancient religions" and "ancient weapons." But instead, he had his characters reference (unfamiliar...) history, in the process making his universe all the more realistic.

This element of Star Wars occurs over and over again. Leia reports that only Darth Vader could be "so bold," to attack her ship, meaning that she knows him, or at least knows of him. The big deal here is that the story takes place in media res, with no sense of introduction or beginning, and so there is the sense that we are "swept" up in it without knowing everything. Star Wars seemed to move at a breathtaking pace when released because it throws everything at you at once, new action and historical information alike. It's a film alive with information. Not necessarily, explained information, but information nonetheless.

I think this is important because before Star Wars it was much more difficult to believe in the worlds created by Hollywood sci-fi movies. Logan's Run for all its various and sundry wonders, appeared to be set in a futuristic shopping mall, and was based on 1970s apocalyptic/futuristic thinking. Star Trek, even by 1977, looked dated to my eyes. Space:1999 appeared very realistic but like the other productions I've mentioned here, it was grounded deeply in our pre-millennial reality (spaceships were a product of the 20th century, and so were the Earth men featured on the show).

By contrast, Star Wars seemed to create an entire universe of Wookies, Droids, Jedi, Sand Crawlers, Jawas, Tusken Raiders, and Empire from whole cloth. Had any single detail or effect been wrong, had any element of the movie appeared fake or superficial, the entire endeavor would have been scuttled. In my opinion, this is why Star Wars remains a great and watershed film. There are a million little things that the film just nails, from the moment when Ben pulls a light saber out of an old trunk (filled with other mementos which garner no attention...), to the big things, like the scale and complexity of the Death Star...which is awesome.

I could keep writing this post forever, but I just want to highlight a few other element that I appreciate about the film. For one, George Lucas is clever the way he sees the shape of the galaxy being decided not in halls of government, or in the hands of leaders, but on backwater worlds. Luke's ascent to Jedi Knight begins on a world that he describes this way: "if there's a bright center to the universe, you're on the planet it's furthest from." I think this important not just in terms of the hero's journey, but in terms of the democratic nature of Star Wars. Anyone can become a hero, if he or she believes (and dedicates one's self) to the Force, "an energy field created by all living things." It doesn't matter if you live on Tatooine or Dantooine for that matter, so long as you are in "touch" with yourself and your environment through the Force. What an amazing message (and one, alas, watered-down in the prequels; where you must have midichlorians in your blood to harness the force, which in my opinion is the ultimate in elitism...).

Lucas gets criticized as a director quite a bit, and after the staginess and green-screen awkwardness of some moments in the prequels, I understand why. But here, in A New Hope, he projects a wonderful and highly romantic sense of lyricism. The scene that involves Luke at the Skywalker Homestead by sunlight, with those two giant orbs setting in the sky, speaks to some universal quality of adolescent yearning. As John Williams' beautiful score fills your ears, and you see that young man standing there alone, gazing at the world beyond his grasp, you share his impatience, his youth. He wants to get on with it, to make his mark in the world. I submit we have all felt that way; all shared that emotion: that longing to do something important; to grow up. This has become an iconic moment for Star Wars fans and for good reason. Again, this is Lucas being clever: the story may be set in a galaxy far away, but the emotion is all human (and therefore, resonant).

I'm ticking through my notes here. Ah yes, next up: Han Solo. He is the greatest character in the film (and one of the great characters in film history), because he offers humor, arrogance and incredulity in the face of all the cosmic ups and downs. Without him, Star Wars would not feel nearly so much fun or light . Han Solo (as played by Harrison Ford) is the secular, skeptical voice of the 1970s viewer (which may be the reason he has no corollary in the 1990s-2000s prequels). "Better her than me," he tells Luke, when Skywalker informs Solo that Leia will die if they don't help her. Indeed. Well, Solo is the perfect representation of the Me Generation, isn't he? Dismissive of religion; just trying to get by; just watching out for number one. But - in the end - someone who will be there when the chips are down.

I can't end a discussion of the film without mentioning the famous opening shot. We pan down from deep space to a planetary system. Then, a small ship (the rebel blockade runner) is chased, and the Imperial Star Destroyer takes positively forever to cross the screen. The result is that we understand the menace of the Empire, and the scope of the attacking ship visually. I guess it goes without saying that this shot has been imitated and lampooned (Spaceballs [1987]) quite a bit.

A New Hope is a pitch-perfect space fantasy, and one of the most important American films produced after 1968. Star Wars changed the face of the movie business. In particular, it changed the ways films are marketed, and the way that science fiction films are created. Which isn't to say that there aren't some nagging questions worth asking about how and why things go down in the film as they do. Kathryn and I watched Star Wars two nights ago and maintained a running dialogue about the things that fascinated and tickled us. Here are a few:

1. C3P0 lies to a stormtrooper on the Death Star. When is it permissible for a Droid to lie? Is that ability included in a droid's programming? And if it were, wouldn't you feel rather nervous about having droids around in your house (especially while you're asleep)? This may finally explain the line: "we don't serve their kind here..."

2. This one had Kathryn up in arms: but why doesn't Chewbacca get a medal in the rebel ceremony that closes the film? In her words, 'Bacca should either be out of the ceremony all together (and off the altar), or he should get a damn medal. Then Kathryn went into a long discussion of "species-ism" in Star Wars. Was Chewie denied a medal because he's a Wookie and not a human being? Only three-fifth of a person, perhaps?

3. What's with Ben Kenobi's line (at the wreckage of the Sand Crawler) that "only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise" in their targeting? Obviously, he's never watched Star Wars, because the Stormtroopers have the worst aim ever! Exhibit A: In the moment before Leia and Luke swing across the chasm on a wire, about six troopers follow at point blank range to blast the rebels, and every one of them misses. Precision? Maybe the Force was just against them...

4. Okay, here's a question about The Jedi Mind Trick. In Mos Eisley, Kenobi utilizes this technique on a Stormtrooper. He tells Luke that it can be used effectively on the "weak-minded." Now correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't all the Stormtroopers clones? (Copies of one another?) So if one has a weak mind, they all have a weak mind, right? If this is the case, defeating the Empire should be easy. In proximity of the Empire's Infantry, Ben need only issue a directive like "Kill Each Other" or "Walk off a mountain." Lemming-like, they'd all have to follow, no? Hmmm...

Okay, so these questions are snarky, but that's only because I love Star Wars so much and have seen the film so many times that I'm left now to dwell on absurdities. I suppose it's only fair to go out of this post with a mention of the aspect I like best about Lucas's film: it's about activism!

"I can't get involved," Luke says at first, when implored by Ben to help him get to Alderaan. Ben replies that Luke sounds like his uncle, or some such thing. But the point of Star Wars, very explicitly, is: pick a side; choose to be a hero. Stop whining about Toshi Station from the sidelines and do something about the way things are.

That's a message that - unlike the hairstyles in A New Hope -- never goes out of fashion. Oh, and finally -- for the record -- Han shoots first. Greedo never fires at all. (I know, because I watched the film on laserdisc, a version that emerged before all the maddening special editions...).

May the Force Be With You (and with Me too) for a long, long time.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Stan Winston passes away

Some very sad news to report today. Stan Winston - Hollywood special effects genius - has passed away. Here's the report:

Stan Winston, the Oscar-winning special-effects maestro responsible for bringing the dinosaurs of "Jurrasic Park" and other iconic movie creatures to life, has died. He was 62.

Winston died at his home in Malibu surrounded by family on Sunday evening after a seven-year struggle with multiple myeloma, according to a representative from Stan Winston Studio.

Working with such directors as Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Tim Burton in a career spanning over four decades, Winston created some of the most memorable visual effects in cinematic history. He helped bring the dinosaurs from "Jurassic Park," the extraterrestrials from "Aliens, the robots from "Terminator" and even "Edward Scissorhands" to the big screen.

My deepest condolences to Mr. Winston's family and friends. We've lost a great talent today.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Happening (2008)

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray...
-Alfred Joyce Kilmer


Who would have guessed that the world would end (sort of...) with a whimper instead of a bang? At least if we consider the "revenge of nature" story depicted in the new film, The Happening. In this film, man's destruction is carried like a whisper on the wind.

Of this, however, I do know for certain: the cinematic works of writer/director M. Night Shyamalan tend to fiercely divide modern film-goers. Some of the smartest, most film centric people I know despise his work deeply. And they have their reasons. I've heard them, and I respect them.

Others - of equally good taste, I hasten to add - find the director's work fascinating and love with a passion every film he's crafted. His titles, in case you've forgotten include: The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2001), Signs (2002), The Village (2004), Lady in the Water (2006) and this summer's The Happening (2008).

Personally, I enjoy Shyamalan's work very much. I admire a few of his films with reservations (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable), love a few of them with admittedly irrational exuberance (Signs, The Village) and am deeply, irrevocably conflicted about one (Lady in the Water). As for The Happening...the good news is that it's far better than Lady in the Water.


But the reason I consistently appreciate M. Night Shyamalan as a filmmaker is that he -- like John Carpenter, Mira Nair or even Rob Zombie -- makes films that are uniquely his own. They come straight from his soul; from his heart and you ALWAYS know when you are watching one of his efforts. It is impossible to mistake his work for that of any other director. That fact alone certainly doesn't mean his films are always perfect (any more than every Carpenter or Zombie film is perfect...) but in today's suffocating climate of cookie-cutter blockbusters, Shyamalan's work stands apart as that of a true individual; a true artist. Love him or hate him, you can't deny that his films represent the consistent oeuvre of one (sometimes flawed) storyteller. I find his individuality refreshing and commendable, and when people are bashing him, what they are really saying, I think, is: that's not my thing. He's not my guy.
Okay, well that's not always the case either...but that's what I sense when I hear intelligent people complain about his work. Like I said, they have their reasons and those reasons are valid...it's sort of just how you weigh those flaws against other facets of his work, I guess, that results in your binary decision of "thumbs up" or "thumbs down."

The most ill-founded criticism of Shyamalan comes from my own peeps, alas -- film critics taking pot shots at his films over "the twist" ending scenarios portrayed in his features. Pick-up any mainstream review of a Shymalan film in a newspaper and you'll find critics who are complaining that the twist either works (meaning they didn't see it coming...) or that it doesn't (meaning they saw it coming and guessed it correctly). Sometimes different critics report different problems with the same twist ending, which shows you just how hard it is to please people.

For example, the reviews I've read about The Happening tend to be disappointed because there is no twist ending. So now Shyamalan is being reviewed on the basis of what's not in his film? Nice. I think this really stinks; and is brutally unfair to the artist: to reduce a director's work to whether or not there is a twist ending and whether or not it subjectively works. If Rod Serling were making The Twilight Zone today, I bet he'd get the same wrong-headed notices. Why do I say they are wrong headed? Well, in my experience you can't judge an entire film on whether or not you were successfully tricked...that's just poor movie reviewing.

Secondly, after watching all of Shyamalan's films several times (save for The Happening, which I've seen just once), I would argue that the director doesn't make films with twist endings at all. Critics just misperceive them that way.

On the contrary, Shyamalan makes films that reveal more than one perspective. We are watching them from one perspective, only to learn -- often in the last act -- that our perception, our perspective was wrong to begin with. We often learn this fact right beside the main characters, which makes the characters sometimes tragic; sometimes all the more human. Technically, this approach isn't a twist: rather this is a clever director dramatizing for us a story from a variety of angles. If he cheats all the way through, there's reason to be angry, I suppose. If he's consistent and we're surprised or touched, I suggest we have reason to feel satisfied. How many films even have one perspective to begin with? In M. Night Shyamalan's work we are fortunate enough to have a filmmaker who can see that his story has shades; and more to the point -- reveal to us those shades. That takes talent, and no small amount of subtlety. We think we're seeing one thing; but we're actually seeing something else all together.

Tell me: the second time you watch The Sixth Sense, what's the "twist?" Ditto Unbreakable? And heck, what's the twist the first time you watch Signs?
See? Critics have pigeonholed Shyamalan as a "twist" director and so they all review every one of his films based on that viewpoint. And, if you'll forgive the pun -- given the subject matter of The Happening - they've missed the forest for the trees in the process.

Again, I'm not saying you'll like every film this guy makes. I'm just saying that he makes distinctive, individual films (a good thing, no?) and that it is wrong for critics to judge him entirely on the misperception that his films must feature a twist ending. And on top of that, a GREAT twist ending.

Now, I've made the claim that M. Night Shyamalan's films are unique and individual, and so I need to back up that assertion by mentioning a few of his consistent conceits (besides the multiple perception bit). In all of Shyamalan's films (save for Lady in the Water), for example, we see strongly the director's sense of morality. Not his moralizing, mind you, but his morality. And by that, I mean simply that he presents a moral universe where a family unit of some type is forced to countenance with...a happening, for lack of a better word. Sometimes the family unit is "unofficial" (not biological); but there's always a parental figure and a child (or young person) involved in some capacity. In the course of the film, and often because of the "happening," the family learns to move past tragedy and grow closer. You could even argue that the family in Lady in the Water is actually a community - a larger family, I suppose. Regardless, Shyamalan clearly has an affinity for blending regular family life with the unreal and super-real (whether ghosts, an alien invasion, superheroes, mermaids, or a deadly plague).

But what separates Shyamalan from another family-oriented director (like, say, Spielberg), is that he genuflects to the reality of unhappy endings in life. A mother is killed in Signs. A small girl loses both her biological parents in The Happening, and so forth. There's a shocking scene in this film when two young boys are shot in cold blood. In these tragedies, the survivors don't merely learn to grow closer, they somehow express a dawning sense of spirituality; and an acknowledgment of their interconnectedness. This is not religiosity (which is totally different), but true spirituality. Things like fate (in who survives and who doesn't) and belief and synchronicity are examined in the director's films in the most oblique and often wonderful ways.

I believe that these twin ideas of synchronicity and spirituality are the most important factor in Shyamalan's films, and that's why he often sets his climaxes in small, unspectacular settings. A swimming pool (Unbreakable, Lady in the Water), or basements (Signs, The Happening). It's an unconventional choice - and an uncommercial one as well, but perfectly in keeping with Shyamalan's storytelling ethos. His stories aren't about the alien invasions, superheroes, ghosts or deadly happenings, but rather our simple, emotional, grasping, human response to them.

I am perfectly willing to admit this is my bias but I love that idea. When so many films are satisfied with the lowest common denominator, I welcome the lens of Shyamalan's world view. He may occasionally talk down to us; but he universally comes from a place of intelligence, morality and heart, and frankly those qualities are often missing from today's blockbusters. There is nothing canned or phoned-in lurking in Shyamalan's vision, and even if his vision is occasionally schmaltzy, I dig it. A lot. Mea culpa.

So The Happening? Honestly, It boasts in roughly the same percentages the same strengths and the same flaws as Shyamalan's other films. It is long on heart and short on spectacle. It is long on humanity but short, occasionally, on plot. Like much of his work, it straddles the line between being absolutely inspired and absolutely derivative. At times it stretches for brilliance and achieves it, and at other times it retracts to basic truisms and hackneyed explanations that leave you cursing at their banality.

The film's storyline involves a science teacher Elliott Moore (Mark Wahlberg) who is estranged from his wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel). One day, this couple (and dozens of other citizens...) flee Philadelphia when what appears to be a terrorist nerve gas attack is responsible for the (gruesome) deaths of many New Yorkers. The attack begins in Central Park, but before long, it seems to be following the Moores to rural Pennsylvania. They continue to flee, in ever smaller population circles, as the entire North East is decimated by an attack that seems to be carried on the wind, but which originates not with foreign fighters...but with Mother Nature.

As I wrote above, this is "Revenge of Nature" film like Frogs (1972), Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) and Day of the Animals (1977). You know the meme:-- man's pollution causes nature to go haywire in response and self-correction. Only The Happening takes a vegetarian slant on the threat, an idea that has been explored in the sci-fi genre for generations (notably in One Step Beyond's "Moment of Hate" and Space:1999's "The Troubled Spirit.") But perhaps the closest antecedent for The Happening is Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece, The Birds (1963). There, as you will recall, a swarm of birds suddenly and inexplicably went on the attack and nearly took out an entire town. There was no explanation for the battle and the bird assault ended as mysteriously as it began. Same deal here, save for an entirely unnecessary explanatory coda (more like Psycho than The Birds), in which a talking-head on a cable news show makes an entirely too heavy-handed environmental point. I liked the the message and the metaphor (that by destroying nature we are killing ourselves), but I didn't need the spoon-feeding.

Still, The Happening carries a commendable aura of impending, escalating doom. Put simply, the movie is never less than utterly spellbinding. The characters also grow on you considerably, and viewers will find themselves invested in their survival. John Leguizamo plays a character who sees his end coming from a distance, and his performance is haunting and memorable. The Happening also forges a unique threat unlike any seen before, and makes it clear that this threat is inescapable. Most importantly, the film focuses on the ties that bind us (and the reasons they bind us...) and finds humanity at both his most noble and his most ugly (depending on the person) in a time of crisis.

So sue me: I really, really liked this movie. Yet I have a creeping suspicion I will be one of the few (along with Roger Ebert). Some of you may not like The Happening at all. If you go, try to see it with your mind and heart open and the "twist" you may find at film's end is that there's a lot to inspire you here.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Battlestar Galactica & Philosophy: An Interview With Editors Josef Steiff and Tristan D. Tamplin

Several months ago, I was contacted by editors Josef Steiff and Tristan D. Tamplin to contribute an article (or maybe two?) to the latest entry in Open Court's Popular Culture and Philosophy line. Open Court has published such popular treatises as The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D'oh of Homer (2001), The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real (2002), and even James Bond and Philosophy: Questions are Forever. For the 33rd volume of this series, the subject was going to be...Battlestar Galactica.

To my delight, the editors were not only asking me to contribute to their book, but they were going to focus on the entire Battlestar Galactica franchise going back to the Glen Larson original of 1978, not merely the current RDM re-imagination on the Sci-Fi Channel.

In other words, this was an offer I simply couldn't refuse. And as I began to craft my work, in particular an article that gazes at the original Battlestar Galactica in the historical context of the Cold War ("SALTed Popcorn," it's called...) I quickly found Josef and Tristan to be amongst the most thorough and supportive editors I've had the good fortune to work with during my ten year writing career. They pushed me as a thinker, made me re-consider and validate my arguments and all the while made it seem as though I had come up with the re-edits and improvements myself. Must be Cylons...

Anyway, Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy: Mission Accomplished or Mission Frakked Up? is now in print and I felt this would be a good opportunity to interview Josef and Tristan about their fine work, about the nature of the book, and about Battlestar Galactica in general.


JKM: How did you both come to this project?

JOSEF STEIFF: At about the same time that Open Court had been hearing about the show and was starting to wonder if it might be a good fit for their Popular Culture and Philosophy Series, I was talking with Series Editor George A. Reisch about a couple of possible science fiction-related book topics I was interested in editing. Though I am a big fan of Battlestar Galactica, I assumed the topic was already taken. When I found out that no one was editing a Battlestar book for Open Court, I immediately asked to do it. Because my background is primarily in film (theory and production), I thought it would be good to have a philosopher co-edit the book, and I asked my friend Tristan.

TRISTAN D. TAMPLIN: Even though I'd left academic philosophy, the project was intriguing to me, both with regard to the aims of the Popular Culture and Philosophy Series in general as well as the specific focus of the book. I'd taught a course called "Philosophy and Film," and I enjoyed the experience immensely. It allowed for philosophic engagement by focusing on something that the students were already interested in, and this book appealed to me in much the same way. Philosophy is always the most interesting to me when it engages our day to day lives and our actual experiences of the world around us.


JKM: Were you already admirers of Battlestar Galactica, or was there a steep learning curve as you solicited participation and began editing the collection?

JS: We were both big fans; it seemed the perfect first book for us to co-edit for that reason. We could now talk incessantly about Battlestar Galactica and rightfully tell people, “we're working.”

TT: That's right. And, moreover, it was obvious from the very start that the show was rife with opportunities for philosophic inquiry.

JKM: Can you provide our readers with a general idea of what kind of analyses they'll find in the book, and who, specifically, is involved in the writing of them? Did you seek out a certain "model" (to coin a series phrase) when deciding on the content of the book, (for instance film studies experts, philosophy experts, whathaveyou)?

TT: We never did an open call; we began by contacting people we knew personally who we thought were well-credentialed but also had a prior interest in the show. We didn't really have a model in mind for contributors as much as we did for the approach we wanted them to take. We thought that it would make the book much more interesting if it involved people from a range of backgrounds engaging the show philosophically.

JS: And our approach was that first and foremost, the book was to be about the show. Philosophy and theory were to be the tools used to more fully analyze and understand the ideas within the show, not the other way around. As we were reading the first drafts of chapters, I heard about the first BSG academic conference held in England. At first I was bumming because I couldn't go, but I contacted the organizer, Ewan Kirkland, who ultimately contributed the chapter about Galactica being "A Dangerous Place for Women," and he sent me the conference abstracts. From there we invited several presenters to contribute chapters to our book. A few people like Louis Melancon and Isabel Pinedo contacted us after hearing about the book on Open Court's site or through friends. And then, near the end, when we saw that there were several areas that might be interesting to round out the collection, we sent out a small call for very specific topics.


JKM: This is a book about TV and philosophy, with an accent on making certain philosophical concepts are discussed accurately and fully. While writing for the book, I found your editorial suggestions and standards excellent, but also quite rigorous. It was a rewarding experience for me to be involved in it. So can you tell us a bit about how you encouraged the shaping of a piece from start to finish for this Open Court series? How tough was it for you to corral all these writers like me? How many drafts did the typical article go through?


TT: While we had some sense of the kinds of issues that BSG would give rise to (for instance, personal identity), we never really had a laundry list of topics we wanted to see covered. Instead, we initially let the process be driven in large part by the particular interests of the contributors, and primarily concerned ourselves with guiding them to develop and pursue the sort of approach that the Popular Culture and Philosophy Series generally strives for.

JS: If we had told people from the start, “these are the topics we want you to write about,” the book wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is. Though we didn't do an open call, word gradually got around that we were editing this book, and the number of people who contacted us wanting to contribute was so many that we had to turn people away. Clearly, we fans have lots to say about this show, and our contributors suggested areas that neither Tristan nor I could have anticipated. So reading the proposals and submissions was inspiring and fun. The authors worked incredibly hard and took our suggestions to heart, and we were all working towards the same goal, to make this an exceptional book about an exceptional television show.

TT: And because BSG itself involves such philosophically rich material, we always sought to make sure that the contributors stayed focused on the show during the course of their analyses, so that their chapters didn't end up simply shoe-horning some issue or concept into a discussion of the show.

JS: I have to say that for me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the process was our email exchanges with contributors during the rewriting process -- discussing various aspects of the shows, speculating about future developments and talking about their chapters. Everyone who contributed to the book loves the show. As we began reading early drafts by individual writers, we began to see ways in which certain chapters might link or reflect different facets of a similar topic. And sometimes a writer would mention something that we knew no one else was tackling, so we’d encourage them to develop that idea more fully. Or if two chapters were too similar, we’d ask the writers to take different stances on the topic. As a result, many of the chapters went through several drafts.


JKM: As an admirer of the original BSG, I was quite gratified to see that this book gazes at all facets, incarnations and generations of the franchise. This alone grants it distinction amongst other scholarly works on the series, in my opinion. How did you arrive at the decision to be all-inclusive, and did this distinction make your job, as editors easier, or more difficult? Were you familiar with the original Galactica too? Galactica 1980?

JS: I remember watching the original Battlestar Galactica at my cousin Howard's house. I loved it. I did see a couple of episodes of Galactica 1980, but that series did not register as much in my memory. In fact, I came to appreciate it more after reading your book. Part of my original pitch for editing this book was that it should include all three TV series and as many of the other versions as possible. I love that we have chapters that deal with the video games, comics and novels as well as the movie Razor. Of course, our main reference point and focus is the new series, but in the same way that the series builds on the idea that "all this has come before," it seemed that an analysis of the re-imagined series would be even more interesting when we look at all the different versions of the story, regardless of their format or era.

TT: I actually was a fan of the original Galactica as well, and often intoned "Cylon Raiders: Attack!" as I rode my BMX down a particularly steep hill.

JKM. I always appreciate it when form reflects content, and Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy takes an interesting form in that five (mystery!) article writers are actually designated "Cylons." Can you more fully describe this conceit for the readers? How did you come up with this novel idea? How difficult was it to execute? Have you had any feedback on this? Are people accosting you with guesses on Cylon identities yet?

JS: Our series editor, George Reisch, encouraged us to be creative, to think about ways in which the actual experience of reading the book could be like watching the show.

TT: We talked about a variety of methods, including the idea of "intrusions" into the text much like Number Six intrudes in Baltar's head. And while, in the end, we didn't represent those intrusions graphically, most of the footnotes in the book operate in that way, providing counterpoint, sidebars, digressions or additional ideas.

JS: One of our favorite ideas was too expensive to actually do – cutting the corners of the pages like the books in the show – so instead we used the modified octagon shape as a border on our divider pages. Even calling the different divisions within the book "models" rather than sections reflects the series. So the idea of a Final Five was an early decision and grew out of this freedom to fully express our love and admiration for the show and its conventions or elements.


JKM: Let's go over some of the chapters in the book. In broad terms, tell me about Model One ("Some Are Programmed to Think They Are Human..."), and the kind of articles included there...?

TT: As I mentioned before, because issues of personal identity are such a central theme to BSG, Dan Milsky's essay seemed a good place to start our philosophic journey because it engages the reader in a very real way, and raises issues that we can't pawn off on the characters in the show because they actually implicate us.

JS: As the book progresses, the chapters lead us more and more fully into the world of the TV series, until we come full circle in the final Model (or section) and look back at the show as a TV show.


JKM: Model Two ("They Look Like Us Now?")

TT: Where the focus of the first section is on more subjective aspects of personal identity, this section shifts the focus to the body in particular, thereby raising somewhat more objective issues regarding our identity and self-conceptions.

JS: Model Two is also where we first encounter a bonus chapter available as a podcast. There's an easter egg in the book letting readers know about bonus materials available for download at iTunes and Open Court's website at
http://www.opencourtbooks.com/. Drawing on the physical body, emotions and memory, Caroline Ruddell addresses the difficulties in differentiating humans from the new Cylons in her podcast, "What Lies Beneath? Distinguishing Humans from Skin Jobs."


JKM: Model Three ("We Became What We Beheld?")

TT: The scope of inquiry becomes much broader here – we’re no longer looking just at our own conception of self, but at how we interact with one another. Questions of ethics, morality, and social organization come into play and are addressed to Cylon and human culture alike.

JS: And like the previous model, Model Three has a bonus chapter podcast, in this case, a comparison of the Galactica with the Pegasus, and in particular, Adama with Cain, that is written by Thomas Fahy (and like Ruddell’s, is available on iTunes and Open Court's websites). Fahy’s chapter is titled "'By Your Command:' Leadership, Civilization and the Limits of Violence."


JKM: Model Four ("Battlestar Iraqtica")?

JS: When we first asked for proposals for the book, Dan Dinello submitted one that alluded to and actually used the term “Battlestar Iraqtica.” We loved it, though at that time, we debated how much to examine the resonances between Battlestar Galactica and world events, and whether such an analysis should be a single chapter or a section. But as the book kept evolving, this seemed to be an important part of the discussion and analysis of Moore's vision, worthy of an entire section. The perfect cap for that section was to go back and look at the original series in much the same way, to see if it was as resonant with the world events of its day as the current series is in ours. And I think you [John Muir] make that point convincingly.

TT: Like issues of personal identity, the analogy between the occupation of New Caprica and the situation in Iraq seemed almost a mandatory component of the book. The show and its creators are explicitly invested in these themes, so a discussion of them felt nearly required.


JKM: Model Five ("Finding Purpose in the Void?")

TT: While much of the show is focused on crisis situations both chronic and acute, this section looks at issues of day-to-day life under truly unique circumstances. Sure, we need to avoid the annihilation of our species, but we still need to cook dinner and do the laundry. Trudy Millburn and Jean-Paul Martinon and the other authors in this section address issues of how we manage to go on with the business of living in the absence of much of what formerly gave value and meaning to our lives.

JKM: Model Six ("Near the End of Our Journey?")

JS: "Nearing the End of Our Journey" actually comes from the opening narration of Galactica 1980 and it seemed fitting for the final section. As a final section, we're sending our readers back out into the world around them, and it made sense that these chapters should address issues of the show itself as a phenomenon.

TT: This section completes a philosophic journey that parallels the narrative journey of BSG. We started by looking at issues raised by the show and how they implicate us, then immersed ourselves in the show itself and critically analyzed various characters and situations in the universe it creates, and now we've returned to the perspective of our own world and look back and consider the show as a show.

JS: For example, Richard Berger tackles head on the question of whether the new Battlestar Galactica is GINO or not, and even if you aren’t persuaded to share his viewpoint, what’s clear is that there’s more to say on all of these topics, and that’s part of our goal, to keep the conversation going. In that sense, our final chapter is the perfect re-entry back into the world around us: what’s important are the things Battlestar Galactica makes us think about and want to talk about.

TT: And, as a final send off, we have an interesting array of appendices, where you can find clues as to the identity of the book’s Final Five but also learn more about various aspects of the BSG universe.


JS: Andrew Dowd did a great job researching and compiling the appendices, with some great suggestions and information by several of our contributors.


JKM: The schedule for Battlestar's fourth season changed radically during the preparation for this text. When the end now comes, and all the secrets are revealed (or not revealed), will it necessitate an update of this text? Just as a side-note -- how do you think the series will resolve? Any guesses?

TT: I'd love it if they pulled of the same sort of thing that "Newhart" did in relation to the earlier "Bob Newhart Show." That second series ended with Bob Newhart waking up in bed with his wife from the original series and describing the strange dream he had. So I'm hoping that after we find out that Starbuck really is a Cylon and really does somehow lead mankind to it's destruction, she wakes up in her bunk with an apparent hangover and stumbles into the bathroom to see the face of Dirk Benedict staring back at her from the mirror.

JS: I think our contributors did an amazing job of anticipating certain developments in the fourth season, for example, Hal Shipman’s “Some Cylons Are More Equal Than Others,” but obviously there were some things we didn’t know when the book went to press. So who knows? Maybe we’ll have to publish a second volume. My fantasy is that the Final Cylon is one of the Sixes. Just think -- we’ve been witnessing the identity crises of four characters who thought they were human only to discover they’re this unique type of Cylon, and they’re having a tough time of it. Imagine what would happen if a Six found out she wasn’t just one of thousands (or millions) but rather unique and different – imagine what her identity crisis would be like!


JKM: Tell us a little bit about your next projects...

JS: I am about to start shooting a short film of my own, and then I hope to dive back into editing another Open Court book.

TT: I'm thinking about maybe trying to figure out how to use my oven.


JKM: Finally, let my readers know where they can order the book...

JS: Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy: Mission Accomplished or Mission Frakked Up? is at major book retailers like Barnes & Noble and Borders throughout the USA and Canada now, and it will be available on the shelves in Europe, late June.

TT: You can also order the book directly from Open Court
http://www.opencourtbooks.com/ or from any of online book stores like Amazon.


JKM: Thanks, guys.

JS: Thank you! Great questions. We have had a great time watching the show, working on this book and meeting contributors just as enthusiastic as we are (if not more so). And we get to keep talking about Battlestar Galactica – what could be better?