Saturday, June 28, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

Imagine -- if you will -- a world in which you are not permitted to read a book on your lunch hour. Or one where you're not allowed a little summer reading on the beach. Imagine, even, a world where the simple act of reading a book could get you a berth in a government "re-education" center. It is a world of wall-sized TV screens (that are always turned on...) and ubiquitous walkman-type radios; it is a world where you are encouraged to always tune in to "The Family" on TV; and where your wife constantly pops pills to modulate her moods (and prevent depression).

This is the nightmare world imagined in Ray Bradbury's novel, Fahrenheit 451, and later in the Francois Truffaut film adaptation of 1966. This is a world of the "future" (looks to be late twentieth century...) in which helmeted, storm trooper-style firemen start fires rather than putting them out; where they rush to the scene of a crime in their scarlet fire engines and then proceed to gleefully torch every book they can find. Books with titles such as Othello, Vanity Fair, Tom Sawyer, Moby Dick, The Catcher in the Rye, Lolita, Plexus, Alice's Adventure in Wonderland and Madame Bovary. Even Mad Magazine does not escape the rampage of these authorized government officials. Even Truffaut's beloved Cahiers du Cinema is set aflame. Books are dangerous repositories of dissatisfaction, after all, at least according to the firemen, who are looked upon by the populace with a combination of fear and admiration.

How and why would a future world evolve like this? The Fire Chief in the film (played with fascist conviction by Cyril Cusack) explains it well after discovering a secret (and forbidden) library with his troops. Books, he explains, raise all kinds of uncomfortable questions. Some books even contradict each other. "Only I am right," some authors seem to say, "the others are idiots." Therefore, books clearly (and intentionally) upset a satisfied populace by making it think about things, and considering for itself which point of view is valuable. The very act of writing, according to the Fire Chief, is pure vanity because it is one person forcing his or her beliefs on the populace, and making it confront unpleasant things. "We've all got to be alike," The Fire Chief insists, explaining his distaste for the written word to the film's protagonist, fireman Montag (actor Oskar Werner). True equality, it seems, can only be achieved when everybody is exactly the same.

And the only way for everyone to be alike (according to the Government), is for everyone to be equally uninformed, I guess. Smoking is bad for people, the Chief explains, and but now -- in his world -- there are no written studies to prove it, and so there is nothing to feel bad about. This particular argument struck a note with me and seemed particularly timely as I watched the film last night. We've all heard how Bush Administration officials have suppressed NASA reports on global climate change, over the objections of the scientists who conducted them. These reports state facts, not opinions...but again they might make us feel bad about the state of things...so best just to suppress them; keep them away from the eyes of a populace that is happy buying coffee at Starbucks, watching American Idol on flat-screen TVs, and buying groceries at Wal-Mart. I mean, "why bother people with that sort of filth?" to paraphrase a character in the film. Perhaps this future isn't so far away after all?

But I get ahead of myself. Fahrenheit 451 tells the dramatic story of Montag, a fireman who does not question THE WAY THINGS ARE and happily goes about his business of destroying books. He's up for a promotion, in fact, and this is good, because his wife, Linda (Julie Christie) doesn't want a bigger house; she wants a second wall screen TV installed.

Then, one day, Montag meets a woman, Clarisse (Christie again), who asks him if he ever reads the books he burns. This lively, vivacious, passionate woman plants a seed in his mind, one that grows, as Montag begins to see how heartless, cold and vapid his society (a society without the printed word) has become. Then, one night, Montag breaks the law and reads a book for himself, David Copperfield (by Charles Dickens). It is an especially appropriate choice of tomes because it begins with the sentence "I am born," and then goes on to ask the question whether the book's protagonist will turn out to be the hero of his own life, or whether that important task should be left to another. This is the very crisis Montag faces at this juncture. Upon reading the first words of this book, Montag - if not actually born - is certainly re-born, into a world of possibilities. And what will he choose: the conformity he knows (and there is security and safety in conformity, right?) Or the opportunity to be a hero in his own life and confront this new Dark Age head on?

As you might guess, Montag begins to question the system that has nurtured him, but turned his wife into a pill-addled vegetable. "You're nothing but a zombie," he tells her angrily. "You're not living, you're just killing time." After reading his first book, Montag rejects the fascist system one piece at a time. He refuses to use the automatic fire pole in the fire station (better to walk on his own two feet than be carried up and down automatically, without thought). Then, on a search.raid for books in a public park, Montag permits a perpetrator secreting books in his jacket to escape with the texts. This important moment is highlighted by Truffaut in interesting visual fashion. The moment is heightened as half the screen goes black with a progressive wipe, leaving us only a view of the important action (the interaction between fireman and book person) on the right side of the frame.

Truffaut, heavily inspired by Alfred Hitchcock here (down to the pounding Bernard Hermann score), does not shy from visuals that augment the film's point. For instance, the opening credits are not flashed on the screen in the fashion we are used to; as printed words, but rather "read" by a narrator over a montage of shots (zooms, actually...) of ubiquitous TV antennae. This choice effectively denies the audience a glimpse of the written word, which is forbidden in this future world. More to the point, perhaps, the montage reveals in detail (as we see the antennae in close-up again and again) how ugly, inhuman technology (the antennae) has supplanted literary artistry, beauty and humanity.

Perhaps the best aspect of this film is something more subtle, however. Truffaut has seeded throughout his film (a genuine masterpiece, I'd say) various scenes of intense narcissism or self-love on the part of many characters. Early on, for instance, we see a female passenger on a monorail gazing at her reflection. She kisses it. Later, a medic gazes at his own face in a reflective medical case and he lingers on the image as if entranced by it. Linda, Montag's wife, is seen standing in front of a mirror touching her own breasts, obsessed with her "image" and "beauty."

Others on the monorail touch their own lips (as if to prove they still actually exist), and massage the collars of soft, fur coats. There are simply too many shots of this type for them to be a mere coincidence or a mistake. So what Truffaut is doing with these sequences and these shots, I believe, is selling visually the point that in a world where there is no consideration of philosophy, no history, no biography, and no imagination, the human psyche collapses into orgy of hedonistic self-love and narcissism. When thoughts lose currency and everyone is the same, each person receiving his or her 15 minutes of fame (witness Linda in the film getting to "play" with actors on a reality-type TV series), there is nothing but "self" to obsess on. A society of "Me" has grown-up here, at the expense of the community as a whole.

This is the most valuable aspect Fahrenheit 451; and surely the most prophetic. Bradbury first (and then Truffaut) saw that books -- with all their ideas -- were being supplanted by the callow, colorful world of non-stop television. They saw too, how a government could conceivably exert control over a population by employing this superficial medium (one where style is championed over substance). This too has come to pass. Remember how after 9/11, color-coded terror alerts were broadcast to make people jump, make people fear, (and in some cases, change the way people were likely to vote...)? Remember, how the Bush Administration (with your tax dollars!) released propaganda supporting their Medicare reform (in truth, hand-out to the pharmaceutical and insurance industries...), but made it look like an authentic news report ("This is Karen Ryan reporting...")?

What Bradbury and Truffaut understood so clearly was that television could be manipulated in a most dastardly way by those with a hidden (and malicious) agenda. I'd say they also realized how television could appeal to the baser "train wreck" instincts of people. At the end of Fahrenheit 451, Montag's "capture" by the State is orchestrated for the TV cameras (it's actually a sham), but it reminded me of how, in 1994, TV viewers were held captive by the "real-time" pursuit of O.J. Simpson in his white Bronco. This kind of thing is ever so much more entertaining than thinking about the important things (like, say, genocide in Rwanda...) isn't it?

The world of Fahrenheit 451 is also one in which citizens are asked to spy upon one another to keep the system intact. Outside fire stations are carefully placed hot-red "information boxes" where citizens can leave tips about law violators (anti-social elements organized in "cells", just like terrorists....) Again, this doesn't seem very futuristic today. Remember, after 9/11 the Bush Administration proposed Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) a program designed to help United States citizens report suspicious activity among their neighbors. In particular, the program suggested that workers such as cable installers and telephone repairmen should be reporting on what was in people's homes if it were deemed "suspicious."

Fahrenheit 451 saw all this coming, particularly how the ubiquitous nature of television (not religion) would become the opium of the masses. Now, it may seem supremely contradictory for me - who makes a living from reviewing television - to be noting the dangers of the medium, but I don't think that's actually the case. Television (as is the case with film), is -- universally -- what you decide to make of it. You can approach the medium actively, with curiosity, or you can approach it passively, as an opportunity to "veg" out. I submit that the world of reality television (about the ritual humiliation of other Americans) is the worst example of video rubber-necking or watching a train wreck. But watching and considering intelligent drama - of any genre- is something quite the opposite. Still, consider that in the world of Fahrenheit 451 you could not read this blog, even. That you would not be able to - with written words - analyze the events and characters you had seen on Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, Lost, Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, or anything else.

And this gets us to a point of importance, I believe. Even as TV news has become more biased and one-sided, telling only half the story (and usually the sensational half...); even as reality TV has grown more despicable and appeals more and more to the lowest common denominator, our society boasts an antidote: the counterweight of the Internet, which can provide free, instantaneous and democratic information. That's why our society, I believe, has not succumbed totally to the Orwellian tactics of the current Administration. As long as the Internet -- this series of "tubes," as one Senator described it -- exists, it allows dissent and investigation. Therefore, there is not total brain death, and the book burners and government fire men will never win. (Which is why the idea of "Net Neutrality" is so scary to me; it's basically the idea of removing the democratic independence of the Internet, making it the purview of - surprise! - the corporations.)

As a writer of books, I suppose I take Fahrenheit 451 pretty damn personally. The idea that the work of an artist's entire lifetime (Shakespeare, Joyce, King...) can be so easily destroyed is immensely frightening to me. Book burners, alas, are not merely the bailiwick of fiction. There have been book burners in Nazi Germany, in Stalinist Russia, and yes - here - in the United States. And the scary thing is those who burn the books often do so under cover of moral rectitude; hidden under the lie that they are protecting us from bad things (like, say, racism in Twain's Huck Finn, or witchcraft, as portrayed in Harry Potter or The Wizard of Oz). The end of Fahrenheit 451 offers hope, however, and it nearly brought me to tears. The climax of the film reveals a new sect of citizens called "Book People." Since books are illegal, these people have become the books they loved. They have memorized the one special book that means something to them, and so carry on the legacy of the writers. Every word. Every sentence. Every thought. All memorized.

As the film concludes, Montag meets someone who is Plato's Republic; someone who is Pride and Prejudice, someone who is The Martian Chronicles, even. There were Dark Ages before, periods in human history where knowledge was lost, and only some of it preserved. And the overall message seems to be here that we can survive another, should it happen. In Fahrenheit 451, the human spirit - the human quest for knowledge and truth is transcendent and indomitable - and man, even technological man -- finds a way to keep knowledge alive.

It makes me wonder. If you were to become a book, what would book would you choose? What book couldn't you live without? What book couldn't the world live without?

Friday, June 27, 2008

Muir Goes Beyond The Grassy Knoll...to Answer Live Calls

Hey everybody, I'm traveling back to the "Grassy Knoll" tonight from 10:00 pm to midnight (Eastern time) to discuss horror films and television with hosts Keith Hansen and Adam Gorightly.

We'll be discussing my books, my career, "The Sacred Mushroom" (the notorious episode of One Step Beyond in which host John Newland sampled peyote on network television...) and so much more. Should be ghoulish good fun...

We'll also be taking live calls! So join us if you get the chance.
The link is right here.

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 77: Star Trek: First Contact Action Figures (Playmates; 1996)


Today I'm attempting again to work up some 1990s nostalgia (again!) with a look back at the collectible toys from that era. In previous posts, I've looked at Playmates SeaQuest DSV figures and Hasbro Stargate figures from the early 1990s. Today, I turn my attention back to the prolific Playmates company; specifically to the Star Trek franchise as it existed in the middle of the decade.

In 1996, Star Trek: First Contact (directed by Jonathan Frakes) was released and immediately became a big theatrical hit. I can explain why it was so successful in one word: BORG!

No, seriously, First Contact not only featured an interesting and diabolical nemesis for the crew of The Next Generation to combat, it also featured some splendid action scenes (particularly one riveting and anxiety-provoking sequence set on the hull of the newly christened Enterprise E). There are other great moments too, like Picard calling Worf a coward; or risking his life to save Data. The film's ending, with the flight of the Phoenix and the "first contact" with Vulcns is also very uplifting and emotional, especially for dreamers like me. And how can I forget? The film boasts great Goldsmith soundtrack (and main theme). On the other hand, I was less enamored of the film's "comic" subplot, which found Riker, Geordi and others dealing with an often-drunk inventor Zefram Cochrane, trying to prod him into testing his warp ship, the Phoenix. Meh. Today, those latter sequences stick out like a sore thumb and seem really, really lame.

Still, First Contact is likely the highest-regarded of the Next Generation films (and next to Nemesis it is positively golden), and Playmates certainly went gung-ho with a number of high quality toys related to the hit film. There were a cluster of new spaceships to play with, including the Enterprise E, the Borg Orb (which some Star Wars fans complained looked like the Death Star...) and Cochrane's retro-Phoenix.

But Playmates also released a number of new (larger) action figures from the film. This was the first time these beloved characters were seen in their new black and gray ribbed uniforms. On the plus side, these First Contact figures were absolutely beautifully-detailed and authentic to the iflm. On the downside, they were out of scale with the rest of Playmates' exhaustive, amazing figure line (which included figures from The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and classic Star Trek). That last bit was kind of a bummer if you wanted your Picards to mingle with your Janeways, for instance. The figures came with phasers, tricorders and the like, but also with a little mini-poster from the film.

Playmates released new versions of Picard, Riker, Data, Geordi, Troi, and Worf, as well as more First Contact specific figures. For instance, Alfre Woodard's character Lily Sloane, got an action figure, as did Cochrane (as played by James Cromwell). My two favorite figures, however, were Captain Picard in his bad-ass space suit (how often do we get to see space suits on Star Trek?) and the very mean-looking Borg soldier. But hey...why no Borg Queen?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

VOTE NOW!

The 2008 Sy Fy Genre Awards are now officially open for voting! You can vote once a day from now (June 25) through July 25, 2008. My series, The House Between is a competitor in the category "Best Web Production" so if you're a The House Between fan, now's the time to show the series some serious love!! We have stiff competition (most of it named Star Trek...), but make YOUR VOTE COUNT today! You can vote right here.

Thanks, and here's an image from The House Between's explosive (literally...) Season Three episode, "Devoured."

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Comic-Book Flashback # 9: Doctor Who: "The Stockbridge Horror"

Presented by Marvel in June 1986 (though originally seen in Doctor Who Monthly #72-73), this Doctor Who comic adventure was written by Steve Parkhouse.

The tale occurs in the era of the fifth Doctor, portrayed by Peter Davison. It's concerns a "the thing in the TARDIS," a being with "no name, no mind and no heart" who invades the Doctor's beloved conveyance feeling "fierce flames of heat...and awesome need." For a million years, this thing walked in "darkness" but "no more."

In fact, this thing is some weird reflection of the Time Lord himself; as the Doctor is currently sans companion in this chapter. When the creature invades the Doctor's
time machine (appearing first as an image of Spider-Man, no less, making this a rather odd Marvel cross-over...), a larger conspiracy reveals itself. On the Doctor's last visit to Gallifrey, the Time Lords apparently inserted a device into the TARDIS to monitor the renegade Doctor, and now the Time Lords have sent a warrior named Shayde to destroy the beast rapidly taking control of the TARDIS.

Shayde promptly informs the Doctor that the TARDIS and he have become too alike. Both are "quirky, idiosyncratic and ultimately schizophrenic." Wow -- great description (though not especially true of Davison's incarnation/interpretation)!

Then, a new brand of military TARDIS appears off the bow, ready to blow up the Doctor's time ship if things go awry. It is captained by the militant Time Lord Tubal Cain. The doctor expresses horror at the thought of a Time Lord in the military, and fears what's next: a Time Lord in politics?

As the story ends, Shayde prepares to do battle with the monster inhabiting the TARDIS. This Marvel comic-book also features two other short stories worth mentioning. The first is "Skywatch - 7, concerning UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Task Force) tangling with a Zygon (from "The Terror of the Zygons"). The second is "The Gods Walk Among Us," about a Sontaran trapped in Tutankhamun's tomb for 5,500 years. (I wonder if he ever ran across Sutekh while he was there...). Confession: I love the Sontarans. I just do. Can't help it. It might have to do with the fact that the first Doctor Who serial I ever saw (on WWOR TV, Channel Nine out of New York) was "The Sontaran Experiment.")

So "The Stockbridge Horror" is a flashback to 1980s Who, though if truth be told, I've always preferred 1960s and 1970s era Who (and now, David Tennant modern Who). This comic-book is plenty of fun, though, and I always appreciate tales that examine the deep bonds that tie the Doctor to his unusual TARDIS.

My biggest problem with this overall story (as well as this issue in particular...) is the concept erosion apparent in the dramatization and handling of the Time Lords. I wrote about this in my book at length, but originally in Doctor Who lore, the Time Lords were the most feared creatures in all of time and space (even the Doctor feared them...). They were more terrifying than Cybermen or Daleks. Their justice was Draconian, to say the least (witness the conclusion of "The War Games").

But by Pertwee-era Who, the Time Lords were effete British dandies sending The Doctor on special missions, like some futuristic "M" in the James Bond series. By the time of the Davison era, the Gallifreyan Time Lords were just like any other race on any TV show (like the Vulcans on Star Trek, for instance), and had lost all their menace...hence all their individuality and special nature. Their grandeur was reduced by multiple visits to the planet Gallifrey and the dawning realization that the Time Lords could not be dramatized (by the low-budget BBC production) in a manner that preserved their mystery and superiority. (That said, I quite enjoyed "The Deadly Assasin" and "The Invasion of Time," both set on Gallfrey; I merely mourned the death of the original -- and superior - concept of Time Lords as awe/terror inspiring.)

First the McCoy era and then the new series have attempted rather successfully to rectify this concept erosion (in vastly different ways...), but this comic chapter is perfect evidence of it at a terrible low point. Along comes Time Lord Tubal Caine, wearing shoulder epaulets and a green military uniform, (and twentieth century style military haircut...) flying a TARDIS that looks like a terrestrial tank, ready to blow up the TARDIS if "the exorcism" of the time machine goes badly. It just wreaks of...bad Star Trek.

Still, I've been waxing nostalgic for Doctor Who lately, and I today I felt like looking back at the adventures of an incarnation that I never liked that much (Davison's). So I plucked out this comic book and - right here, in one issue - I found the reasons that I both liked and disliked that era in series history...

Monday, June 23, 2008

One Step Beyond Interview Now Live!

The Beyond the Grassy Knoll interview I did Friday afternoon on the subject of the 1959-1961 anthology One Step Beyond is now live. You can listen in right here. For my cult TV flashback on the series from this blog (back in 2005), go here.

New McFarland Film and TV Titles

This study examines the changes in the American film industry, audiences, and feature films between 1965 and 1975. With transformations in production codes, adjustments in national narratives, a rise in independent filmmaking, and a new generation of directors and producers addressing controversial issues on the mainstream screen, film was a major influence on the social changes that defined these years. After a contextual history of film during this era, several key films are discussed, including The Graduate, Alice’s Restaurant, Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Little Big Man, and The Godfather series. The author describes how these films represented a generation, constructed and deconstructed American culture, and made important contributions during ten years of great change in America.



Gilmore Girls and the Politics of Identity
This work examines the Gilmore Girls from a post-feminist perspective, evaluating how the show’s main female characters and supporting cast fit into the classic portrayal of feminine identity on popular television. The book begins by placing Gilmore Girls in the context of the history of feminism and feminist television shows such as Mary Tyler Moore and One Day at a Time. The remainder of the essays look at series’ portrayal of traditional and non-traditional gender identities and familial relationships.

Topics include the hyper-real utopia represented by Gilmore Girls’ fictional Stars Hollow; the faux-feminist perspective offered by Rory Gilmore’s unfulfilling (and often masochistic) romantic relationships; the ways in which “mean girl” Paris Geller both adheres to and departs from the traditional archetype of female power and aggression; and the role of Lorelai Gilmore’s oft-criticized marriage in destroying the show’s central theme of single motherhood during its seventh season. The work also studies the role of food and its consumption as a narrative device throughout the show’s development, evaluating the ways in which food negotiates, defines, and upholds the characters’ gendered and class performances. The work also includes a complete episode guide listing the air date, title, writer, and director of every episode in the series.



Hammer Film Scores and the Musical Avant-Garde
Music in film is often dismissed as having little cultural significance. While Hammer Film Productions is famous for such classic films as Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein, few observers have noted the innovative music that Hammer distinctively incorporated into its horror films.

This book tells how Hammer commissioned composers at the cutting edge of European musical modernism to write their movie scores, introducing the avant-garde into popular culture via the enormously successful venue of horror film. Each chapter addresses a specific category of the avant-garde musical movement. According to these categories, chapters elaborate upon the visionary composers who made the horror film soundtrack a melting pot of opposing musical cultures.

This collection of original interviews, appropriate for libraries and fans alike, provides first-hand accounts from many of the entertainment industry’s most influential writers, filmmakers, and entertainers. Interviewees include horror film icons Elvira and Herschell Gordon Lewis; world-renowned science fiction and fantasy authors, among them Ray Bradbury, Laurell K. Hamilton, and John Saul; and many others. The 26 alphabetized interviews are accompanied by a brief introduction, several quotes from the interviewee’s industry peers, and the interviewee’s complete bibliography or filmography. Also included are a foreword by The Amazing Kreskin and an afterword by two-time Bram Stoker Award winner Charlee Jacob.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Illustrated Man (1969)

In 1951, Ray Bradbury's anthology of eighteen short stories, The Illustrated Man, was first published in the United States. Nearly twenty years later, in 1969, a film version of the Bradbury material directed by Jack Smight (and scored by Jerry Goldsmith) was released in theaters. An omnibus or anthology film, Smight's movie starred Rod Steiger, Claire Bloom and Robert Drivas, and dramatized three sci-fi tales ("The Veldt," "The Long Rain" and "The Last Night of the World"). These vignettes were tied together by an umbrella story set in 1933 and -- in an interesting twist for the movie anthology format -- the film's starring triumvirate appeared in each tale as different characters, as well as in the wraparound, framing story.

The Illustrated Man commences in 1933 as a young drifter, Willie (Drivas) encounters a bellicose old carnie, Carl (Steiger) by idyllic lakeside. Willie very soon learns that Carl's entire body (yes, even his privates...) have been decorated with the most bizarre skin illustrations imaginable. Carl ascribes life and even sentience to these illustrations (and don't call them tattoos, either...), noting that he can feel them "squirmin'" and "movin' up" his back. The illustrations were created by a beautiful woman, a haunting siren named Felicia. Carl is now in search of Felicia and her house (which disappeared long ago...) because he wants to kill her. Why? His illustrated body has made Carl a pariah. And worse: those who gaze into the creepy illustrations can see their own future and their own deaths in them, and that doesn't exactly make Carl a popular guy at parties.

Who exactly is Felicia? Good question. "She had lived in the past and had lived in the future, and she put it all on me," says Carl at one point in the film. A voice over narration from Felicia also warns that "each person who tries to see beyond his time must face questions to which there cannot yet be proven answers."

Willie attempts to ferret out the mysteries of Carl, the illustrated man, but is soon seduced and beguiled by the imagery on the old man's body. Willie falls into the irresistible spell of the skin illustrations, and witnesses three cautionary tales from humanity's future. In the first ("The Veldt"), two parents (Steiger and Bloom) living in Baltimore worry about their children, who seem to be "embracing destructive thoughts" during their playtime. You see, the parents have purchased for their kids a new kind of technological nursery or playroom (a kind of early silver screen holodeck device...), and the children keep calling up a savanna in Africa: one where sleepy lion packs feed on carrion. A government therapist (Drivas) indicates to the parents that the nursery has indeed caused some problems in other families, but is not prepared for what happens with this particular family. As you might guess, the children arrange a trap for their parents in the nursery...

The second story (and the most impressive visually) is "The Long Rain." Here, a spaceship from the Unified States of Earth (really a re-dressed spaceship from Planet of the Apes [1968]) crashes on Venus and the crew slowly goes insane under the pressure and incessant noise of the non-stop, ubiquitous rain. The ship commander, played by a belligerent Steiger, attempts to hold his crew (Jason Evers, and Drivas once more...) together as they search the planet for the respite provided by Sun Domes; small habitats boasting all the luxuries of Earth (including "space whores.") The crew mutinies one at a time, and one crewman (Drivas) commits suicide. The colonel alone reaches the Sun Dome...where he finds Felicia waiting.

In the final story depicted in the film (and from Carl's tattoos), entitled "The Last Night of the World," Steiger and Bloom play another futuristic married couple fretting over the health of their children. In this case, however, the situation is far different than in "The Veldt." Steiger's character here has just returned from a "Final World Forum" where he reports that all the men shared the same apocalyptic dream. They had a vision that this is the last day of the world and that the human race will die during the night. To spare the children a possibly painful doomsday, this cabal of men has decided to put the children "to sleep" (using pills to be administered at bed time...). Bloom's character protests that "our children are everything! They're our future." But Steiger's character is insistent. "There is no future," he tells her, adding "You're subject to the ruling too." Bloom finally appears to convince her husband that they should not murder the children; but during the night, Steiger steals into their bedroom to spare them the end of the world. Guess what happens the next morning? The sun rises, the Earth lives, mankind survives. And Steiger has -- over his wife's humanitarian and maternal objections -- given his children the suicide pills.

Back at the lakeside in the 1930s, Willie is driven into a mad frenzy by these visions of unhappy, tragic futures. He then witnesses his own death: strangulation by the Illustrated Man! Willie makes a ham handed attempt to murder Carl in his sleep, then runs off, down a country road. But Carl isn't exactly dead yet. Wounded, he rises from his sleep, bloodied but not defeated...

Sound like a strange movie? Well, it is. I first saw The Illustrated Man on television when I was perhaps ten, and it scared the living daylights out of me. It wasn't that it was overtly a horror film, only that the resonant images -- from Steiger's illustrated body to the world of never ending rain; to the specter of parents murdering their own children to spare them a holocaust that never arrives -- were disturbing enough to haunt my young nightmares. I hadn't seen the film in probably twenty-five years so I thought this was the time to see if the movie actually lived up to my memory or if it was merely one of those phantasms that only childhood and impressionable youth can explain.

The answer is that, in a way, the film does live up to my expectations and memories. Smight's effort remains unsettling, provocative, vulgar and, indeed, raises many more questions than it answers. Although there are few actors I would less like to to see nude than Rod Steiger, The Illustrated Man nonetheless remains a potent vision of 20th century turmoil. In essence, the anthology is a cautionary tale of the year 1969. Which puts the film at the height of the Vietnam War, on the cusp of a decade wherein such concepts as violence on television and reproductive rights (Roe v. Wade) would dominate the culture wars. You can see all those ideas and issues bubbling just beneath the surface of this film.

What I believe is at work here is an intense fear of a future where mankind has succumbed to a number of contemporary evils. There's Orwellian bureaucracy and inhuman, subversive technology ("The Veldt"), perpetual war and war-making ("The Long Rain") and even faith-based thinking ("The Last Night of the World") as the particular boogeymen. It is impossible not to note that the framing story of The Illustrated Man occurs in nature - in wild, untamed country (by lakeside), while all the stories themselves are set in nightmarish apocalyptic futures: worlds of technological "playrooms," "sun domes" and the like. A contrast is being made here. Even the era of The Great Depression (the 1930s), the film seems to suggest, will look like child's play (literally) next to the future of "The Veldt" or the other stories.

The first vignette, "The Veldt" is very forward-thining, even today. It is concerned, nay obsessed, about globalization and the impact it could have on the economy. Steiger's character obsesses on a world where "everything is done for us," a minimalist, plastic, heartless world of ivory sterility, where labor laws dictate that people can only work six months out of the year. Steiger experiences sexual difficulties with his wife in this particular world; another side-effect of a dehumanized future, no doubt: impotence. Here, children are also cruel little bastards: raised by government therapists and machine nurseries. They kill their parents without a second thought. Trust your children to the State (and to the TV...), "The Veldt" suggests, and parents risk the future and survival.

"The Long Rain" is another commentary on an amoral future. Here -- in the distant future and on another planet -- man continues his warlike legacy. The commander of the spaceship (Steiger) is so ruthless with his men that when one disobeys his orders, Steiger shoots him in the back and kills him. Later, Carl attempts to keep in line his surviving subordinate by tantalizing him with the promise that there are "whores" at the Sun Domes. The subordinate (Drivas) is angry at this enticement to stay in the military; to remain obedient; to stay under the thumb of a cruel captain. "What if a man doesn't want a whore?" he replies. Instead, this character opts out of a system devoted to perpetual war and chooses suicide instead. With its alien jungle setting, perpetual rain, discussion of murdering a superior (or "fragging" in the vernacular of the time), it is clear that "The Long Rain" is a Vietnam War metaphor.

The film's final story, "The Last Night of the World" offers some real sociological red meat too. Again, set in the distant future (after an apocalyptic gas cloud destroys most of the population...), this tale warns about what could happen when a ruling class (consisting entirely of men, by the way) experiences delusions of grandeur: selecting a course for the entire human race based on its own delusional visions of God and the future. This story comments on sexism (the men are blithering idiots ready to murder their children and consequently the future while the woman featured here is entirely more sensible). "The Last Night of the World" also touches on ideas like group-think, religious domination and even cultism. We mustn't forget that 1969 was also the year of the Manson murders.

In The Illustrated Man, the future is a dark, dark place. Nature is either destructive ("The Long Rain"), a technological recreation tilted toward murder ("The Veldt") or a backdrop for human-forged horrors ("The Last Night of the World"). It is interesting that at the conclusion of each story (upon return to the lake), Smight dissolves to a particular shot: that of a burning campfire (often seen in close-up). The views of this fire are like a visual suggestion that each future tale ends in conflagration, destruction and chaos. The film also features a preponderance of low-angle shots, especially in relation to Bloom, to suggest her fearsome, otherworldly quality.

Digging deep now, I see The Illustrated Man as a story of a woman who -- by some means unknown to us -- has seen the horrors of the future and goes back in time to warn mankind to change his ways before it is too late. The only way she can do so, perhaps, is through the art of the living skin illustrations she imprints on Carl. I suggest that this "art" is actually the technology of her world and time, and -- like the technology we see deployed in the remainder of the film -- can lead only to destruction and pain because it is misused and misunderstood. A fact which makes Felicia - our prophet of bad times to come - a tragic figure in the classical sense. She has gone back in time to save the future, but her own technology, the creative medium she utilizes to change the future, is not understood and only leads to further destruction, anarchy and murder. Felicia's wistful voice over narration, about each person trying to see beyond his time, "facing questions with no answers" may represent her final realization that man will always be man, even if warned. He will not change. Carl is not able to understand the nature of the illustrations and indeed, grows murderous over them. She calls the illustrations a gift, but for him they are always a curse. This strikes me as being very clearly of-a-piece with such contemporary genre films as Planet of the Apes. The Illustrated Man is thus an end-of-the-world tale.

If you think of all the things that were happening in 1968 and 1969, you can understand more fully the power and depth of Smight's imagery; the notion that the future would be one of fires. The Tet Offensive, the Battle of Saigon, the My Lai Massacre, the Robert Kennedy Assassination, nerve gas leaks in Utah, Chappaquiddick, the Nixon Doctrine ("Vietnamization"), terrorist bombing in Quebec, the firebombing of Cambodia, student demonstrations at Harvard, the Stonewall Riots and on and on. All this was going on concurrently with the film, and you can practically sense the unease about the future oozing from the screen. I believe it no accident either that the film is basically framed as a conflict between generations. Willie is a young man full of optimism; Carl an old man filled with cynicism, murderous impulses and hatred. It's a tale of the generation gap, and Willie is so tortured by the world he views through Carl's eyes (or through his tattoos), that he too becomes murderous. The cycle of violence, in the end, gets handed from one generation to the next.

The cyclical nature of human life (of human violence, actually) is visually represented in The Illustrated Man by the fact that the same three actors portray different roles in different time periods. This conceit makes us understand how history repeats itself, again and again, across time. The story of Carl and of Man repeats across the breadth of the future; intertwined with the story of Felicia and Woman, and the story of Willie and Youth.

Make no mistake, this version of The Illustrated Man is not a Ray Bradbury film per se. Much of the writer's trademark lyricism and romanticism is missing, if not entirely absent. This is a Jack Smight film, a Howard N. Kreitsek interpretation from the late sixties. It is a brutal rendering of Bradbury's work that speaks directly to a certain place and time (and a certain set of fears). I would never use the adjectives "grotesque" or "vulgar" to describe Bradbury's writing, but those are indeed critical adjectives in any accurate description of this film. Steiger plays an absolute brute in The Illustrated Man, one who abuses small animals, is obsessed with sex, and is consumed with hatred. Along with the character of young Willie, we want to murder this arrogant, monstrous man. We want to murder him for touching and destroying the beauty of Felicia. We want to murder him for revealing a world of such endless ugliness and pain. I would argue, however, that these feelings -- while undeniably far away from the vision of Bradbury -- are entirely appropriate to a world view where the idea "never trust anyone over thirty" carried such currency.

I suppose I should end this review with a notation that The Illustrated Man is being re-made right now for a 2010 release. I wonder if it will be a science fiction spectacle; an anthology more faithful to the work of Ray Bradbury, or another comment on this new, turbulent age? We shall see...