Friday, August 22, 2008

Friedkin Friday: Jade (1995)

In the early 1990s, outspoken screenwriter Joe Eszterhas was the toast of Hollywood.

The writer behind the mega-hit Basic Instinct (1992) quickly became the highest-paid screenwriter in history, not to mention one of the most controversial. And for good reason. His scripts enthusiastically blended brutal violence with lurid sex, and his outlook on women was either blatantly misogynist or extremely feminist, depending on your interpretation. Plus his movies often featured craven bi-sexuals and lesbians.

Lots of lesbians.

Eszterhas contributed further "erotic" thrillers -- such as Sliver (1993) -- to Hollywood's revival and re-interpretation of the film noir aesthetic...but with pumped-up, acrobatic sex scenes, macho dialogue, and strange murders aplenty. The result? Suddenly, cineplexes were jammed-packed with so-called "sexy" thrillers like Madonna's (atrocious) Body of Evidence (1993), the equally-moribund Whispers in the Dark (1992) and the uninspiring Final Analysis (1992).

However, by the half-way point of the Age of Clinton (1995), the trend had burned itself out, just like the hot candle wax poured on Willem Dafoe's privates by Madonna in Body of Evidence. Eszterhas's remarkable fortunes were notably reversed, and the writer shepherded two notorious bombs to theaters, the ridiculous and campy (though extremely enjoyable...) Showgirls [1994]) and the dead-on-arrival William Friedkin film, Jade (1995).

The outline -- the outline, mind you -- of Jade was purchased by Paramount's Sherry Lansing (Friedkin's wife) for a whopping 2.5 million dollars. The final film, however, was a Waterloo for all involved. Jade only grossed ten million dollars against a fifty million dollar budget, and was almost universally critically-reviled. Most of the animosity, however, was directed at Ezsterhas's turgid script rather than Friedkin's direction. It's also clear in retrospect that Jade - although no masterpiece (and not in the same class as Sorcerer, Cruising or To Live and Die in L.A.) -- suffered from a double backlash that had little to do with the specifics of the film itself.

First, critics were still gunning for the by-now millionaire celebrity writer, Ezsterhas, desiring to punish him for his egregious success (and his fall from grace, with Showgirls). I'm not sure why this is the case, but many critics love to take down someone "big" who picks a bad project, or who, after previous successes, makes a less-successful film (see: Kevin Costner, Ben Affleck, M. Night Shymalan, and currently...George Lucas.)

Secondly, Jade starred David Caruso, a talent Friedkin once described in an interview (with Charlie Rose) as "the new Steve McQueen." As you may recall, Caruso walked away from a starring role in the highly-successful Steve Bochco TV series NYPD Blue after one (admittedly glorious) season, and critics and audiences interpreted his departure after so brief a spell as one of supreme arrogance and ingratitude. Caruso was also duly punished for his sins: both films he made in 1995, Kiss of Death and Jade, suffered ignoble deaths at the box office. People were angry with Caruso, and his film career evaporated because of it.

Again, none of this historical background is meant to imply or suggest that Jade isn't responsible for its own trespasses; only that - starting out - this critically-derided William Friedkin film had two big strikes against it. Still, Jade might have weathered the twin Eszterhas/Caruso backlash had it been a stronger, better-written film. As it stands, it suffers from a confusing, underwhelming climax, and all the touches we now typically associate with an Eszterhas script.

In other words, Jade feels ugly, leering, and crass. The particular details of the film's narrative are so luridly shocking (a millionaire collects pubic hair trophies of his sexual conquests! The prostitute known as Jade is famous for taking it...uh...the Greek Way!) that we're momentarily distracted from the fact that the characters have little (or no...) depth and that the story is muddled beyond belief.

All of these problems are present and accounted for in Basic Instinct too, by the way, but Verhoeven directed that film with a zealous, even bombastic sense of voyeurism, one bordering on circus-like, and in the lead role Sharon Stone proved herself a game, self-aware ringmaster, a hyper-femme fatale for the ages. Jerry Goldsmith's score evoked Hitchcock, and with her patented Ice Princess act, Stone's character could be traced directly back to Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958). Even if the film wasn't authentically Hitchcockian in technique and meticulous plotting, it felt enough like Hitchcock to pass muster in March of 1992.

But William Friedkin isn't Paul Verhoeven in either style or temperament.

Verhoeven has proven to be at his best as a wicked social satirist, in efforts such as RoboCop (1987) and Starship Troopers (1997). By contrast, Friekdin is a more gloomy, realistic, existentialist director; one who tends to ruminate on heavier matters. To Live and Die in L.A. and The French Connection both draw a profound moral equivalency between obsessive cops and their criminal quarry. Sorcerer obsesses on the fickle whimsy of fate, and The Exorcist deals with the idea that true evil dwells in this world. In Jade, it's clear that Friedkin is examining something else that fascinates him, in this case, sexual jealousy, and the manner in which people either exorcise it, or hide it from society.

The film noir format has always concerned "the underneath," the simmering, ignoble motives that drive a man to desperation; to commit a crime; to fall in love with the wrong woman; or to kill an enemy. Friedkin, in crafting Jade, utilizes the leitmotif of "the mask" to explore that duality of the surface world and the underneath; to plumb the depths of public/private faces.

One of the first shots in the film, for instance, involves a slow, menacing (and beautifully orchestrated) glide up a long, elegant stairway The camera's prey is -- no surprise here -- a dark black mask on display at the top of that staircase. We seem to steadily approach the empty eye slits of the ebony mask, as if the camera wants us to put it on ourselves. Later, evidence found at a crime scene includes a bloodied mask of another kind, a fertility mask. Critic Bob Stephens, writing for The San Francisco Examiner made clever note of the preponderance of masks in Jade:

"CEREMONIAL AND psychological masks dominate William Friedkin's most recent film, "Jade," which is set in San Francisco. In Friedkin's intriguing murder mystery, we encounter the menacing fertility masks of primitive cultures, colorful masks in the celebratory Chinese New Year parade, opaque public personas and the "masks" of identities assumed in hedonistic sexual activities. In "Jade" people are not what they appear to be; with each new revelation of a homicide investigation, the relationships of politicians, legal agencies and three friends change drastically."

Indeed. Jade's story is one in which masks play a crucial role, and which the truth underneath those masks shocks, surprises and confounds. The film's narrative centers around San Francisco's assistant district attorney, David Corelli (David Caruso) as he investigates the stunning and brutal murder of a local philanthropist. The eccentric man died in a compromising position and the one of the few clues as to the identity of the perpetrator involves his collection of pubic hair snippets from sexual conquests. Yes, you read that right.

One such pubic hair snippet apparently belongs to a mysterious high-class prostitute called Jade. Jade's real identity is unknown, but as the case deepens, Corelli draws closer to finding her, and the murderer too. The case leads Corelli to an investigation of California's governor (Richard Crenna), one of Jade's clients. More disturbingly, it leads Corelli straight to his best friends from college -- Matt (Chazz Palminteri) and Trina (Linda Fiorentino) Gavin -- a high-powered married couple living in San Francisco. Matt is a ruthless attorney, and Trina is a clinical psychologist. That very day, Trina happened to visit the murder victim. She offers a plausible explanation for the social call, but her fingerprints are soon found on the murder weapon: a ceremonial hatchet.

David also finds a cuff link at the scene of the crime, and it too is a crucial clue. Meanwhile, the police (led by Michael Biehn) zero in on Trina. Adding to the cloud of guilt surrounding her, she writes successfully (and gives lectures...) about an issue in "the changing workplace." In particular, Trina discusses how it is important to "distinguish between someone who's had a bad day that ends in a temper tantrum and someone whose failure to resist aggressive impulses results in serious destructive acts."

What happens when people are "no longer able to control their urges?"

According to Trina, "they disassociate from their own actions, often experiencing an hysterical blindness." "They're blind," she establishes, " the darkness within themselves."

In most movies of this type, Trina's psycho-babble dialogue would prove a sort of explanation of the killer's motive or mind-set. What separates Jade from the sleazy erotic-thriller pack, and what marks it as a Friedkin film, is that Trina's description covers literally every character in the film.

To wit: Trina leads a double life as Jade -- the hooker every man wants to be with. Her husband Matt...well, if you've seen the movie, you know just how "dark" he is. He's an amoral lawyer and a monstrous, cruel husband, and worse, doesn't even practice foreplay. David himself is pretty dark, threatening the district attorney in order to stay on the Jade case (and gain a political foothold, perhaps, in S.F.).

Michael Biehn's character has secrets too...his public face hides a dark, private one.. As for the governor, he has orchestrated a massive conspiracy to cover his sexual dalliance, all the while maintaining a smile and a laconic demeanor. The "masks" people wear in public, we see, are the masks that allow them to - in Trina's vernacular -"disassociate" themselves from their urges, their moral failings, their monstrous deeds.

As in the best examples of the film noir genre, in Jade it's not merely a few bad apples who are is the world itself that is twisted and perverse. And that tenet certainly fits in with the gritty nihilism we've detected in Friedkin's other cinematic works. There's a great shot in the film, early on, that seems to express visually this conceit. At a ritzy San Francisco party, an empty tuxedo jacket hovers near the ceiling, over the revellers, social climbers and wannabes - the "haves and the have mores." As the shot suggests, they're all sort of empty suits, devoid of morality and social purpose beyond hedonism and self-aggrandizement. On the soundtrack, "Isn't it Romantic?" plays ironically.

So, is Jade misogynist or feminist? Well, the film concerns a woman subjugated and enslaved by her callous, two-timing husband, who - while donning her mask of disassociation -- steps out on her marriage to experience sexual pleasures with other men. This act may make Jade/Trina immoral, but it certainly doesn't make her a monster.

Again, this is made clear through Friedkin's savvy staging of a scene involving Matt and Trina making love. Matt mounts Trina without any foreplay whatsoever, and selfishly - and painfully - has very brief sex with her (I was going to write "makes love to her" but that was clearly the wrong phrase). For the duration of this act, Friedkin's camera remains on Trina's face; in relatively tight shot. A tear falls down her cheek. We detect on Trina's face a flurry of conflicting emotions. There's physical pain; there's emotional hurt; and then the mask returns. The staging -- close on Trina -- makes us feel the pain too and helps us understand that although she may make questionable moral decisions, she's hardly the film's villain. I don't believe the film is misogynist because "Jade" (unlike Catherine Trammell) is not a loopy psycho-killer. Her worst transgression is the search for sexual satisfaction outside of marriage. True, she takes that quest a bit far...but it is mostly the men in Jade who are the monsters.

I would also argue that the film isn't exactly feminist. Jade -- like all the other characters in the film -- dons the public "mask" of propriety while shedding it in private. Just because she's a woman, she's not automatically better than the men. The movie doesn't exactly approve of her of what she's done. In fact, Jade doesn't exactly approve of herself or what she's done. There's one mask in the film even she is ashamed to wear: that of a stocking pulled tight over her face, while a sexual partner screws her from behind. This moment occurs during a sleazy hotel room tryst, and the stocking makes Jade's face look deformed, distorted...even piggish. This is where Jade draws the line; where her ability to "disassociate" fails, and even she feels exploited.

Jade is a thoroughly fascinating film, but ultimately a somewhat unsatisfying and opaque one. Friedkin wants to examine the characters and ideas here with some depth, but the script rarely affords him the opportunity to go beyond the superficial, except in his choice of images. And the final revelatory scene raises more questions than it answers. For instance, if the killer of the philanthropist is whom the script tells us he is, then why the ritualistic nature of that murder? Why would the culprit -- as fingered by the screenplay -- arrange the body in such a fashion? It makes no sense in terms of motivation, in terms of narrative, and in terms of character. It's in that moment you realize how poorly-constructed the film's screenplay is; despite the interesting themes that occasionally make it tantalizing or alluring.

"The frustrating thing about Jade," wrote critic Carlo Cavagna, "is that it proves Friedkin still has it."

Cavagna goes on to explain: "The drawn-out opening sequence, a build-up to a murder during which the camera drifts through an opulent mansion filled with valuable artwork, including several eerie masks, is masterful. The signature of the artist who made The Exorcist is unmistakable. Moreover, the protracted car chase an hour into the film is nearly the equal of Friedkin's exceptional car chases in The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A., and recalls similarly stomach-lurching work by John Frankenheimer in The French Connection II and Ronin. The secret seems to lie in not overdoing the action and instead allowing the intensity of the actors to play into the scene, while at the same time putting a camera in the car to show the fracas from the driver's perspective."

There are some good points made there and I agree with them to a large extent. Jade occasionally struts with a sense of anticipatory dread and foreboding that is hard to dismiss. And Linda Fiorentino -- star of a fantastic film noir called The Last Seduction (1994) -- is beguiling in the film. Nonetheless, I prefer Friedkin in a more "gritty" and realistic mode (The French Connection or Sorcerer). The expressionistic editing with jolts and subliminal flashes -- a new style when Jade vetted it in 1995 -- has, alas, become boring de rigueur these days and just adds to the triteness of the story.

I also enjoy the Chinatown chase scene -- or what Friedkin calls an "anti-chase" scene since it involves cars stopped by traffic for long intervals -- but as skillful as it is from a purely technical perspective, this sequence doesn't cover any new ground for this artist. Before Jade, we already knew that Friedkin could stage, direct and edit a brilliant car chase. The impression here is that the director is searching -- desperately searching -- for some way to make the risible screenplay more engaging and punchy.

That Friedkin succeeds in that difficult quest with both his "masks" motif and his adrenaline-inducing car chase is a testament to his talent. At the very least, this film is intriguing. Jade may still be a mediocre film, but it's worth at least one viewing if you enjoy film noir, not to mention the spectacle of a great director working around a script to make his points with crafty visuals.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Dinosaurus! (1960)

I loved, loved, loved, loved this movie.

When I was six years old.

What can I say? Whenever Jack H. Harris's Dinosaurus! aired on the local TV station in 1975 or 1976 (I can't remember whether it was WPIX or WWOR...), I was soooo there. With my plastic dinosaur toys clutched in my hands and my Aurora dinosaur model kits (built by my Dad) in tow. You couldn't drag me away from the TV. Seriously.

I was deep in my extended dinosaur "appreciation" phase (commonly referred to by psychologists as a dangerous childhood obsession...) when this movie was making the TV rerun rounds, and Dinosaurus! -- in case the title didn't give it away -- is a film about a Tyrannosaurus Rex and Brontosaur. These giant lizards wake up on an isolated island in the tropics in 1960 and promptly wreak havoc until a visceral man vs. nature coup de grace with a bulldozer (queue the Tonka trucks, John).

Next to King Kong, Godzilla, The Last Dinosaur, or The Land That Time Forgot, this was as good as it got for kids in the seventies pre-Star Wars. (A fact, which may - incidentally - explain why Star Wars is such a touchstone for my generation...).

Anyway, Dinosaurus! (don't forget the exclamation point, please...) concerns an American construction company working on the Virgin Islands to build a new harbor for the locals. The "locals," by the way, consist of Irish drunks (think in terms of a live-action Groundskeeper Willie), a Cuban villain called Hacker (who talks like Ricky Ricardo and looks like a swarthy Vincent D'Onofrio), and his French-sounding henchman, not to mention assorted Latinos and black extras. Oh, and lest I forget, there's also a mental midget named "Dumpy," who - for some reason - is allowed to handle heavy machinery (not to mention Molotov Cocktails).

I never realized that the Virgin Islands were so well-integrated before watching Dinosaurus!, but there you go.

One day, a lovely and plucky gal named Betty (Kristina Hanson) happens into the harbor in a motorboat while hunky construction team leader Bart Thompson (the blow-dried Ward Ramsey) is detonating explosives nearby. An explosion knocks Betty's picnic lunch into the water, and she dives in after it. Unfortunately, she finds not lunch, but a giant hibernating Tyrannosaur. It appears to be dead -- or mostly dead, anyway -- but is "perfectly preserved." The explanation given (off-handedly) is that there's a cold subterranean channel down there, just off the beach. In the tropics?


The construction workers then drag the dinosaur out of the sea, up to the beach alongside a companion: a perfectly preserved brontosaur. "One look at them and you'll never forget them!" declares one character in description of the dinosaurs. He's right, of course. Because when lightning strikes the slumbering dinosaurs (as well, apparently, as a slumbering cave man...), the behemoths come to life and begin walking the island in full view. And once you've seen them...I promise, you won't forget them. No matter how hard you try. The special effects were created by Wah Chung and Gene Warren (who later collaborated on Land of the Lost), two greats of the film industry, actually. So allow me to state simply that the effects don't really hold up very well today, even though I appreciate the 1960s era artistry.

But never mind that, when I was six years old, these dinosaurs were good as real, buddy. Absolutely real. And scary.

Okay, so the unfrozen cave man is played by Gregg Martell, and he quickly explores the island. Wouldn't you know it, right off the bat he finds a hatchet and ends up smashing the only working radio in a thousand miles. D'oh! He also confronts a 20th century woman in rollers and facial lotion...and runs screaming away like a little girl.

While the Neanderthal goes in search of his two buddies (the other Stooges...), the islanders -- led by Bart and Betty -- team up and decide to make a last stand at the local ruins. They dig a moat around an ancient fortress and wait for the tyrannosaur to show up. Meanwhile, local politician and villain, Hacker (who beats his wayward child, Julio...) thinks he could get rich off the Neanderthal...

Before Dinosaurus! has ended, there's been a noble self-sacrifice on the part of the cave man, the brontosaur fails to elude fate and ends up dying in quick sand, and Bart goes mano-e-mano with the T-Rex from the seat of a bull-dozer. He doesn't exactly say "Get away from her, you bitch," but Bart utilizes the mechanical device to duel the dinosaur to a standstill, clubbing the beastie off a high mountainside with the scoop bucket. Young Julio, who had befriended the neanderthal, is sad, but Bart explains to him how confusing it can be to wake-up with a million-year hangover.

Imagine you woke up one day in the twenty-first century, Bart offers, by way of explanation, to Julio. Or, if you are me -- seeing this movie for the first time in thirty-two years -- imagine you were a kid and loved this movie and then woke up one day in the twenty-first century to realize how ridiculous and silly the whole thing is.

Because that's kind of what happened with Dinosaurus! I told one of my friends (producer Joseph Maddrey) I was going to watch the movie and how much it had meant to me as a child, and he said something along the lines of "why are you going to do that? why do you want to ruin good memories?"

Note to self: I should listen to Joe more often.

Of course, this whole review is kind of glib, isn't it? That's because the little boy part of me (read: all of me) is wounded and sad and disappointed that - unlike, say King Kong (1933) or Godzilla: King of Monsters (1956) - Dinosaurus! doesn't really hold up to adult scrutiny. It's a perfectly adequate (if ludicrous) time-waster and B movie, but I can't make any arguments for the artistic merit of the film, and boy does that bum me out. Big time.

I made Kathryn watch this one with me last night and she was asleep in thirty minutes. Before she drifted off, I asked if he she thought our two-year old, Joel, would ever dig a movie like Dinosaurus! I mean, he likes bulldozers, right? She smiled pleasantly, but gave me a look that indicated only a six year old in 1976 could possibly love a movie this clunky. Joel is already more evolved than his father, I guess, so this may be my last run at Dinosaurus!

If I had known that beforehand, I would have made sure to attend this final viewing with my plastic dinosaurs and model kits in hand.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: A Boy and His Dog (1975)

In 1975, Harlan Ellison's award-winning short story, "A Boy and His Dog" (featured in the 1969 collection called The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World) was adapted to film by actor L.Q. Jones, a relatively novice director. You may recognize Jones' name because he's a talented actor who has appeared in films as diverse as Casino (1995) and A Prairie Home Companion (2006) and he wrote the truly amazing (and deeply underrated) 1971 horror film, Brotherhood of Satan.

A low-budget production that nonetheless expertly forecast a post-apocalyptic vision quite similar to the one depicted in Mad Max, A Boy and His Dog proved to be an authentic triumph for Jones; in turns quirky, absurd, and in some surprising moments...even oddly heartwarming.

Generally well-received, A Boy and His Dog nabbed a Hugo for best dramatic production and was also nominated for several other awards, including ones from The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films, and The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Despite these honors, some critics also concluded that the film (advertised with the tag-line "a rather kinky tale of survival") was a misogynist effort, a judgment based almost entirely, it seems, on the film's final line of dialogue. Of A Boy and His Dog, Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert (writing in March of 1976), opined: "The movie doesn't look or sound like most s-f tours of alternative futures. It's got a unique . . . well, I was about to say charm, but the movie's last scene doesn't quite let me get away with that..."

A Boy and His Dog stars a very, very young Don Johnson as Vic, an impulsive and callow scavenger living in a ruined, post-apocalyptic Arizona circa 2024 A.D. (following World War IV...which lasted five days). Vic is accompanied on his journeys by Blood (Tiger from The Brady Bunch...I'm not kidding...) a canine with whom the lad shares a most unusual telepathic link.

In other words, Blood and Vic talk to each other, and much of the film is actually a running dialogue between dog and man. In this case, the dog -- whose main purpose is to procure women for Vic and help the young man avoid the roving "Screamers" -- is by far the smarter and more experienced of the two beings. But Vic doesn't always listen to the dog, and that causes problems.

Case in point: Vic really, really wants to get laid. It's been six weeks since he's been with a woman, and he's getting desperate. At a local showing of an old porno film in an open air venue, Blood informs Vic that he smells a lone female in the audience of homeless, pitiable people. Vic tracks her down, and this is how he first encounters Quilla June Holmes (Susanne Benton), a beautiful (and willing...) woman from the unseen world "down under." No, not Australia, but a civilization beneath the surface of the desert.

After Vic and Blood save Quilla from a gang of attacking Screamers, Quilla attempts to entice the head-strong, independent Vic to her mysterious world. But Blood is badly injured, and begs Vic not to go. Fired up about Quilla June, Vic decides to ignore the dog's advice (again!) and visit the subterranean world of Topeka. It's a creepy kind of 1950s Ozzie and Harriet "nightmare" civilization where everyone is so pale (from lack of sunlight), that they've taken to adorning creepy white pancake make-up. The town is run by an organization called The Committee (led by Jason Robards).

Topeka has big plans for Vic. They plan to make use of "the fruit" of his "loins." Turns out Quilla June was sent to lure him to the underground world. The women there can no longer get pregnant by the male citizenry of the little burg, and they need a man from above to get the job done. Vic thinks this is a dream assignment -- obviously -- until the exact details are made clear. There will be no intercourse (this is a prudish, repressive, 1950s patriarchy, remember?). So instead, he's attached to a painful looking sperm extraction device ..and it's here...filling one vial of semen after another...that he'll spend the rest of the days. A line of 35 blushing brides (in gowns...) wait outside Vic's medical theatre, nervously expecting his...fluids.

When Quilla realizes that the Committee has double-crossed her and has no plan to make her a senior member of the organization (her condition for luring Vic below...), she helps Vic escape. Vic can't wait to get back to his dog, to his life on the surface. "I gotta get back in the I feel clean," he quips.

Back on the surface, a dying (but loyal...) Blood awaits. Vic is forced to make a tough decision to keep Blood alive. He must choose between a treacherous woman...and a beloved dog. I won't spoil the ending for you, but I imagine that from the hints dropped in this review, you probably know what I'm talking about.

A Boy and His Dog is both surreal and disturbing, but it's also (let's face it...) a truly funny movie. It's the rare genre film in which even the title cards prove amusing. A Boy and His Dog commences with a colorful, artistic montage of blooming mushroom clouds and then, after describing the duration of World War IV, cuts to a title card that reads: "The politicians had finally solved the problem of urban blight." Ouch.

That sort of blunt cynicism runs throughout the picture, from Vic's no-holds barred complaining ("I'm hungry and I want to get laid"), to Blood's retort when he and Vic encounter a brutal local warlord, and Vic asks why people follow him. "Probably just charisma," says Blood, deadpan.

The entire movie crackles with sharp, pointed exchanges like that. Don't get me wrong, it's not tongue-in-cheek or silly, it's just clever, and -- if memory serves -- remarkably faithful to Ellison's novella (especially in terms of Blood's dialogue). Today we know this brand of wicked sarcasm as "snark," so perhaps A Boy and His Dog is the first (and only...) snarky sci-fi epic. Yet it's more than just a whip-smart genre film, it's highly skilled in the ways it establishes and develops the characters. Within twenty minutes, for instance, you won't even think it odd that Don Johnson is arguing with a canine. I always liked Miami Vice, but I don't know that I ever thought Johnson was a truly great actor. Watch him here -- bouncing off a dog with passion, verve and resentment -- and you'll be convinced that he is. The entire film represents a sort of twisted genius (on a low budget). You'll never see another film like this, believe me.

In terms of theme, A Boy and His Dog is probably an equal opportunity offender. I saw the film's message as essentially libertarian: Vic was better off roaming the surface of a devastated earth with his dog than dealing with a so-called "society" like Topeka, one with layers of bizarre bureaucracy and twisted social mores. Better to be hungry, poor and battling Screamers than dealing with backstabbers and two-timers.

I certainly understand why someone would be tempted to look at the film and argue that it is misogynist, but I really, really think that's the wrong message to take away. For one thing, it's not exactly like Vic is choosing any old dog over a woman. His dog is quite special, after all: a telepathic mentor and friend. And the woman in question had just tried to sell Vic down the river and convert him into a living sperm bank. I mean, given those two alternatives, who would you choose? The friend you'd been with your whole life? Or the person who just tricked you? This particular woman is a bad apple; that's all the movie is saying.

For some reason, while I was watching A Boy and His Dog I was suddenly reminded of a great quote from an old Twilight Zone episode ("The Hunt," if I remember my Zones, correctly)

It went something like this: "A man? Well, he'll walk right into Hell with both eyes open. But even the Devil can't fool a dog..."

Word to the wise in the twilight zone; or in post-apocalypse Topeka.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 55: The Tomorrow People (1973): "The Slaves of the Jedikiah"

From Great Britain - the home of Dr. Who, UFO, Blake's 7, Space:1999, The Prisoner and Sapphire & Steel - comes this durable 1970s TV serial about homo superior, a new brand of "evolved" human beings who are in the process of replacing regular old homo sapiens.

In the first five-part serial of The Tomorrow People, penned by series creator Roger Price and Brian Finch and directed by Paul Bernard, we join the first three tomorrow people in the middle of a delicate rescue mission, in media res.

In particular, Tomorrow People leader John (Nicholas Young) -- a serious, fast-talker -- and his companions, Carol (Sammie Winmill) and Kenny (Stephen Salmon), have set out with the help of their friendly computer, Tim (a more kindly version of HAL) to bring a young boy named Stephen (Peter Vaughan-Clarke) into the fold.

Stephen is in the delicate process of "breaking out" (an experience analogous to puberty in humans), wherein his mental skills as a "tomorrow person" are coming to the forefront of his psyche. Among these powers are the three "T's" of the tomorrow people: telepathy, teleportation and telekinesis. When Carol visits Stephen in the hospital following a "brainstorm," she informs Stephen of his destiny as an evolved human being, a tomorrow person.

Because they share a mental link, "tomorrow people are never alone." Also, they are totally incapable of killing. Tomorrow People can defend themselves, but they cannot commit murder under any circumstances. Fortunately, their advanced minds as well as their technology help them complete their tasks (locating and educating more tomorrow people, and communing with alien races...), and we see examples in this first serial of their tools of the trade.

For instance, The Tomorrow People carry nifty stun guns (which don't kill), and also wear belts that help them "jaunt" back and forth from one location to another (through hyperspace...). Jaunting, in case you were wondering, is "the instant transmission of bodies from one point in space to another" (like beaming up). The tomorrow people operate from a central headquarters in an abandoned underground station (where a geological fault was detected...), one equipped with view screens, computers, a jaunt pad and more.

Tim (Philip Gilbert) is the best technology of all. "I'm a biological computer," he informs Stephen. "I don't have disks and tapes." The high-tech "machine" is fully capable of original thought, and he also cooks...materializing food instantaneously (sort of like a replicator in latter day Treks). In this serial, we see Tim make some executive decision when the young tomorrow people can't. In an especially dangerous situation, he overrides the jaunt pad so that all the tomorrow people can't be put into danger at once.

The Tomorrow People also reveal to Stephen in this episode that Earth is a "closed world;" that aliens are not supposed to visit Earth, though they occasionally do so. And that fact leads into the central intrigue of "The Slave of Jedikiah:" a mysterious bearded man also wants to get his hands on Stephen for some mysterious purpose, and abducts the boy to rural Bentham Hall with the help of a comic (and annoying..) motorcycle gang. The Jedikiah squelches Stephen's telepathic ability with a "silencer band," which soaks up mental transmissions.

The Tomorrow People set out to rescue Stephen and solve the mystery of the Jedikiah (who calls the Tomorrow People "younglings"). They soon discover that there is some truth Homer's Odyssey, particularly in the character of Polyphemus. Seems that Jedikiah is the (robotic), shape-shifting servant of a green and fat alien cyclops aboard a damaged spaceship in Earth orbit. The Cyclops requires the help of telepaths (like the Tomorrow People) to help him get his ship into hyperspace, because his own telepaths (slaves...) died in an accident. While evading Jedikiah (rendered out-of-control by a stun-gun shot to the head), the Tomorrow People attempt to send the alien Cyclops back to his planet. In the process, they learn that, according to the alien, "Earth has a bad reputation."

"You are always at war," he tells them, and every time an ambassador is sent from other worlds, "he's slain."

"The Slaves of the Jedikiah" ends with Stephen on track to join the Tomorrow People in future assignments, and a friendship forged with the comic motorcycle dudes.

Critically-speaking, "The Slaves of Jedikiah," The Tomorrow People's introductory serial, is one that grows less and less interesting the longer it lasts. The first portions of the narrative (thru Part III or thereabouts) serve as splendid set-up of Price's interesting and unique universe, but by episodes four and five, we're deep in "runaround" territory (a failing also of early Doctor Who), with Kenny getting kidnapped and rescued, and the robotic Jedikiah roaming endlessly through spaceship corridors. The good will and curiosity forged by the serial's fine beginning is pretty much squandered by the end. You watch episode 5 and you're ready to move onto the next serial already (which I'll do here soon...). You like the characters; you like the just want a better story.

What works so beautifully about The Tomorrow People (termed a children's show at the time) is the dynamite central premise (one shared, in various ways by modern franchises such as Heroes, Prey and Mutant X). It's the notion that mankind is evolving into something better, and that people with special abilities walk among us. Because this series was created in 1973, the next step of human evolution depicted here - homo superior - is idealistic, anti-war (this was the age of the Vietnam conflict after all) and intensely pacifistic. The Tomorrow People boast the idealism of the Hippie Movement, but have the technology, science and power behind them to exploit their skills in clever, useful (and entertaining) ways.

Even the central threat in "The Slaves of Jedikiah" arises not from deliberate alien malevolence, but rather from misunderstanding and fear. Carol asks Ranesh (the Cylops) why he didn't just ask for help, rather than trying to force the Tomorrow People to come to his aid, and his answer is about human nature and human history. Yeah, it's a "message," but it isn't preachy. It's in the fine tradition of The Day The Earth Stood Still or Star Trek.

I also love the idea so prominently placed here that any child in the world can "break out;" can become a tomorrow person. That's an enormously appealing idea; the notion that one day you can make an impact; change your world for the better. And there are no exclusions on your abilities based on Earthly prejudices like sex, race or (presumably) orientation. It's an immensely positive idea to impart to kids (and grown-ups too...), and I dig it. Again, this optimism reminded me of Star Trek, but it isn't imitative or derivative of Star Trek.

If you've watched 1970s British science fiction television before, you know that (excepting UFO and Space:1999) there are limitations in terms of budget, and therefore in terms of visualizations. The same is true here. The robot Jedikiah turns into is very, very lame (a sort of cardboard box creation). There's a lot of what appears to be chroma key or early green screen work...some of it good (the jaunting), some of it not so good (the hyperspace sequence). The "futuristic" space helmets appear to be football helmets, down to wire mesh over the eye slits. Still, I really dug the look of the Underground HQ (a great set...), and I appreciated the retro-style jaunt control belts.

When I recommend TV series like Dr. Who, Blake's 7 and The Tomorrow People to folks around me, I tell them that you have to leave your criticism about the special effects behind, and just go along for the ride, because otherwise you'll miss some very cool stuff. That's especially true here. The visuals are variable...but the ideas are usually strong.

For a so-called "children's show," The Tomorrow People does absolutely zero talking down to the audience. This serial, "The Slaves of The Jedikiah" explains in rapid-fire succession such adult genre concepts as hyperspace, teleportation, shape-shifting, biological computers, telepathy even Darwinism and the like. The imagination of the ideas far outstrips the special effects and I'm okay with that. And so far, I particularly appreciate Nicholas Young's character, John, who delivers his dialogue with determined and staccato intensity. John's a kid, yes, but he's a no-nonsense leader too.

I'm only at the beginning of my "jaunt" with The Tomorrow People, but I can already see why series fans love it with such devotion. It's clever, yet a little kooky too. It's earnest and heartfelt, even amidst some horrid spfx. As a committed fan to Sapphire & Steel, Blake's 7 and Doctor Who, I really eat this stuff up, cheesy visuals and all.