Saturday, September 20, 2008

CULT TV BLOGGING: Quark: "May the Source Be With You" (1978)

Buck Henry's first target on Quark (1978) was Star Trek, in particular those episodes of the classic series that concerned dangerous cosmic space phenomena ("The Immunity Syndrome"). Henry's second target is - naturally - the (then) recent blockbuster, Star Wars.

The first regular episode of Quark is thus appropriately entitled "May the Source Be With You," and it ribs almost every aspect of Lucas's supreme space fantasy. To wit Henry Silva appears as the evil High Gorgon Leader (wearing a Darth Vader helmet and boasting a mechanical arm); he commands a massive space-fortress (like the Death Star), and harnesses a weapon that could easily destroy space station Perma One.

Once more, it is Captain Adam Quark (Richard Benjamin) and his crew of colorful misfits to the rescue. This week, Ficus (Richard Kelton) is added to the mix as the logical alien Ficus, a Vegeton. In the best tradition of the original Star Trek, Ficus and Quark debate human emotions (particularly love), and Quark ends up flustered and irritated by the talkative resident alien.

But the Star Wars parody comes fully into play as Quark takes on the Gorgons with the help of the United Galaxy's secret weapon: a disembodied voice called The Source (think Ben Kenobi saying "use the Force" to Luke Skywalker during the final Death Star trench run...ad nauseum.)

The only problem is that the Source has been out to pasture for 200 years and is, well, kind of rusty. Oh, and the Source is also insecure and easily offended. For instance, he demands unquestioning belief from Quark, even though the Source keeps making mistakes...or forgetting to share important information (like the fact that Quark should be carrying a bomb across a light bridge so as to destroy the Gorgon doomsday weapon).... The Source is also a vain know-it-all, and a nag. To complete the job of destroying the Gorgon weapon, for instance, he demands that Quark and his crew cheer him on. They do so, under great duress.

Remember the scene in Star Wars on the Millennium Falcon, in which Luke adorns a helmet and uses the Force - instead of his eyes - to repel a small spherical probe? Quark parodies that scene in "May the Source Be With You" as the Source instructs Gene/Jean, the Betty Clones and Ficus to tune their lasers to a low setting, and then fire simultaneously -- and repeatedly -- at Quark. Meanwhile, if Quark believes in the Source, he will be able to use a small glowing sphere to repel all the blasts. Not a single gamma gun blast will touch him...

Guess whether or not Quark gets shot. Or more accurately, guess how many times Quark gets shot. And where.

Besides mocking elements of Star Wars, "May the Source Be With You" also takes the time to develop many of the Quark supporting characters here. Andy the robot is cowardly (again), but then finds his courage and charges a group of three or four Gorgon soldiers. Over the course of the episode, Andy continues to recount this heroic story, adding to the number of enemies he faced down. By the end, the robot is saying "did I ever tell you about the time I charged 57 Gorgons?"

Gene/Jean the transmute, meanwhile, alternates between attacking Gorgon soldiers, and going totally femme, as you might expect given his nature as both male and female. Also, the Clones attempt to send a long distance call to Perma One, and - in the face of Gorgon resistance -- claim (ridiculously) not to know one another. Despite the fact they are identical twins. And dressed identically too...

In the final analysis, the thing that makes "May the Source Be With You" so memorable is the fact that -- after all the fireworks and comedy -- the series aims for something deeper. Allow me to explain: Quark must return "The Source" to a small container on Perma One. There the Source will wait alone, perhaps for another two hundred years or more, until needed again. The strange thing is that despite the comedy, despite the silliness, this final goodbye between Quark and the Source is actually touching in some strange way. All episode long, the Source has been an irritant to Quark, getting him into all kinds of trouble. And yet, there's also something heroic and wonderful about this "force.". And then, in the coda, Quark seems to acknowledge that their relationship has been more than an irritant. He is is courteous and downright tender to the Old Source as the old spirit is put out to pasture again. There's something magical and right and very human about this valedictory moment.

What it reveals is that Quark -- like the "source" material it borrows from (Star Trek and Star Wars) -- boasts a heart as well as a funny bone.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Johnny Byrne Tribute Tonight on Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction

Dear Readers,

Dr. Howard Margolin, the host of Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction, is tonight broadcasting a memorial and tribute to my mentor, hero, and friend - author Johnny Byrne (1935-2008).

As many of you remember, Johnny served as the story editor and script-writer on Space:1999, contributing such memorable stories as "Force of Life," "Another Time, Another Place," "Voyager's Return," "Mission of the Darians" and "The Testament of Arkadia." In addition, Johnny wrote three Doctor Who serials in the 1980s and co-wrote that classic memoir of the 1960s British rock scene, Groupie.

Howard always does a terrific show, (he's actually incapable of doing any less), so I know this will be a very special program tonight, and I hope you will tune in. You can look forward to Johnny Byrne - in his own voice and words - describing many of his experiences on Space:1999.

Destinies airs tonight at 11:30 pm on 90.1 FM, WUSB, Stony Brook, NY; net-casting at http://www.wusb.fm/.

After airing it will be archived at www.captphilonline.com/Destinies.html

Or you can download the program right now in podcast form at: https://podcast.ic.sunysb.edu/weblog/destinies.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

CULT TV BLOGGING: Quark: "Pilot" (1977)

In 1977, Buck Henry did to Star Trek (and science fiction TV programs in general) what he had already done to James Bond (and the spy genre in general) with his previous comedy series, Get Smart.

In other words, Henry crafted Quark, a sharp and funny sci-fi satire; a merciless parody that understood perfectly the content and form of that which it sought to mock (and also, in a weird sense, honor).

Quark the series ran for only seven delightful episodes (following the pilot) in 1978 before a quick cancellation. Yet the series has survived in fandom as something of a legend ever since...and for good reason. Now that the series is finally available on DVD, I'll be blogging the episodes here, beginning with this early pilot (which pre-dated the arrival of Star Wars by just a few weeks.)

First, a small disclaimer: there are some notable differences between the pilot and the eventual series. Most notable among these changes is that the pilot episode features a wacky mad scientist-type named O.B. Mudd in a supporting role; a character who is replaced (mercifully...) in the series by an unemotional and logical science officer named Ficus...an alien from the planet Vegeton.

In Quark's pilot, we join Captain Adam Quark (Richard Benjamin) aboard his United Galaxy Sanitation Patrol Ship. Quark is from the (abandoned) planet Earth, particularly an ancient country called "America" (a country which -- historians believe -- worshipped a talking Mouse named Mickey). Quark cares for an alien pet named Ergo in the pilot episode: a hungry little ball of gelatin (shades of Dark Star...) that would just as soon snack on Quark's legs as doggie kibbles. In the pilot episode (as in later episodes), we are privy to Quark's thoughts: a captain's log of sorts, here called a "star note."

Quark's mission? To boldly collect space garbage baggies (literally giant green garbage bags drifting through space...). He is an acknowledged expert at the difficult garbage collection maneuver, manipulating his ship's "auto-grabs" (giant robotic arms, which shove the baggies into the ship's open mouth).

Quark's colorful crew includes two helms-people: the drop-dead gorgeous clones Betty and Betty (The Double Mint Twins). A running joke in both the pilot and the series is that each Betty claims to be the original article...and points the finger at the other as the second rate copy. Quark never learns which Betty is which.

Also aboard the ship is the chief engineer: an impulsive Transmute named Gene/Jean (Tim Thomerson). Gene/Jean -- like all his people -- possesses a complete set of male and female chromosomes. This makes him a tough-talking macho man in some scenes, and a mincing effete in others. As you might guess, the transition between personalities often comes at inopportune moments.

Finally, there is a cowardly robot named Andy, built by Quark and Mudd. Andy falls in love with a critical piece of the ship's machinery in the pilot episode...and the two machines get engaged.

Quark's base of operations is the space station called Perma One. It is administrated by a bureaucrat named Otto Palindrome (Conrad Janis of Mork and Mindy) and commanded by a disembodied, over-sized head called, appropriately, The Head.

In Quark's pilot episode, Quark is sent on an apparent suicide mission. A giant enzyme cloud has been detected in Sector M82 and is on an intercept course with Perma One, metabolizing all matter and all life in its path. The only ship in the quadrant to stop this menace is...Quark's!

If you're a Star Trek fan, you may recognize this story a parody of the episode "The Immunity Syndrome" about a giant amoeba "sucking" up all life in several solar systems. There's also a Space:1999 episode entitled "Space Brain" about - yeah - a space brain - sending out antibodies to crush Moonbase Alpha and avoid a collision. Even after Quark, Star Trek used a variation of the theme in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which concerned another threatening "space cloud." Here, the only way to defeat the hungry Enzyme Cloud is to feed it over two-hundred tons of...space garbage.

The greatest thing about this pilot episode is not merely that Quark has pinpointed a suitable old genre chestnut to parody, but that Richard Benjamin portrays Adam Quark as though he thinks he's actually Captain Kirk. Benjamin plays the material straigh (dead straight, actually)t, making his Quark a romantic, a philosophizer and even, after a fashion, a sort of action hero. It reminds me, indeed, of Don Adams' approach on Get Smart. Maxwell Smart was a comic figure, certainly, but he could throw a punch and handle himself in action scenes too.

Similarly, Adam Quark is believable as the captain of this particular ship at the same time that he is very, very amusing. Usually, he's just plain flustered at his turn of bad luck, or the incompetence of his underlings.

The pilot episode also goes a long way towards establishing the bizarre "larger" universe of Quark. On the spaceship, for instance, the crew eats by taking nourishment out of pneumatic tubes. They sleep in "cryogeno-tubes" and traverse decks through a hatch...and a slide. Though the special effects are of 1977 vintage, they hold up surprisingly well today. The gag with the space baggies is a good one.

Also, in the tradition of Rod Serling or Gene Roddenberry, there's even a little bit of socially relevant material about mankind's bigotry in this sci-fi pilot. After Mudd has a negative encounter with Gene/Jean, Quark reminds him that "Transmutes are people like everyone else." Mudd's response: "Would you want your sister to marry one?" In some small sense, then Gene/Jean represents an early portrayal of a gay man on television (concurrent with Billy Crystal's performance in Soap).

Despite some interesting moments like that, one can detect that the Quark format was still on something of a shakedown mission here. (In future episodes, sets and costumes are altered quite a bit, for instance.) A lot of the material in the pilot, about Palindrome and The Head sending a "long distance laser gram" through an infuriating multi-limbed operator called "Interface," feels woefully outdated now. Still, it's an interesting (and timely...) comment on Ma Bell in the 1970s, I suppose. Still, the series would improve dramatically in upcoming episodes with the arrival of Ficus (Richard Kelton), a character designed to parody the loquacious, logical Mr. Spock.

The next episode is a Star Wars parody entitled: "May the Source Be With You."

TV REVIEW: Fringe: "The Same Old Story"

Well, what do you know? -- Truth in advertising!

Fringe's second episode is entitled "The Same Old Story" and it really is the same old story. The plot concerns a baby growing from infant-hood to adulthood at an accelerated pace (a matter of hours). If you're a genre fan, you realize that this storyline closely
mirrors several hours of classic sci-fi television programming. From Christopher Penfold's "Alpha Child" on Space:1999 in 1976 to "The Child" on Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1988.

Yet I'm not going to fault Fringe for updating a familiar old chestnut because -- let's be truthful -- that's the name of the game, to a certain extent, in the genre. The X-Files skillfully updated spooky and supernatural tales seen on Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and now Fringe in turn is trotting out the same old conventions too; attempting to breathe new life into them. I have no fault with that idea in theory. What bothers me, rather, is the piss-poor execution.

I see precious little here to alter my diagnosis of last week that Fringe is X-Files lite; in other words: X-Files without the subtlety, nuance, intelligence, or good writing. In my blog of last week, I enumerated six similarities between Fringe and X-Files in terms of setting, characterization, milieu (the FBI) and even story arc. This week, my biggest complaints involve the characters.

First, let's tackle Peter Bishop (played by Joshua Jackson). He's supposed to be a genius, and boasts an IQ of 190 (according to "Same Old Story.") Yet throughout this story, the teleplay has Peter asking stupid questions. "How'd you do that?" What's going on?" "Why are we here?" Part of being a genius is the capacity to employ deductive reasoning, isn't it? (That eliminates "How'd you do that?" as a valid question. Instead he should have said something along the lines of "What aren't you telling me?") I don't mind that he's constantly asking questions in general, but they should be smart questions. The answer to "why are we here?" is obvious even to a dullard: simply "your expertise is required. So is your father's" I could figure that out just from context, and I certainly don't have a 190 IQ. So why is Peter asking? Why can't he figure it out from contextual clues?

Peter's Dad, Doctor Bishop, has also settled into an annoying rut. He's the "funny" insane guy who is dead serious and sane when the script requires him to be; and funny and nuts when there needs to be comic-relief. I call this cliche "cutsie-poo insane." One minute we're supposed to take all of the good doctor's exposition as gospel (and as accurate!) and then the script turns around and has him mouth nutty, objectionable things. It's just not very good writing. In a word, it's contrived.

As for Olivia, I find her dull as dishwater. I acknowledge it; this is just my personal bias: I don't find the actress either attractive or convincing. Objectively, all I can say about her is that she has approximately zero chemistry with Joshua Jackson.

"The Same Old Story" involves our old friend: the mutant of the week; one introduced in a creepy prologue (just like an X-Files creepy prologue!). This story type should be familiar to you if you ever watched The X-Files. This week on Fringe, the villain is a hyper-aging man who must extract and eat the portion of the brain housing the pituitary of his victims so as to remain young and decelerate the aging process. On The X-Files, we were introduced to Tooms, a mutant who had to ingest human livers to maintain his metabolism ("Squeeze," "Tooms"). In "2Shy" we saw a a killer who could not produce adipose and other fatty materials, so he had to ingest the fatty tissue of women to remain alive.

Again, not a one-for-one match: but the idea of a genetic mutant "stealing" what he needs to biologically survive is one that is very familiar from many repetitions on The X-Files. "The Same Old Story" is...again...the same old story. But once more, my problem is not the derivative nature of it, it's the rotten execution.

Take for example the resolution. The episode ends with an unforced confession from the aged killer in which - on his death bed, literally - he obligingly explains everything to Olivia, the agent pursuing him. The confession is unprovoked firstly, so that it stands out like a sore thumb. Why is he offering this information to a stranger? And secondly, this confession explains the details of the entire show, which takes away what little mystery still existed.

On The X-Files, Mulder or Scully might have speculated about motives or relationships of killers in their case reports...but the answers were opaque. We were left, as viewers to put everything together...to assemble "the truth" for ourselves, based on the input of two points of view (science and belief). Here we get spoon-fed a cliche instead: the talking killer who tells us everything about everything, and robs our imagination.

Maybe that's why "The Same Old Story" is never truly scary. Never actually, much more than a diversion, a freak show. There is no room left for the imagination. One last example of this problem: Bishop discovers that he can "transmit" the last image on the retina of a murdered girl in an attempt to identify her killer. Fascinating idea, right? Well, Fringe doesn't explore the "how" or science of it. Nope, Olivia just goes to Massive Dynamic and immediately acquires a device called an Electronic Pulse Camera which can complete that very task. Lickety-split! Again, we are not invited to participate in the answers or the investigation: just asked to accept a deus ex machina.

It's all very flat, distancing...and unintelligent. But I'm still watching Fringe. At least for a few weeks. To coin a phrase, "I want to believe" it's going to get better. Or, at least, "get smart."

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Quote of the Day: All-Thumbs Edition

"I cringe when people say, "How could you give that movie four stars?" I reply, "What in my review did you disagree with?" Invariably, they're stuck for an answer. One thing I try to do is provide an accurate account of what you will see, and how I feel about it. I cannot speak for you. Any worthwhile review is subjective.

-Roger Ebert, writing about his approach to film criticism at his journal here.

I found this is an interesting piece because Mr. Ebert skilfully enumerates seven solid reasons behind his rating system for movies. I've been reading Roger Ebert since 1984 (watching him on TV since 1983, if I remember correctly), and though I've had my occasional quibbles with his thumbs up/thumbs down metric, I find -- more and more -- that Ebert is a bastion of sensibility, dependability and sanity in the increasingly undependable and insane world of film criticism.

More than ever, Roger Ebert is one of a kind.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Music from the Studio at the End of the Universe: Scoring The House Between 2.0

By Mateo Latosa

Scoring the The House Between 2.0 was a very different experience to scoring season one. In great part that was because I was working without Cesar Gallegos, co-composer and friend from THB 1.0. I really missed the musical give and take that created a situation of alchemy during our recording sessions.

Many pieces from 2.0 were recorded in multiple versions, new permutations, at different recording sessions because ideas occurred to me only I got home and listened to them. On 1.0, Cesar and I would generally work out the kinks of a piece before we recorded it. I don’t have his insight for music (I have mine, but not his) so I felt like I was flying blind (add that to the earlier metaphor).

Now let me say, working with John Kenneth Muir is NOT a thankless job. He is effusive in his praise and gratitude. Ultimately he, JKM -- the boss -- is the music editor. He knows what he wants, where it will go, and how long it will play. But despite his instant reactions to new pieces, I wouldn’t really get a sense of whether the pieces worked until I saw the finished episodes weeks later. Sometimes they’d be there, underscoring the scene to which they were intended. Other times they’d be missing completely, replaced by other cues. Judgment rendered!

John always apologized when he nixed a cue, and I always reminded him that his opinion is the only one that matters when it comes to music editing (placing cues to film). The fact that he used 99% of everything we sent him is more important than where he’d placed it.

The score for THB 2.0 was recorded at the home studio of the L.A. band, Diversion, and engineered by two of its members: Jose Sanchez and Anthony Godoy. They had their own musical sensibility but had never worked on a score before. It was awkward at first; we didn’t know each other well and had never worked together before. But by the second session we were able to kick it into high gear and started to crank out the cues. Anthony was the principal engineer while Jose doubled as guitarist on a few pieces. Their suggestions regarding instrumentation, over-dubbing and mixing were invaluable. It was a different experience than the THB 1.0 sessions, but a no less fruitful one.

Oh, and another thing…we had a budget! The Lulu Show came through and made this an officially commissioned score!

The Scoring Process

John had sent me an overview of season two’s episodes. This included a brief synopsis of the story of each episode—a brief description of each character’s arc, an introduction to the new characters and certain plot points that would need specifically composed cues. The first session’s cues were written to this overview.

Later John would send me a cue list for each episode (or two) in which he’d detail where he felt music was needed, its tone and length. Generally, I’d compose cues for more than one episode at a time. I’d literally check them off his printed email as we recorded and mixed down each cue. As in season one—even more so—I composed to email—not to a click track or any video at all. The first time I’d see the episodes was when the viewing public did!

Once all the cues for that session were mixed (as WAVs), we’d convert them to MP3s and email them as a zipped bundle to John. He would unzip them and listen to them while I listened with him on my cell phone. He’d give me his first impressions of each cue right then and there. Talk about instant feedback!

Compositional Structure

For THB 2.0 I set out to compose and record fewer cues but with a longer average length. I felt we’d fallen into a trap during season one by making cues so specifically timed to the action of a scene that their future utility as library tracks was limited. So I set out to record longer pieces with natural pauses from which sections could be excerpted to fit the lengths of multiple scenes.

This was different from the solution we’d come up with for season one; we were aware of the potential problem then as well. In season one we recorded “re-voiced” versions of the same cues so that if they were reused, they would have different instrumentation and therefore not be readily recognizable as a repeated cue.

Also, if a cue had multiple layers, we’d separate out two or three layers and record them as an alternate version. In this way one cue could provide three or four different variations.

Equipment/Programs/Instrumentation

For THB 2.0 I used the following:

Equipment:
Mackie 24 channel 8 bus mixer
P.C. computer
Presonis 8 channel sound card

Programs:
Cubase
Soundforge

Plug-ins:
Cakewalk
Roland Groove
PSP Nitro
Instruments:
Oxygen MIDI keyboard
Gibson Les Paul guitar

Theme Song of the Week # 27: It's About Time (1966-1967)

Monday, September 15, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 58: The New People (1969)

In the autumn of 1969, the ABC Network premiered a unique youth-centric prime time TV program called The New People. Developed for television by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling and producers Aaron Spelling and Larry Gordon, this singular genre series -- aimed straight at the under-thirty demographic - was a direct response to the dramatic social turbulence and strife of 1968.

Consider for example, a few events from that watershed year. In early 1968, the tide turned in Vietnam, and America seemed to be losing the war. Specifically, the Tet Offensive, the attack on the U.S. Embassy, and the Battle of Saigon all occurred in '68.

In the same year, a new generation of peace and equality seeking leaders - Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy - were assassinated, essentially killing hope for reform. Civil Rights issues were also boiling over, and there were protests held in South Carolina (over a whites-only bowling alley...), and all across the country. College students demonstrated for peace at Columbia University, and at the Democratic National Convention that summer.

1968 was also the year France test detonated its first H-Bomb, and the year of the My Lai Massacre.

As tumult swirled across the globe, a disenchanted, young generation was finding its voice over many of these hot-button issues (racial equality, an unjust war, etc.). Yet the radicalism of that "flower power" generation also frightened Nixon's so-called "silent majority" (meaning the older folks...) It was undeniably a season of change, and the Generation Gap grew wider and wider.

Capitalizing on this gulf was Serling and Spelling's The New People, which concerned several dozen young adults who, after a harrowing plane crash in the Pacific, were stranded on a tropical island one thousand miles from the nearest airline or steam ship route.

With no hope of rescue -- "we just got dropped out of the world," acknowledges one character -- it was up to these forty American youngsters to build an entirely new civilization on that mysterious island. For the marooned, it was now essentially "Year One," and thus an opportunity to make a clean break with the failed policies, bigotries and inequalities of the past and previous generations of mankind.

As one young woman (Susan) stated, "In fifty years, they couldn't do it, but we could have instant peace...." At least that was the hope...

But it wasn't that simple, as the idealistic youngsters soon learned. And one of the great facets of The New People was that the series didn't take the easy way out. It did not just mindlessly advocate for the youth position (or any position, for that matter). Rather, The New People forced these youngsters to reckon with many, many difficult questions, including ones of law and order; crime and punishment.

How they solved these problems was always "true" to who they were as a group, but it wasn't exactly a love-in either. Primary among the barriers to peace was the socially encoded heritage of "the old world" that these youngsters carried with them to the island; their preconceived notions, biases and hurts.

You could see all this trouble brewing in the primary characters who populated the island (and the series). There was idealistic and issue-oriented Susan (Tiffany Bolling), daughter of a U.S. Senator. There was Robert E. Lee (Zooey Hall), an angry Southerner. As the script described him: "Bobby -- he's from the South, he's got his own Civil War going on."

Another character was the dynamic Eugene "Bones" Washington (David Moses), "the house Afro-American" as he called himself with a sense of self-deprecation. Bones -- like Bobby Lee -- was angry too, "the end result of 5,000 lynchings" as the screenplay points out.

And then there was arrogant, entitled Bull (Lee J. Lambert) -- the George W. Bush of the island -- an "All-American" jock (in a letterman sweater no less...) who believed simply that "the enemy always wears different colored jerseys.")

Another resident on the island was more noble, more contemplative: taciturn George Potter (Peter Ratray), a Vietnam veteran and ex-marine; one who had spent the previous Christmas Eve in Vietnam and had been forced to deal (aggressively...) with a sixteen year old, female bomber.


These characters, according to the pilot episode "are a collection of everything you guys [meaning the Establishment] made us....Down the line, you find all the imperfect images of the Mamas and the Papas."

In other words, even the flower power generation -- so hopeful and "new" in so many ways - carried on the hates and hurts of the past. "It's a hell of a legacy," admitted the only adult trapped on the island, Mr. Hannachek (Richard Kiley).

The pilot episode of The New People commences in South East Asia, as Mr. Hannachek (Kiley), a low level bureaucrat for the American Consulate in Manila, is assigned to retrieve and take home the forty American youngsters. The kids have made something of a stir with their public displays. Yep, they were supposed to be good publicity for America (clean, healthy and happy youngsters!), but they went to foreign countries and instead decried American imperialism, and petitioned for international human rights.

Hannachek and the kids board a Manila Inter-Island Charter plane during a pounding rain storm and once in flight, the plane is promptly lost, remaining in the air an hour over the estimated time of arrival. Eventually, the violent storm forces the plane to lose altitude, and it crashes on a remote Pacific island.

In a scene that eerily forecasts J.J. Abrams' Lost, we see a high-angle shot of the plane wreckage on a desolate beach, as the survivors of the wreck mill around, shell-shocked and confused. Nine people died in the crash, and Hannachek himself is badly injured. He suggests that the youngsters should immediately set about the business of survival, exploring the island.

What the youngsters discover on the mysterious, isolated island is immensely creepy. On a nearby hillside, abandoned (but fully-clothed) mannequins stand watch like juggernauts; like warning sentries. We approach these unmoving statues with a shaky, hand-held camera, and the moment generates shivers and a feeling of "you are there" authenticity. Something...strange occurred here, and the mannequins (and an abandoned playground) are macabre, unsettling images.

Beyond the mannequins, in a valley, stands an abandoned, town; one overgrown with vegetation but replete with a saloon, shops, buildings and even supplies (including the apple in this garden of Eden: guns).

Hannachek suddenly realizes where they are: the remote island of Bonamo. It was here that the American A.E.C. (Atomic Energy Commission) planned to test detonate a new H-Bomb. Fortunately, the plan was dropped and the island was left abandoned permanently. The good news is that the town offers shelter and food. The bad news is that there is virtually no hope of rescue. Bonamo is far from the beaten path...

But then - a miracle! - a plane flies overhead, a rescue team, perhaps. At Hannachek and George Potter's urging, the youth have set up a signal bonfire on the beach. But before the rescue plane can spot the signal, racist jock "Bull" -- who has had a falling out with Bones over issues of race -- squelches it. The plane goes on, forever unaware of the marooned people. They will report back that the island is "clean."

Furious at Bull, the remaining youngsters take-up torches, and form a mob. We see this disturbing sight through a fish-eye lens, as though the world itself has become distorted. We see it also from Bull's perspective (P.O.V. subjective shot), so that we -- as viewers -- also "feel" surrounded, and can fully understand the horror of what is happening.

The youngsters -- now a murderous, unthinking pack -- chases Bull across the island...with the intent to kill. The wronged Bones leads the way, until finally stopped by Hannachek - the adult. "You're the ones who are going to inherit the Earth?," Hannachek asks at one point. Ultimately, Hannachek convinces Bones that killing Bull ("an All-American yo-yo") is morally wrong, the equivalent of a racial lynching. Understanding -- and sick to death of violence and anger -- Bones relents. Bull escapes punishment.

Hannachek soon dies from the injuries he sustained in the plane crash, but not before wondering, finally "what kind of world" these youngsters will make on the island. Our last memorable view of Hannachek finds the old Man seated next to two old, cob-webbed mannequins. Again, a telling, resonant image. Together, the mannequins and the Old Man represent relics of a distant, now-meaningless social order and civilization.

For these New People, "time has just begun," according to a narrator, and the pilot episode then culminates with sneak previews of upcoming episodes. Ultimately, the show aired from just September 22, 1969 to January 12, 1970. But the seventeen episodes of The New People examined many aspects of a new -- and young -- civilization.

The pilot episode, by Serling, Gordon and Spelling, is sharply written and certainly incendiary in theme, vocabulary and characterization. The pilot leaves no issue untouched. The diversity of the youngsters makes for plenty of fraternal disagreements, and the episode focuses not only on the Vietnam conflict (through the character of Potter), but especially matters of race. Race hatred was always a grave concern for Serling (see: The Twilight Zone), and Eugene "Bones" Washington is one of the most-developed characters in this pilot. He describes his journey as a "hell of a freedom march: from no place to no place." He also describes Bull as "the kind [of person] II had to stand up and give my seat to." Frankly, I can't imagine this kind of blunt talk about race on a major television network in 2008.

Still, I'd hate to give the impression that The New People is only some dry polemic. There's adventure and action here too, and even a bit of humor. One funny moment early on has Hannachek referring to Moses and a female singer as "Sonny and Cher over there." Kiley does well with that caustic moment, and is a standout amongst the cast.

So today, let's remember that while major TV networks were trying to gloss over the injustices and concerns of a turbulent time with empty-headed programming like Green Acres or I Dream of Jeannie, The New People -- in the noble tradition of Serling's Twilight Zone -- dedicated itself to facing these issues head on.

And, as I indicated above, it proved pretty even-handed in approach. For example, The New People's pilot characterizes the marooned youngsters as relatively callow and superficial. In the first episode, they party in a saloon (drinking booze and playing the blues...) rather than burying the dead. They also form a mob and nearly kill a man. Here, the Old Guard (represented by Hannachek) reminds the youngsters of what it means to be human; what it means to have civilization and be civilized. The episode ends with Hannachek's death (so that there is no one on the island over thirty...), but at the very least, he has been able to make the so-called "peace" generation feel shame for its mob-mentality.

Visually, The New People is quite dynamic and inventive. As the so-called "new people" build a new world, they are surrounded by the structures and empty symbols (the mannequins) of the world they have left behind. In other words, their efforts to craft a new culture are balanced constantly with visual reminders and objects of the world that failed.

In fact, their very "paradise," their would-be utopia, is built upon on the worst and most destructive impulses of the society they left (a bomb testing site). One can detect, watching this pilot episode, how Serling and his fellow writers had created an ideal set-up for a multi-layered adventure: one that could concern both survival and the social issues of the day. The island itself was a microcosm for 1969 America. The inhabitants were racially, politically and geographically diverse. Would the denizens of the island be united and succeed? Or fall, divided?

The New People theme song is written by Earle Hagen and sung by The First Edition, and it sounds just like a people-powered anthem of 1969 ought to. I wish you could all listen to that song, and watch this episode for yourselves -- it's an incredible time capsule, But as of yet, there is no official DVD release planned for The New People. The series is...for the moment...beyond obscure.

Yet to steal (and wildly paraphrase) a line from Star Trek's "Space Seed," it would indeed prove fascinating to return to that island of "the New People" in the year 2008...and see what kind of world our best and brightest and most optimistic and idealistic had created. For those New People, today would almost be Year 40.

Do you think they repeated the pitfalls of recent human history? Or overcame them?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Dial M For Murder (1954)

Director Alfred Hitchcock is up to his trademark diabolical tricks in Dial M For Murder (1954), a restless, yet highly-focused adaptation of Frederick Knott's hit stage play. The movie shares something in common with Rope (1948) in that the action is confined primarily to one claustrophobic location: an apartment suite in London.

As in Knott's original work, Hitchcock's film follows anti-hero Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) as he plots to murder his beautiful wife, Margot (Grace Kelly). Although the charming, erudite Wendice hardly seems perturbed -- let alone enraged -- with his wife over the moral trespass he discovered (an extra-marital affair), he nonetheless commissions (or rather, blackmails...) a shady college acquaintance, Swann (Anthony Dawson) into performing the terrible deed. The end game: Tony wants the money in Margot's will.

Wendice recruits Swann, I might add, by applying inescapable, virtually Aristotelian logic. And his entire attitude with Swann is unswervingly dispassionate...but firm. He lets the facts speak for him, in other words. Wendice is thus revealed to be an exceedingly clever tactician, one with a clockwork mind and total understanding of all angles of the crime. He puts the screws of manipulation to Swann with a relentlessness - and charm - that is shocking, yet also strangely fun.

Watching the scene involving Wendice's manipulation of Swann, you will likely find yourself absolutely entranced by the writing (not to mention the performances). The scene misses nothing -- leaving no stone unturned -- and the dialogue and delivery are unerringly sharp. And when the film arrives at the specifics of the murder plot, Hitchcock cuts to and then remains with a high angle shot for an uncomfortably long duration. This selection of camera angles boasts two primary meanings. First, it distances us, in a sense, from the two men plotting evil. Secondly, the high angle (always a cinematic indicator of doom or entrapment...), indicates that this plan will be the undoing for both men. Ultimately, that is indeed the case.

The lovely Margot, it turns out, was unfaithful to Tony with an American crime writer named Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), and the real motive behind the murder, I suggest is not merely the money in the will, but the fact that Margot is -- literally -- a different woman with Mark than she is with Tony. And yes, I mean that in the Biblical sense. With Tony, Margot is demure, virginal, (and to establish this, Hitchcock has her dress primarily in white).

By contrast, In the clutches of passion with Mark, Margot is more overtly sexual and passionate, a personality change made clear by her decision to adorn a fiery red dress. I get the feeling that Tony is murderous not so much because his wife cheated, but because Mark brings out the lustful, sexual side of Margot. Tony is intellectual, cunning, but Mark is macho and hot blooded. He can't stand that Margot would gravitate to Tony.

On the night of the planned murder, Tony has arranged the perfect alibi. He's going to be with Mark (yes, Margot's lover!) at a stag party, while Swann -- using Margot's front door key -- sneaks into the apartment and strangles her with a stocking. Tony telephones at the very moment of Swann's ambush (hence the "dial M" aspect of the title), and hears the vicious scuffle. But Swann bungles the attack, and Margot manages to stab her attacker in the back with a very sharp pair of scissors. In a terrific (and macabre moment), Swann lands on the floor, back first, and the scissors - pressured by the floor - push deeply into his back...all the way up to the hilt.

And I must say, this is the moment in which Dial M For Murder goes from being an involving thriller to an experience you can't take your eyes off of. Realizing that his plan has gone horribly awry, Tony -- using that unnatural calm and icy intellect -- begins to adjust to the situation on the fly. When he realizes Swann has failed in murder, Tony switches strategy and sets up Margot as the murderer. She is arrested by Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) and charged with murder. Margot goes on trial (in a frugal but expressionistic sequence), is found guilty, and is promptly slated for execution.

The final scenes of the film heap irony upon irony, and Dial M For Murder successfully balances one cunning mind (Tony's) against another (Inspector Hubbard). On the former front, there's a grin-inducing scene in which Mark goes to Tony and -- desperate to save Margot from execution -- begs him to confess to Swann's murder. Mark -- the crime writer -- has even concocted a crazy story about how and why Tony would have killed Swann. What's amusing is that Mark has creatively (and with no inside knowledge...) guessed correctly about almost everything. On the latter front, we have a battle between two brilliant minds. It's like a game of chess, and you sit on the edge of your seat waiting to see how and when the worm will finally turn, and Tony will be exposed.

I can't really explain why, but there's little doubt that Milland plays the character in Dial M For Murder that we most easily sympathize with. He's a murderer, a cold fish and a cad, and yet somehow we simultaneously want him to get caught and get away with the perfect crime. Milland is ideal in this part, his eyes constantly processing -- not unlike a computer -- every new development, assimilating it, and taking it in stride. Even when he is exposed at the end, Tony seems oddly jolly and charismatic.

I don't believe that Dial M For Murder evidences the moral depth and philosophical heft of a Hitchcock film like Rope. Nor does it shatter the rules of cinematic decorum like Psycho. Nor have I pinpointed a deep and meaningful sub-text here, as is most assuredly present in a film such as The Birds (which had the attacking birds carrying out the subconscious, murderous desires of a particular character).

Considering this, Dial M For Murder feels a tad lighter than some Hitchcock efforts. Yet by the same token, it may also play as more widely accessible. Make no mistake: this is a brilliantly-written, effectively shot, wonderfully performed effort. I just don't know that it's in the top tier of Hitchcock's canon. That doesn't mean you shouldn't see it, or that you wouldn't enjoy it. Even lower-rung Hitchcock is unerringly brilliant (and better than about 95% of other thrillers). So Dial M For Murder could be exactly what the doctor ordered: a finely-balanced ballet in which a murderous man dances his way out of being caught, while others pirouette around him, attempting to discern the truth.