Friday, January 02, 2009

What I'm Reading: The Interrupted Journey (1967)

"Barney got out, the motor still running, and leaned his arm on the door of the car. By now the object had swung toward them and hovered silently in the air not more than a short city block away, not more than two treetops high. It was raked on an angle, and its full shape was apparent for the first time: that of a large glowing pancake..."

-From The Interrupted Journey by John G. Fuller (Dell; 1967), page 30.

Thursday, January 01, 2009


"The name of the game today is king of the hill..."

-Computer scientist James Lesko (Michael Murphy) contemplates war with the "goddamned" ants in Phase IV (1974).

Saul Bass (1920 - 1996) was one of the cinema's greatest graphic designers, a revered film artist who contributed the memorable title sequences of such films as The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), North by Northwest (1959), Spartacus (1960), Psycho (1960), Good Fellas and others.

Bass also storyboarded for Hitchcock the famous shower scene with Janet Leigh in the aforementioned Psycho. Bass's only contribution as a director, however, is the little-seen (but highly entrancing...) science-fiction horror film of the early disco decade, Phase IV (1974).

Phase IV follows a strange phenomenon in outer space, one that changes variables in "magnetic fields." The mystics on Earth predict earthquakes; others predict "the end of life as we know it." But when the cosmic effect reaches our planet, the change it causes goes unnoticed, at least for a time. Because it effects only the smallest of us...the ants.

Specifically, ordinary ants of different species soon begin communicating with one another, "making decisions," according to the on-going voice-over narration from Michael Murphy, who plays investigator James Lesko. In one isolated Arizona desert (no, not peaceful Verde Valley...), the ants begin to construct tall monoliths...a series of very advanced, human-proportioned towers. The ants have also mysteriously begun to attack livestock: burrowing inside animals and leaving a distinctive mark of three small circles. They've even begun crafting huge crop circles...perhaps paving the way for an alien invasion? Signalling the vanguard. Or is it something else?

An obsessed, egomaniacal scientist named Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) and a computer scientist/linguist named Lesko (Murphy) take up residence in a small high-tech dome adjacent to the ant towers, in hopes of understanding what the ants are up to.

When the ants go stealthy; refusing to show their hand, Hubbs decides on a pre-emptive strike to draw them out. He launches grenades at the ant towers and brings them all down in a destructive flurry, reducing them to rubble. By moonlight that very night, the ants retaliate: first attacking a local farm, and then establishing a ring of reflective towers around Hubb's dome; towers that will burn the humans out (after first rendering their computers inoperable).

Meanwhile, a farmer's beautiful daughter, Kendra Eldridge (Lynne Frederick) survives the ant strike on her family ranch and joins the scientists as they attempt to solve the riddle of these highly-advanced insects. Hubbs wants to launch a decapitation strike; to pinpoint the Queen Ant and kill her, thus nullifying the ant threat. "You must show them that man will not give in," he believes.

By contrast, Murphy (with the help of his computers) learns the ant language and starts to transmit geometric shapes and mathematical figures to them, hoping that there can be some "rational accommodation of interests; some agreement" between species.

All throughout the film -- as the ants grow more intelligent...and remain one step ahead of the perplexed human scientists -- titles appear on-screen indicating different "phases" of this odd and increasingly apocalyptic crisis. The final phase -- Phase IV --arrives with a new dawn, a new sunrise, as the ants use Kendra to draw out Lesko.

What occurs in the film's final sequence -- as Kendra and Lesko meet (and mate...) inside a sandy ant hill -- represents some weird sort of species apotheosis (for man and the ants...). This trippy climax renders Phase IV the 2001: A Space Odyssey of attacking-ant movies. It intimates that the ants -- experts in specialization and self-sacrifice -- have begun to teach humans the very same qualities. And that, with the ants help, humans are now evolving into...something.

The film's final line indicates a weird ambiguity. "We were being changed and made a part of their world," says Lesko. This description could easily portend a new beginning for humanity, one of true freedom and cooperation. Or it could represent slavery...under the domination of the ants (or aliens who have utilized the ants?).

Phase IV makes splendid and pervasive use of close-up natural photography of ants and other insects (conducted by Ken Middleham). There is no Hollywood fakery involved in these amazing, lengthy sequences: no models; no digital creations...just real ants going about their business with frightening dedication.

There's an almost awe-inspiring (and again, totally real...) sequence in which one ant attempts to carry back to the Queen a piece of the pesticide that has killed his brethren. Exposure to this pesticide chunk is fatal to the ant, but he marches along, as far as he can. When he expires, another soldier ant arrives and continues the journey. When that ant dies, another ant arrives and continues the journey. This goes on and on - uninterrupted by human interaction or comment - until the last ant gets the chunk of poison to the queen, and she very quickly is able to create an immunity to the weakened poison in future generations, as she lays eggs.

Another scene of incredible visuals involves the ants lining up their dead (after one of Hubbs' attacks). They lay the corpses out in rows, belly (or thorax...) up...and then stand at a form of attention; as if honoring their dead at a funeral.

Another of Phase IV's most tense and fascinating scenes involves a showdown (inside the coils of an air-conditioning unit...) between a predatory preying mantis and an industrious ant attempting sabotage.

It seems odd (to say the least), but Bass determinedly grants the ants (and their side) as much screen time as the human stars, and the effect is startling and .interesting. You start to wonder which species is altruistic and which is warlike; which species understands love and which species doesn't. Hubbs insists that the ants aren't individuals, but rather merely "individual cells." The ants do understand self-sacrifice -- to protect their queen -- because she is at the center of their lives. Yet Hubbs doesn't see that this urge to protect the queen is, in some form, an act of love. He can only see the ants as an enemy; as an inferior enemy, actually. In his smug blindness, he doesn't see how he is outmaneuvered.

By balancing the ant storyline against the human one, Bass crafts a strange but powerful sense of equivalence. Who are we -- in these circumstances anyway -- to judge ourselves superiors? Who are we to -- as Hubbs suggests -- to teach the ants "limits?" To "educate them?" Indeed, Hubbs is hardly praise-worthy or a paragon of virtue. He treats even his fellow man with cold stoicism. "People die sometimes," he says at one point, without any expression of true feeling. What makes him the better creature?

Phase IV
is an unsettling, spooky film. It's not just about a war between man and insect. Rather it depicts a war between the ideals of individuality and the community. Bass shows us the ant world on a scale we've never seen before, and even though these smart ants oppose us and our culture, you can't leave this film without some sense of admiration for them.

Hubbs would have done well to remember that old proverb: "Be thine enemy an ant, see in him an elephant."

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Goodbye to 2008

Well, 2008 is set to soon fade to black. It's been quite a year all the way around, from economic disasters to the groundbreaking presidential election of 2008.

Here on the blog and in JKM-Land, it's been a banner year. There were almost a hundred more posts on this blog in 2008 than there were in 2007 (a leap from 237 posts to over 331).

And once again, the blog's traffic has expanded significantly (by well over 5,000 readers), making 2008 the biggest year here yet. We also crossed the 1,200 point in number of total posts overall.

The biggest quarters here were the first (when my web series, The House Between aired a second, much-watched, award-nominated season), the third, which featured my attention-grabbing review of X-Files I Want to Believe, and the fourth. For some reason, June was a low month.

The blog also received a much-needed design upgrade in the fourth quarter, making it look a bit more color-coordinated, not to mention user-friendly.

In terms of movies, I feel like overall that 2008 was a pretty good year for the genre. I loved Wall-E, Quantum of Solace, The Strangers, Indiana Jones and Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls, Cloverfield and Iron Man.

On the other hand, I found myself irrevocably out-of-step with most mainstream movie critics because I adored both the inventive Speed Racer and the intimate X-Files I Want to Believe.

I also didn't particularly love some highly-hyped and critically-acclaimed efforts, most notably the vile Wanted, The Incredible Hulk and a little superhero movie starring Christian Bale (which I haven't gotten around to reviewing on the blog yet...). I'm still looking forward with great anticipation to Let The Right One In.

Television was disappointing in 08. Heroes didn't manage a return to greatness and Fringe proved unexpectedly lousy, one of the worst, most derivative TV series I've ever had the misfortune to endure. It's Bionic Woman-bad.

When I look back at the last twelve months on the blog, I see that we remembered several Alfred Hitchcock movies together, not to mention some of the more controversial efforts of auteur William Friedkin. We also recalled some of the Gene Roddenberry Pilots, and began to anticipate the new Star Trek movie. TV movies like The Last Dinosaur, Killdozer and Gerry Anderson's The Day After Tomorrow also got excavated, and we took a side-step into time travel movies and programs.

Looking ahead, 2009 will bring the third season (and shocking final act) of The House Between in late January, not to mention detailed episode retrospectives and analyses of the trail-blazing Chris Carter series, Millennium (1996-1999).

In short, there's lots more goodness to come.

Hope you stick around for another year of reflecting on film and television (and toys) with me.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 83: The Six Million Dollar Man Mission Control Center (Kenner; 1976)

Ever have one of these?

In the Christmas of our Bicentennial year 1976 -- the last Christmas before Star Wars (1977) arrived -- Kenner's "bionic" toys dominated the market...not to mention the imagination of children like me.

These were the prized toys that every kid in the neighborhood wanted and hoped that Santa Claus would bring.

An avid fan of The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-1978) or The Bionic Woman (1976-1978) could choose from any number of really fine toys in this line, including large-scale action figures (Steve Austin, Jaime Sommers, Oscar Goldman, Maskatron...), huge vehicles (like Jaime's sports car, or Austin's space vehicle...), and cool play sets galore.

The Bionic Woman had a salon/repair center, for instance. Oscar had his Washington D.C. OSI office (not to mention an exploding briefcase...), and Steve himself had a space capsule/repair station.

However, one of the most exciting and sought after play sets in Kenner's stable was The Six Million Dollar Man "Mission Control Center," the very place, according to the box legend, "where all the bionic adventures begin!"

This huge, impressive toy included a "giant inflatable dome, 17.5" high and 26" wide."

Since the dome was inflatable by air valve (9 for strength and durability...), the toy even came with a repair kit.

In case, I guess, Big Foot (Ted Cassidy) happened by hoping to puncture it with a pin or something.

And inside (or rather beneath...) that huge dome was the HQ for OSI agents Colonel Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers. It was protected, according to the dome specifications, by a "laser force field."

Another exterior
section of the dome was a computer, a "retrieval storage unit."

The Six Million Dollar Man Mission Control Center also contains (from the bulleted points on the box): "radar scanner," "TV Monitor," "radio headphones" "bionic check-out panels and cables," "command chair and command console" and "mission control vinyl floor."

At the "Bionic Check-Out Panel" you could "plug cables into your Six Million Dollar Man's modules" and "
pretend you check out his bionics for special missions."
At the
communications console, you could "change pictures in the T.V. monitor to communicate with Oscar, Jaime Sommers, Maskatron and outer space."

And there was even a "secret escape hatch" designed
"for those times when the Six-Million Dollar Man must get out of the Mission Control Center in a hurry without being seen."
Designed for kids ages five and up (and I would have just turned seven that year...), this Kenner Bionic Headquarters was never featured on either TV series that I can recall.

But it's such a truly awesome toy that it certainly should have been.

Now, if I could just get my bionic action figures out of remote storage...