Saturday, January 17, 2009

What I'm Reading Now: Timeline of the Planet of the Apes

"Planet of the Apes history could very well be neither a circular loop nor an "A or B" set of divergent highway lanes, but rather a Mobius strip embedded in an Escher landscape twisted up in a pretzel and tied up in a sailor's knot, continuously looping back upon itself and enabling all of the various contradictory incarnations to occur on the same continuous, ever-changing loop."

-Rich Handley, Timeline of the Planet of the Apes: The Definitive Unauthorized Chronology (Hasslein Books; 2008), page xiv: "Changing Lanes and Curving Time."

Review coming soon...

Friday, January 16, 2009

Destinies Appearance in One Hour!

Don't forget: I'm on Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction with Dr. Howard Margolin this evening. In just one hour (at 11:30 pm, est) we'll be discussing The House Between, my independent and award-nominated sci-fi web drama, particularly the upcoming third season. Listen in here.

The House Between on Destinies tonight

I'll be returning to Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction tonight at 11:30 pm, EST, to discuss with host Dr. Howard Margolin the third season of my low-budget sci-fi web series, The House Between.

Other than my producer, Joseph Maddrey, and me, Howard's the only person so far who's actually seen the top-secret first episode of the new season, "Devoured." So he's bound to have some very interesting questions to ask. I just hope he doesn't stump me...or I don't reveal too much.

This will be my eleventh appearance on Destinies (my third to discuss The House Between), and I hope you'll join Howard and me tonight at 11:30 pm on WUSB. You can access the show right here.

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003)

Here's the crucial thing to comprehend about director Quentin Tarantino. Whether you love or hate his films, you can't deny that the artist has mastered perhaps the single most important element of good (even great...) filmmaking.

And that is, simply this: the storyteller is as important as the story itself.

The storyteller's voice -- in cinema meaning the selection of shots, the manner of the editing, the choreography, and even the soundtrack -- dynamically and irrevocably overshadows everything else.

And that's precisely as it should be, given the old canard about there being only seven original plots.

If a storyteller cannot entertain an audience in the fashion he conveys a story -- can't hold it rapt with his mastery of language (whether it be poetry, prose or film grammar), he has no business recounting stories; no business writing at all; and absolutely no business making movies.

Kill Bill (Volume 1) is a virtuoso testament to this oft-forgotten fact. Vetted by another, less innovative director, the film's fractured central narrative-- of a female assassin meting out bloody revenge against her former associates -- would hardly merit a running time of 90 minutes; let alone 111. There are likely about three important scenes in this entire plot, and you could dispatch the whole narrative in probably thirty minutes without trouble.

Tarantino, however, appears blessed with a genius for storytelling. He seems to instinctively understand how to imbue his often over-familiar narratives (including this one) with a sense of grand importance, majestic kineticism and subversive humor that is simultaneously high brow and low brow.

As a conveyor of narratives, you can't deny Tarantino downright revels in matters traditionally associated with the "low" (rape and revenge; blood and guts, gutter language and body-function humor.) Yet the artist approaches these subjects as though he is the highest, most zealous and rigorous intellectual, a veritable PhD with multiple degrees in music, manga, movies, martial arts or whatever the concept at hand.

The result of Tarantino's distinctive approach is an often a strange cinematic synthesis: old tropes are rendered fresh; dumb conventions are rendered smart; morally dubious material is rendered, if not honorable, at least highly-entertaining. Watching his films, you may realize you are being debauched. However, it's such an enjoyable debauchery, such an intelligent depravity, you don't often mind the trip. In fact, the reptile part of your brain loves it.

How does Tarantino do it? That's the significant question. The short answer is one that renders me an unrepentant admirer of his work. Tarantino takes what many (desperately misinformed...) people mistake as an inherently lazy and passive experience (the act of watching a film...) and catalyzes it into an irresistibly active pursuit.

And that, my friends, is the very thing I live for.

That's the reason I watch films in the first place. It's why many of my generation (and succeeding generations) watch films as well. Not merely to be entertained; not to be simply diverted or soothed; and certainly not just to pass the time. On the contrary, we watch films for stimulation.

And, well, Tarantino's films stimulate, don't they?

So let's look now at the specific ways that Kill Bill Volume 1 serves as a heroic poem, a saga that juxtaposes the low and high brow. And how -- in that dynamic crucible -- Tarantino encourages active viewer attention, viewer thought, and stimulation.

In The Beginning. Not.

The first element to consider here is the fractured, non-linear narrative, written by Tarantino himself. Kill Bill Volume 1 commences in media res -- "in the middle of things" -- in attention-drawing black-and-white. We open with the brutal, apparent murder of our heroine, the Bride (Uma Thurman) in a church in El Paso, Texas.

From this prologue we jump almost immediately to "Chapter One," in which a recovered Bride (how did she survive? where has she been for four years? why is she here?) tracks down one of her five would-be assassins, Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox); Copperhead of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. As the Bride prepares to wreak bloody vengeance, we see that she has written herself an unusual "to do" list -- a kill list -- and that she has already offed one enemy, an opponent named Oren Ishii (Lucy Liu). Importantly, we haven't even met Oren Ishii yet. Chronologically it has already occurred, but we don't see it now . It's saved for the film's climax.

In the transition from prologue to "Chapter One," clever Tarantino has jumped nearly half-a-decade then, bounded over important events in both the life of his protagonist and his villains, and landed us at a seemingly normal middle-class suburban home. Again, he's triggering questions, encouraging active thinking. Why are we here? What's going on? Tarantino could have easily unfolded his tale in linear, chronological fashion had he chosen, but he wants his audience to ask questions; wants to involve us. And also - importantly - Tarantino is deliberately referencing a long tradition of famous literary epics. Opening stories in the middle (and then explaining the background as you go...) is not just a convention of oral storytelling, but one that goes back in history as far as Homer.

If, for example, it was Tarantino's desire to create in the Bride a sort of modern mythic hero, this is the vernacular in which he should logically speak, no? Those of us who know literature (or, hell, movie history...) recognize instantly what he is up to.

So Kill Bill Volume I keeps us on our toes by segmenting the narrative (into chapters -- another literary feint); by totally fracturing the narrative (by leaping backwards and forward chronologically) and ultimately by stopping the narrative without a satisfactory resolution (in other words, with a cliffhanger). Again, this isn't about story; it's about how Tarantino tells us his particular story, fomenting suspense, generating frustration (what comes next?) and even connecting his work to heroic poems of the past..

Conventions Are To Be Flouted

After the Bride's arrival at Copperhead's house, the two athletic women launch into a bloody, extreme, brilliantly choreographed knife-fight. After a few moments of brutal combat, Tarantino's camera innocuously takes up a wide-shot that gazes out the living room bay window (even while keeping the fighters in frame). We therefore notice before the two combatants that a school bus has stopped out front and deposited Copperhead's child, a cute-as-a-button little girl named Nicki, at the curb.

Again, consider Tarantino as accomplished storyteller, selecting this particular shot, Making the audience aware of the school bus (and Nicki's presence) a second or so before The Bride and her would-be victim. This is a way of generating suspense (will the Bride kill a woman in front of her kindergarten-aged daughter?) but also sort of a smack in the face to tried-and-true action-film convention. The action scene is interrupted as the combatants abruptly stand-down (knives behind backs, ladies...) and we are encouraged to recognize humor in the situation; as The Bride and Nicki's mother adorn the sleeping face of "normalcy" in front of the clearly-suspicious little girl. Again, Tarantino knows precisely how to stage action scenes, so he's playing with our expectations here. It's not so much what happens, as how it happens. And how it happens make us laugh. It also tells us something about "the honor" of the Bride, and is therefore a character-based moment.

It's a post-modern approach, no-doubt and you'll also take note that before the fight resumes, as The Bride and Vernita ostensibly share a cup of coffee in the kitchen,the dialogue takes a weird and almost subconsciously familiar turn. "I beseech you," Vernita begins sincerely, asking the Bride not to murder her in front of her daughter.

"It was not my intention to do this in front of your little girl,"
replies The Bride stolidly.

Your first instinct upon hearing this stilted dialogue is perhaps to ask "what the hell?" and wonder if award-winning writer Tarantino has lost his marbles (and his talent for conversational dialogue).

And then you realize...both the Bride and the Vernita are talking in a lingo you might call "Japanese Movie English." They are talking in precisely the style of Japanese martial arts films that have been dubbed into the English language. There's a strange formality to this distinctive "movie tongue" and Tarantino cues us into his "game" by having his two American characters speak in this bizarre, but clearly recognizable fashion. Again, Tarantino is making our synapses fire with recognition; making our minds forge a connection. Between the martial arts movies we've seen (which often focus on revenge and violence) and the very film we are watching now.

A Master's Thesis on Revenge

Kill Bill
is a meditation on revenge and its pitfalls. "Revenge is never a straight line," declares sword-maker Hattori Hanzo. Rather "it's a forest," he establishes, and one in which the traveler can easily lose one's way. That is Kill Bill's leitmotif and Tarantino reminds us of it in several ways, making the film a testament to revenge (and more specifically, to revenge movies).

The very first frame of the film, for instance, is a title card which notes an "Old Klingon Proverb" that goes "revenge is a dish best served cold." If you're a Star Trek fan, you may remember this famous line as spoken by Khan (Ricardo Montalban), after commandeering the Reliant, in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982).

The motif of revenge seeps in again and again, and suffuses the film's imagery, language and even soundtrack. The Bride is motivated primarily by revenge. Oren-Ishii's origin and ascent to criminal mastermind is also spawned by revenge (over the death of her parents). So what does Tarantino do? He pulls in virtually every pop-culture revenge allusion imaginable. Ishii's tale is a variation on a Hong Kong revenge picture called Lady Snowblood (1973), which concerned a girl who devoted her life to avenging the murder of her parents. Importantly, Ishii's bloody story is scored to sound not like Lady Snowblood, however, but rather as a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western...another sub-genre dominated by vengeance as a motivating factor.

These pop-culture references accomplish two things. First, they remind us of cinema history (again, an intellectual high-brow pursuit). Secondly, they elevate the story of Bride to the level of the mythic. Tarantino is landing his story, his modern "myth" on the same plateau as these other famous stories.

Death is Beautiful; Death is Red.

In the chapter entitled "Shadow at House of Blue Leaves," The Bride goes up against Oren-Ishii's entourage and an army of nearly 100 body-guards known as "The Crazy 88s." Here occurs a pitched, sustained battle that shatters all expectations and is so over-the-top gory that it too, spurs our intellectual process.

In particular, I reference what film scholar Margaret Bruder trenchantly describes as "the aestheticization of violence." She writes of "stylistically-excessive" violence occurring in a "significant and sustained way." That's precisely what you'll find here. Every wound generated by the slicing Japanese steel of the Bride's sword generates a Sam Raimi-esque geyser of blood.

There's so much blood on screen, in fact, that very quickly, the viewer grows numb to the arterial spray and starts to view the very wet, very red sequence not as revolting or disgusting, but rather as a beautiful dance, a violent ballet. We are looking at bodies move; gravity defied; revenge symbolically personified as motion and speed.

Kubrick also accomplished this sort of thing, to an extent, in Clockwork Orange (with the Singing in the Rain piece), and another prime example is George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1979). There, the final bloody set-piece degenerated into a pie-throwing fight, thus commenting on screen violence rather than merely depicting it. Or RoboCop (1987), in which the Ed-209's accidental murder of a corporate goon became so bloody and gory that it was actually funny.

In this Kill Bill set-piece, as in those other notable examples, this isn't merely violence for violence's sake. At some point during the scene, your gag-reflex parts like rain clouds and you ascend to a higher plane of consciousness. You begin to view the action in terms of the abstract. You notice the beauty of the shots, like Tarantino's wonderful use of blue light and silhouettes for one portion of the fight. You begin to wonder if The Bride's mission of revenge isn't approved of by the Divine, as there is something of the Gods in her movements; in her survival; in her commitment. Again, highly appropriate thoughts for a modern heroic poem.

The final battle between Oren Ishii and The Bride also seems oddly gorgeous and lyrical, not merely bloody and disgusting. Snowflakes fall lightly against the backdrop of deep-blue night sky, and the sword fight is set inside a pastoral garden. In the foreground, Tarantino frames a bamboo water fountain (one that periodically empties before our eyes), making that image of nature the primary one; his combatants secondary. Tarantino may have a gangsta's mouth, but he's undeniably got a painter's eye.

Use Your Allusion

From a certain perspective Kill Bill is a tapestry of quirky film homages stitched together. Tarantino very deliberately references all his favorite films and productions here. A close viewing will find two references to Star Trek, a direct quotation from Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive (1976) in the Buck character and his trademark line ("My name is Buck and I'm here to...") references to Joseph Campbell and perhaps the Star Wars cycle (in the depiction of the retired wise-man as mentor to young hero on his journey), and much more. The Green Hornet TV theme song gets some good play too (in a scene that expertly deploys cross-cutting), and there's also a reference to Kato masks.

From Spaghetti Westerns and Italian giallo to Far East forms like Wuxia and Jidaigeki; from the Mexican standoff to 1970s grind house, Kill Bill serves as a collection of Quentin Tarantino obsessions integrated into a cinematic symphony. It's a concert with one overriding motif: revenge. And by utilizing a non-linear story structure, by flouting expectations in action sequences, by rendering violence beautiful, and by alluding to a multi-cultural canon on the subject, Tarantino engages our minds in his quest to present a new legend: the legend of the Bride.

What we can ultimately discern, then, in Tarantino's film canon, and especially in Kill Bill Volume 1 is a dedicated battle against movie entropy; against the pervasive belief that movies must be homogenized and appeal to the lowest common denominator. Tarantinos subject matter may be raw and low, but his voice -- his storyteller's voice --- is sharp, subversive and ingenious. Some might say that Kill Bill represents Tarantino's voice at its most "sadistic" or even "masochistic" but I would argue to the contrary. That his, er, instrument "is quite impressive."

And heaven knows what Tarantino would make of that comment.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Patrick McGoohan (1928 - 2009)

This news hit me like a ton of bricks. I learned this afternoon that the great Patrick McGoohan -- Number 6 on the cult-classic British TV series The Prisoner (1967-1968) -- had passed away at the age of 80.

It's weird, perhaps, to discuss actors as being "heroes," but I certainly count among my great childhood heroes men such as Roddy McDowall, Charlton Heston, William Shatner, Martin Landau and Patrick McGoohan. As a young person -- one fishing around for influences and ideas in the pop culture -- these actors, the characters they created meant a tremendous amount to me. They still do.

McGoohan really resonated with me. I suspect it was the tenacity, the hard-edge, the iron-will he regularly presented in the role of Number 6. This was a guy who -- no matter what got thrown at him - would not budge; would not break; would not surrender. He would not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, or debriefed. When McGoohan declared on The Prisoner that he was "not a number" but a "free man," you believed him.

Again, not to get hokey, but as a young man, I gazed at McGoohan's Number Six as the epitome of manhood. He couldn't be bullied. He could carry himself well...and fight well when necessary. He was popular with the ladies. His wit was razor sharp. And he stood by his beliefs. He was James Bond, but James Bond under real, continued duress...and I found that idea fascinating.

Of course, McGoohan didn't just play Number 6 on The Prisoner, he also wrote and direct several episodes of the series, so his individual stamp, is all over that timeless series. It was the role of a lifetime, to be certain, a role he owned.

I grieve the loss of Patrick McGoohan and know he will be missed. I can't help but wonder, however, if this great actor checked out of the Village at exactly the right time. So as to avoid seeing a dumbed-down remake of his legendary creation now in the production pipeline...

Ricardo Montalban (1920 - 2009)

More sad news today. Another genre icon is gone. Ricardo Montalban has passed away at the age of 88.

Star Trek fans will forever remember Montalban as Khan, the genetically-engineered super man of the first season episode "Space Seed." That villainous role was famously reprised by Mr. Montalban in 1982's blockbuster, The Wrath of Khan -- essentially a franchise-saving performance.

Planet of the Apes fans also have cause to mourn. Montalban memorably portrayed the kindly circus owner Armando in 1971's Escape from the Planet of the Apes and its direct sequel, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972). Armando was a parent for Caesar, the talking ape, and as such, taught the revolutionary leader...humanity.

Montalban was a charismatic, imposing, larger than life figure. These qualities the actor put to persistent good use as the mysterious Mr. Roarke for forty-five episodes of the cult series Fantasy Island (1978-1984).

Montalban's long Hollywood career saw him menace a slew of protagonists from Captain Kirk to Diana Prince (Wonder Woman [1974]) to the Mission Impossible team (1967's "Snowball in Hell"), to the Men from U.N.C.L.E (1964's "The Dove Affair" and 1966's "King of Diamonds Affair.")

Outside science fiction and horror, Montalban even found time to menace Leslie Nielsen in 1988's comedy hit, The Naked Gun.

Montalban's acting career endured an amazing fifty-six years...a testament to his talent. We've lost a giant here. My deepest condolences -- and my respects -- go out to the Montalban family.

Theme Song of the Week # 42: The Equalizer (1985 - 1989)

Part III --- Coming January 30th

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"If you're walkin' on eggs, don't hop."
-Captain Jack Braddock (Warren Oates), Blue Thunder (1983)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

CULT TV-MOVIE REVIEW: The Love War (1970)

Producer Aaron Spelling and director George McCowan presented this sci-fi "ABC Movie of the Week" on March 10, 1970...nearly forty years ago now. Since that time, The Love War has remained an affectionate favorite for some; a little-remembered oddity for others.

Penned by David Kidd and Guerdon Trueblood, The Love War follows a reserved, emotionless alien warrior from the distant planet Argon, a "man" named Kyle (Lloyd Bridges).

Kyle and his lieutenant (a very young, pre-Hill Street Blues Daniel J. Travanti...) have traveled to Earth to play a most serious sort of "game." The outcome of that game could spell salvation or destruction for all of us.

Some background: Our happy little green planet rests between the "overlap" of two cosmic Empires. Both Argon (Kyle's world) and hostile Zenon claim that our world belongs to them.

But, to avoid use of "the bomb," a weapon which has all-but destroyed both alien civilizations, the two empires have agreed on a new kind of warfare. Monitored by the impartial "War Arbitration Control," each side sends three of their best warriors to Earth.

There, in human form, these representatives will wage a war according to "rules." They must abide by a "schedule" -- "the clock by which our lives run," according to Kyle. And "any change in the schedule will be dealt with harshly," according to War Arbitration.

The aliens also battle in designated "Skirmish Zones," and make certain that their enemies, once destroyed, are disintegrated, leaving no trace of their presence. Throughout the course of the film, we see several alien corpses glow green and then burn up in orange puffs of smoke.

Most importantly, the aliens choose to fight in a peculiar manner: in "the way man does on Earth." This description means one-on-one gunfights or shoot-outs, specifically.

The alien enemy combatants can detect each other only by two means, since they are hidden inside human bodies. The first way involves the use of a small hand-held scanner. It beeps white when enemies are near; red when they are within shooting range. And secondly -- and forecasting John Carpenter's They Live (1988) -- the aliens can only see each other for their true form when they adorn glasses. Dorky, silver glasses...

If Argon wins the war, Earth will become part of "The Federation." If Zenon wins, however, the human population will be destroyed and Zenon's people will be "substituted." In the event of a total draw, Earth will be "bypassed forever," according to Kyle.

Things don't go according to plan, for Kyle anyway, because this world-weary alien has begun -- for the first time in his 150 year lifespan -- to experience emotions. This development is anathema to him at first. Between "the effects of the bomb" and Argon's "relentless drive for intellectual superiority," all emotions, and all physical needs have been sublimated.

Until Kyle meets a hot fellow traveler named Sandy (Angie Dickinson), that is.

They meet, apparently by accident, on a bus bound for Fresno, where the next skirmish is scheduled to occur. Sandy is friendly, funny, sexy and a free spirit...all the things Kyle -- bearing the weight of two worlds -- can never be. She is also vulnerable, stoking his protective nature. "I ran out of destinations a long time ago," Sandy says cryptically at one point, like a little girl lost.

When Kyle informs Sandy he has had no "contact" with women for some time, Sandy then launches into an entertaining meditation on the various meanings of the word "contact," which is really an excuse to slip her hand over onto Kyle's leg.

In short order, Kyle and Sandy are hiding out at the Majestic Hotel in Fresno together. Kyle reveals his true alien identity to Sandy, and after some apparent difficulty, she accepts his story of interplanetary war and alien combatants. A love affair between Kyle and Sandy blossoms, even as the final battle between Argon and Zenon nears. "I've never felt this close to anything in my whole life," Kyle tells Sandy, as their bond seems to grow.

Unfortunately for Kyle, he has permitted his new-found emotions to blunt his warrior's instincts and in The Love War's shattering finale, he pays the price for his folly. The Argon makes a terrible - and pretty damn basic - mistake. And it is here, in this surprising and effective coda, that The Love War truly becomes memorable (perhaps even a 1970s TV-movie classic).

The Love War's finale, which I speak of here only in generalities, suggests something about the nature of men and women; about love; and even, in some fashion, about warring. These were timely topics during the original broadcast. In 1970, America was still bogged down in Vietnam (the My Lai Massacre occurred just seven days after The Love War aired...), while Second Wave Feminism and Écriture Féminine were also on blazing ascent.

The proverb "man proposes and God disposes" could have been re-purposed here to substitute "woman" for God, because of the role Sandy ultimately plays in the warfare. She serves as "the sum total of every woman who ever lived," according to her own dialogue.

Some viewers may argue that Sandy's final act is one of betrayal and treachery, or even callous. But one thing is definitive: she has ended a war run by -- and played exclusively by -- men. When she alone is left standing at the film's denouement, the result is deliberately ambiguous: are the Zenon attack craft now ready to launch? Or has Sandy -- by her rule-breaking appearance in the arena of combat -- rendered the final battle a draw, thus saving us all? Thus ending all wars, forever?

Food for thought in a strange, intimate-little TV movie, I suppose. Given a bit of deep interpretation, it's not difficult to detect how The Love War actually follows in the footsteps of such anti-war (and feminist) texts like Lysistrata. Here, the indictment of men, and men's warring nature is clear. At one point, Sandy comments on succinctly on men and their desires: "you want what you want when you want it." Kyle responds, emptily: "what's wrong with that?"

To be blunt, The Love War features no exceptional locations or incredible special effects. It boasts not even a single interesting action scene. The style of the film is rudimentary, to put the matter politely. Even the battle royale is shot in hackneyed fashion, from a cockeyed 45 degree angle (what is this, Batman?). And director George Cowan turns the (over)use of the zoom into -- if not an art - at least a bad habit.

And yet, some unexcavated quality of The Love War resonates. The story feels...intimate. The focus is on what it means to be human, and Lloyd Bridges and Angie Dickinson are a pretty compelling couple. When the film revolves around these two secretive, emotionally-battered characters falling in love and looking for a way to survive, you can't help but like The Love War. All the other bells and whistles don't matter. It's almost like a play or something. If it's not quite Death in Venice, it's Death in Fresno. With aliens.

Otherwise, The Love War is relatively efficient the manner in which it co-opts the Frederic Brown "Arena"-story template (already recruited by The Outer Limits and Star Trek...) to make a case about the personal cost of war.

And I must say, I admired the setting of the film's last shoot-out far more than I did the execution of the scene. The duel is set in an abandoned ghost town. It is here that the future is decided; but that choice about all our tomorrows is rendered by the rules of man's violent yesterdays; in a historical, not futuristic venue. There's just something inherently cool and meaningful about the presentation: two humanoid aliens with ray guns quick-drawing in an Old West street, deciding the fate of a planet.

The best gets saved for last, however. After the final duel, we're granted a quick, haunting glimpse of the only surviving alien. The mask of humanity is gone, and in its place is something glowing and gorgeous...something powerful and yet delicate. Not the monster we were led to expect.

The Love War's big surprise is likely telegraphed in the title, but if you do take a gander at this old TV-movie, try to forget that you know the destination, and simply enjoy the journey. By my reckoning, the best love stories are always tragic ones, and The Love War certainly fits the bill.