Saturday, April 11, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954)

Jules Verne's immortal tale of undersea adventure, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea has been adapted to film on several occasions, but it is likely the Walt Disney effort of 1954 that remains, for many viewers and film aficionados, the definitive or "classic" screen version of the novel.

Helmed by Richard Fleischer, the veteran director behind Fantastic Voyage (1966), Soylent Green (1973), Amityville 3-D (1983) and Conan The Destroyer (1984), 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea stars James Mason as Captain Nemo, Kirk Douglas as harpooner Ned Land, Paul Lukas as Professor Aronnax and Peter Lorre as Conseil.

Oh, and did I mention Esmerelda, Captain Nemo's pet seal?

I make note of the seal (a character not present in the Jules Verne story) simply because the cinematic version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea takes some rather significant liberties with the cherished source material. That doesn't make it a bad film, but it does make the movie a decidedly...different experienc

First and foremost, Fleischer's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea reflects the Atomic Age of the 1950s and the beginnings of the Cold War epoch. In particular, Nemo's magnificent underwater machine, the Nautilis is powered by atomic energy in the movie rather than the electricity of the book. Now, the movie doesn't specifically single out "atomic energy" by name, but Nemo reveals to Aronnax the sub's propulsion unit and and claims that it harnesses "the dynamic power of the universe," which by my reckoning is a euphemism for atomic power. Especially since Nemo profoundly notes that such power could either "revolutionize the world" or "destroy it."

Additionally, one of the film's final (and most resonant) images is that of the archetypal Cold War nightmare scenario: a mushroom cloud blossoming on the horizon. Nemo single-handedly destroys his high-tech island base, Vulcania (another element not exactly taken from Verne's book...) to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. The result is the mushroom cloud; the tell-tale and ominous indicator of nuclear weapons detonation.

Indeed, much of Verne's novel has been deliberately re-purposed with an eye towards the contemporary (meaning the 1950s context of the film), and specifically the use and mis-use of atomic power. Nemo reveals to Professor Aronnax, for instance, that his wife and child were tortured and then slaughtered when he refused to share the secret of the atom with his captors in the gulag at Rura Penthe ("the white man's grave yard.") Although the death of Nemo's family is clearly inferred in the Verne novel (near the end), the film provides this much-more explicit exposition about the tragedy.

These alterations make the movie's Captain Nemo appear somewhat less misanthropic than his literary counterpart. For instance, in the book, Nemo attempted suicide-by-Nautilus and drove the submarine down into a raging whirlpool, a "maelstrom." He was downcast and sullen over having committed the "murder" of a ship's crew during battle, and desired to end his hopeless, conflicted life. Nemo's last exhortation was a word of surrender: "Enough!"

By contrast, Nemo's demise in the Fleischer film is much more heroic in both magnitude and intention. In order to keep the Pandora's Box of Atomic Energy firmly shut for the time being, Nemo nobly destroys all of his advanced technology on Vulcania and then even scuttles the beloved Nautilus. This final act is not truly suicide anymore, since Nemo has been fatally shot and would have died shortly anyway. Still, Nemo's death in the film brings forth a humanitarian goal: protecting the species from "tampering in God's domain" before it is wise enough to understand that territory.

The film version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea then culminates with a decidedly uplifting voice-over from the late Captain Nemo, one that suggests (as his conveyance, the Nautilus, sinks below choppy waves...) that the character harbored some inherent optimism about the future. "There is hope for the future. And when the world is ready for a new and better life, all this will someday come to pass. In God's good time," he declares beatifically, elevated to the level of saint, if not savior.

This distinctly out-of-character statement transforms Verne's dedicated man of science and unrepentant misanthrope into a something quite different: a pollyanna, a humanist! Again, I'm not stating that the film adaptation is of poor quality, only that it is by no means a faithful adaptation of Verne's original literary vision.

In addition to the "comedy" scenes involving Esmerelda -- Nemo's sea pup mascot -- the Fleischer film relies at points on some unnecessarily broad humor. Kirk Douglas's first appearance as Ned --- with a floozie dangling on each arm -- is a perfect example. In this scene, Ned is comically knocked atop the head by a crutch-wielding charlatan, and then he falls splat in a mud-puddle....after going cross-eyed. Bluntly stated, it's not an auspicious beginning to a remarkable and well-loved film.

Again by contrast, in the book, Ned was a forty-year old of considerable experience, intelligence, and seriousness, and not an all-singing, all-dancing, treasure-greedy buffoon...which is precisely how he comes across in the movie. And don't get me started on his obligatory musical number, "A Whale of a Tale." I accept that films made at this time in Hollywood history had to feature song interludes to net a wide demographic and entertain the whole family, but once more the movie puts up a set-piece of such jocularity that it feels out-of-step with the serious Verne story.

I've discussed rather fully how Fleischer's adaptation veers away from the trajectory of Verne's novel, but I haven't discussed yet the plethora of ways in which this classic, much-loved film succeeds on its own merits.

First and foremost, the visual aspects of Fleischer's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea remain ambitious...glorious, even. Everything -- from the superb miniature (model) work, to the fantastic set design, to the harrowing action-sequence involving an attack on the Nautilus by a giant squid -- still works. The film's visual effects remain compelling, ingenious, and yes, even fresh. There are some moments at Vulcania and beneath the sea wherein the special effects don't appear to have aged even a day. Which is a pretty amazing feat since this movie was released just about sixty years ago. It's one thing to write convincingly of a hunting expedition at the bottom of the sea; it's quite another to see those images play out before your very eyes, rendered entirely plausible...and wondrous.

Furthermore, while one can (and should) make extensive note of the myriad ways the movie changes some conceits in Verne's book, one might also remember that some clever updating of a nearly century-old book was likely necessary. An electricity-powered submarine just wouldn't seem like a very interesting vehicle of fantasy to audiences in the 1950s, would it? The deliberate infusion of Atomic Age moral questions into 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea grants the film a didactic quality, and more importantly, a relevant one.

Admirably, the Fleischer film also fully preserves the Arronax/Nemo philosophical debates of the original text. We learn in the film -- just as in the book -- of Nemo's ingenuity and invention when it comes to diet ("the sea supplies all my wants"), harnessing resources (we actually get to see his men farming at the bottom of the sea...), and inventing new technology (the amazing Nautilus itself). We view his commitment to vengeance, and are afforded some dramatic close-ups of an anguished Nemo at the wheel of the Nautilus, on the attack against those who have so egregiously wronged him. The film also preserves Arronax's first-person narrator role in the form of a voice-over, whether recounting the sinking of the Abraham Lincoln (a vessel not named in the film...) or his first experience with the "twilight world" under the sea.

In the book, Nemo had a manifesto of sorts: the captain's dedicated declaration of independence from nationalism, civilization, and "unjust" wars. That manifesto too survives the translation to Fleischer's film. Mason delivers a calculated, seething, and most importantly, pragmatic monologue about the ways that Man's "evil drowns on the ocean floor," and that -- only beneath the waves -- does there exist true independence; true freedom. I found this speech to be one of the film's finest, most transcendent moments.

In fairness, the Captain's darker side isn't totally ignored, either. I appreciate that the movie provides a sense of balance; making more than mere passing notations about the classic anti-hero's darker side. "The power of can fill the heart as surely as love can," the movie notes of Nemo, and that observation is right on the money. Aronnax likewise ultimately calls Nemo a "murderer" and a "hypocrite," while Ned terms him a "monster." These declarations seem very accurate to the spirit of the book, and I can't really complain that the movie seeks to provide Nemo a more explicit redemption than that found in the text; so that 20th century audiences return to the light of day with a sense of moral uplift.

It's often quite difficult to judge objectively a movie that you grew up with and which you still love so emotionally. Nostalgia inevitably creeps in and colors perception. In terms of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, I can say with some certainty that the film remains a technological marvel; that Mason's Nemo endures as an inscrutable, larger-than-life icon, and that the film overall is fast-paced, exciting, and scary in good measure. I'm quite aware that books can't be movies; and movies can't be books: that the two media have as many differences as they do similarities.

Yet, here's the crucial difference in intent: Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea concerned a misanthrope who had given up on man entirely; an anti-hero who had cast off the auspices of "modern" civilization for an exile under the sea, taking only man's best "art" with him (music, paintings, books). Nemo was finished with the world above the waves and no longer cared what we did with our domain above the waves.

In the movie, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Captain Nemo is a great inventor with a tragic past who simply believes man is not ready for his new science, a man who actually protects and preserves the corrupt human race by destroying his miracle technology before it can do harm.

That's a pretty big difference isn't it? Maybe not 20,000 leagues worth; but certainly enough to drive a submarine through...

The Secret Coda of The House Between?

Film producer and scholar (not to mention T.S. Eliot biographer) Joseph Maddrey de-codes the mysteries and meaning of The House Between in the first installment of a fascinating three part series here.

Here's a snippet:

"The Secret History of the World begins with the oldest of philosophical questions: What came first – mind or matter? In The House Between, Bill T. Clark – a 20th century scientist – argues the case for matter. Astrid and Theresa – the former a follower of Western religious tradition, the latter a follower of Eastern religious traditions – argue the case for mind. Travis – a lawyer and outspoken capitalist – clearly falls on the side of materialism, while Arlo represents idealism. Over the course of three seasons, these characters struggle to work out this age-old quandary. Their story, in its own oblique way, tells the secret history of the world..."

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Director's Notes: Series Finale -- The House Between Ends...

With the advent of the 21st and final episode of my independent web series, I can now write these fateful words: The House Between (2007-2009).

Yep, it's over. At least in this particular incarnation.

Endings are difficult for me, and the ending of The House Between is bittersweet, to say the least. This has been a rough week for me emotionally, making the final edits, watching the rough cuts, and realizing everything was really and truly coming to an end.

If I lived in a perfect world, and it were all up to me, I would continue depicting the story of Astrid, Arlo, Bill, Travis, Theresa and Brick forever and ever. I love those characters, I love the THB universe, and I love getting together with this talented group of individuals to carve out something creative, ambitious and meaningful. I love editing, sound mixing, and creating the special effects too. It's hard work, but I have found it to be rewarding work.

But, alas it costs money to make a series even as “cheap” as this low-budget effort. And life has a nasty way of driving people apart, and sending them in different directions.

Also – to be blunt – I don’t even know where the hell I could air a fourth year of The House Between. Google Video is closing down soon, and the compression on Veoh is getting worse by the week. Plus, our modest little 700-dollar-an-episode drama is up against not other original, outside-of-the-industry independent efforts, but rather Get Smart, Smallville, Supernatural, Star Trek, etc., etc. The Big Guns. In that crowd, how many folks are going to test drive an unknown quantity like our guerrilla production?

The format of “online video” I once hoped would spur a golden age of independent productions has rather definitively not done so. Rather, the Big Boys of Hollywood are squeezing out the little guys. Next year at this time, I fully expect there will be no place to broadcast online an independent drama of more than ten minutes in length. The world of online video may forever consist of episodes of famous TV shows (or franchise extensions of those TV shows...), and short videos of people getting kicked in the crotch. Or funny cats.

So the great experiment is over. And yet I don't want it to end it with any inkling of "sour grapes" because writing, shooting, editing -- creating -- The House Between has truly been one of the greatest experiences of my life.

I’m thrilled with everything we've achieved here: the dedicated fandom we’ve developed, and the intriguing stories we’ve dramatized in our three seasons. I’ve watched my actors grow from being “good” to being fucking amazing. I’ve seen our special effects go from being laughable to gee-whiz-how-the-hell-did-you–do-that? I’ve listened as Mateo’s musical compositions have become more accomplished, more emotional and downright brilliant. I know this fact: I certainly have a potent talent pool to return to for whatever my next film or TV project turns out to be. One of these days, when I find the right story (and have enough cold, hard cash...), I’ll have some calls to make to some old friends...

But for our stalwart denizens at the end of the universe, “Resolved” is curtains, an ending of sorts. Longstanding questions get answered (mostly), fates are “settled” to use THB lingo, and the story-arc circle gets squared. When writing “Resolved” I gazed across the vast history of “series finales” and knew there were many I wanted to emulate and pay tribute to. Of course, my favorite series ending of all-time belongs to Blakes 7, if that gives you any clue where this episode might be headed. In fact, I named the villain of our last episode Nora “Pearce” after Jacqueline Pearce, the actress who portrayed Servalan in that British TV series.

I am not a big fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but I admired the series finale, “All Good Things” because it tread deeply in the past and future as much as the “present” of the main characters. That was a template I utilized a little bit in “Resolved.” There are references and images of the “past” and even one or two cryptic flash cuts of one possible future here, mostly in a single heavy-exposition scene. Although they aren't series finales, the Space:1999 episodes "Guardian of Piri" and "Matter of Life and Death" also form the basis for some of this episode's foundation.

Another thing was very important to me as we closed the door on these beloved characters. I wanted the denizens -- for once -- stand up for something larger than themselves and their daily concerns. We've seen them defend their turf, help each other through tough times and challenge all comers in the smart house, but in this last show, I wanted them to accomplish something heroic. Something for other people.

Also, I realized that "Resolved" couldn't simply be about answering questions or tying-up dangling subplots...that it had to tell a unique, standalone story, and I'm proud of the one we tell. It involves perhaps the most evil character ever to appear on the series, a "happy fascist" played by a remarkable young actress named Alison Velasco. I gave Alison the note that she should model herself after former press secretary Dana Perino, and Alison ran with that note. She was brilliant in the part, and every time I think of our villain, Nora Pearce, I remember that line from Shakespeare, about a person who can "smile and smile" and still "be a villain."

I have often attempted to use The House Between as a venue for making commentary about human issues. One key idea from “Resolved” is sort of political, however. When I was writing the episode last May, the Democratic Presidential Primary was being bitterly contested and, during one debate, there was a candidate who did not wear a flag pin on his jacket lapel. The other candidates in that party, the mainstream media, and the opposition party all pounced on this candidate as being unpatriotic because he didn't adorn that bloody pin. In some corners, he was even called a terrorist. It was a pretty disgusting affair, frankly, to see any candidate attacked because of…fashion. Patriotism, I believe, is carried in your heart, not in the jewelry you accessorize on your jacket lapel. Agree or disagree with a candidate on his policies, but don't judge his patriotism by the pin he sticks on his chest.

I found a science-fiction corollary for that pesky flag pin in “Resolved,” and that idea plays an important role in the tale. But really, there’s a bigger and more important idea that I hope to leave you with in “Resolved” and in The House Between as a series. And that takeaway idea is this: we only get one chance; one ticket to ride this mortal coil. Whatever it is that you care about --- love, liberty, freedom, romance, art – grab onto it with both hands and don’t let go. Because although there may exist a million universes in a million quantum realities, we each only get to experience one of them. This one. And that makes the existence we share special. So whatever you want to see happen in your life…make it happen.

That’s what we did on The House Between these last three years – warts and all – and I wouldn’t change a thing. There’s a part of me that, when thinking on the series, will always dwell on the last day of shooting during our first season. We had all pushed ourselves harder than we thought we could be pushed. We’d all learned new things about ourselves and each other. We hadn’t seen a single episode put together, but we were a team, and we felt successful. We had helped each other to succeed, and trusted each other enough to fail. Petty complaints, rivalries and complaints had been cast aside and we were a unit...brothers and sisters united in a purpose.

As long as I live, I will forever recollect standing in my crowded kitchen the night we shot "Departed" -- surrounded by that unit -- and toasting the cast and crew of The House Between for accomplishing what days earlier had seemed an impossible dream.

The House Between? I had the time of my life there.

Monday, April 06, 2009

TV REVIEW: Dollhouse: "Needs"

What does creator/producer Joss Whedon know about the viewer's needs?

Well, he knew that his fans, admirers and general audiences "needed" a good episode of Dollhouse...and he delivered. "Needs" is not merely a strong outing for the freshman genre program; it may be the strongest aired thus far. (And does anyone else notice how the even-numbered episodes of Dollhouse always seem better?; this was # 8).

After a sexual fantasy/nightmare sequence gone awry (featuring Dushku and Penikott getting it on together...) "Needs" depicts an apparent glitch in the Dollhouse pod (sleeping) room. Echo (Eliza Dushku), Sierra, Victor and November/Millie all awaken in mid-sleep with their identities in tact. Their identities, but not their memories. Fearful, confused and concerned, the Actives seek an escape from the high-security Dollhouse facility. The episode follows their progress from the interior of the facility to the armory, to the "wardrobe" room, to the garages and even beyond, to the outside world.

Memories begin to return to their fugitives a little at a time. Sierra recalls the man, Nolan (Vincent Ventreseca) who "gave" her to the Dollhouse, a rejected would-be lover...and scuzball. November remembers that she has (or had...) a little girl named Katie. Echo, meanwhile, keeps seeing images of an idyllic mountain...though we don't know why. Topher confirms this memory is "real" and not part of an imprint.

The episode's title -- "Needs" -- reveals the narrative end-game, and it's a good one. Specifically, the Dollhouse controllers have arranged for the entire escape scenario so that each of the glitching Actives can experience some sense of closure; have their emotional "needs" met over deep-seated psychological issues. For Echo, it's rescuing others. For November, it's closure about her dead child. For Sierra, it's confronting the man who stole her life. And for Victor, it's about protecting Sierra.

Why does this episode work so well? Perhaps it is because in "Needs" we follow a smaller group of characters (the escaping Actives) on a clear mission (escape!) and start to detect elements of their core personalities asserting themselves. The episode is tense because we actually have characters (not blank-slates...) to cheer for, and we never know where the story is headed.

I should add too, that the episode features a fantastic, knock-down, drag-out fight between a non-programmed Echo and a female doll handler. It's splendidly choreographed fight (unlike some previous action-scenes on the show...) and surprisingly brutal too.

I realize Dollhouse has been problematic since the start, but it's tallying up some strong installments, and that's why I continue to watch. Five episodes to go this season...