Saturday, July 25, 2009

News and Updates, July Edition

Between an upcoming move to a new home and a near-term book deadline in late 2009, I'm afraid I've neglected a number of interesting recent news items related to this blog, and to some of my closest friends and associates. Today, I hope to rectify the oversight by bringing you these brief updates.

First, writer/producer Joseph Maddrey's stellar documentary,
Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of The American Horror Film "will make its North American debut at the Rhode Island International Film Festival on Thursday, August 6, at 9:30pm. The screening will take place at the Columbus Theatre Arts Center. A second screening will be held at midnight on Friday, August 7, at the nearby Cable Car Cinema in Providence."

As you may recall from my earlier post on the subject, Nightmares is narrated by Lance Henriksen, and features new interviews with John Carpenter, Larry Cohen, Joe Dante, Mick Garris, George Romero, Dennis Fischer and other genre luminaries.

Joe's documentary has also been accepted into this year's prestigious Deauville Festival of American Cinema. That festival will take place in September.

Meanwhile, writer and producer Marx Pyle (formerly of Sy Fy Portal) is currently shooting a Batman fan film called METAPHORS. I got a peek of some advance footage last week, and it looks pretty intriguing. More on this project as it develops...

And over at Jim Blanton's excellent Fantasmo blog, I missed (because of my travels around July 4th...) the blogger's in-depth review and rehabilitation of Fright Night 2, an eighties horror sequel that I didn't particularly care for (and which I panned in Horror Films of the 1980s). Jim makes a valiant effort and a good argument for the film's re-evaluation. I still don't like the movie, but Jim raises a number of interesting points, and that's what this game is all about, isn't it?

Also, author Paul Meehan's Cinema of the Psychic Realm has just been published by McFarland. I'm an admirer of Paul's previous books, Tech Noir and Saucer Movies, and a review copy of Psychic Realm should arrive on my doorstep any day. I'll be writing about the book here on the blog...

And heck! Don't forget that today is the very last day EVER you can vote in the 2009 Airlock Alpha Portal Awards. If you're so inclined, please vote for my independent sci-fi series, The House Between as "Best Web Production." Thank you in advance for your vote, or at least your consideration. We are up against heavy hitters this year, and every last vote counts!

What else?

This blog is now available on Kindle. So if you own a Kindle, subscribe, subscribe, subscribe...

Friday, July 24, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Dressed to Kill (1980)

"Suspense-king Hitchcock is dead. Long live the new King, De Palma." - Forbes, December 22, 1980, page 23.

"One might legitimately claim that the jury is still out on the subject of whether films like De Palma's actually induce violence. But can they affect our every actions - say, inhibit the behavior of women, or rouse fears of independence? Dearth of evidence or no, you will never convince me that those aren't exactly the effects of the films of Brian De Palma." - Zina Klapper, Ms. Magazine, "The Latest in De Palma's Shop of Horrors," January 1985 page 33.

The two quotations above (the first in regards to Dressed to Kill; the second to Body Double [1984]) chart the opposite poles of critical reaction to Brian De Palma's edgy 1970s-1980s suspense thrillers.

I won't keep you in suspense about my position in this matter: I firmly believe that De Palma is an immensely talented, extremely intellectual filmmaker, one who skillfully transports audiences into his dream-like, hypnotic worlds and "makes every move count," as critic Pauline Kael suggested.

Kael also wrote, in regards to Dressed to Kill and De Palma, that "his thriller technique, constantly refined, has become insidious, jeweled." ("Master Spy, Master Seducer," The New Yorker. August 4, 1980, page 68). I wholeheartedly concur, and would argue that De Palma's films don't incite violence, hatred of women, or a hatred of anyone for that matter.

Rather, De Palma carefully and deliberately constructs his thrillers on the building blocks of homage; on sturdy Hitchcockian foundations (notably our sexual foibles and manners). Then, as writer Jake Horsley suggests -- "with a wicked glee and wizardry all his own... [he] takes full advantage of the permissiveness of the times." (The Blood Poets: A Cinema of Savagery, 1985-1999, Volume 1, Scarecrow Press, 1999, page 213). In other words...he's having us on; using the latest trends and topics (a Donahue show on transgenders!) as narrative fodder.

As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1980s, I consider De Palma's Dressed to Kill a filmed "dare" of sorts; one that nastily, brazenly, grotesquely "creeps up" to the edge of social responsibility and acceptability, but then -- finally -- backs away with a tease and a knowing wink. Our prurient interest is acknowledged, excited, and ultimately sated...but not, perhaps, in the way we might have intended or hoped for. In the end, we thus feel tantalized, walloped, wowed and most importantly, amused...but not debauched. Zina Klappers of the world aside, you don't leave Dressed to Kill wanting to hurt someone; you leave it feeling invigorated because you've been so thoroughly swept up in the film's narrative.

This is the inveterate De Palma Method; the trademark manner by which he engages the testing the limits and -- on occasion -- vaulting across them. But you know what? A horror movie that doesn't transgress, that doesn't break taboos, isn't worth spit. De Palma's highly formalist thrillers -- and particularly Dressed to Kill -- observe uncomfortable facets of human sexual behavior (male, female, even transgender...), and do so with the intent to manipulate our attention; to manipulate our very sight.

De Palma's game is -- like Hitchcock's -- to play us all "like a piano." To fool or trick us; to make us let down our guard so we can truly be "open" (and susceptible...) to the narrative being vetted. As the percipients countenancing his movies, we believe we're seeing one thing when in fact we're being led in an entirely different direction. If De Palma can achieve that misdirection with extreme, jarring violence, he'll do it in a heartbeat. But gazing across the breadth of his career, he's just as likely to offer a macabre joke, or some other visual gag. Violence, humor, mesmerizing camera movements: these are means to his tricky ends.

Much of Brian De Palma's thriller catalogue -- and certainly Dressed to Kill -- may best be understood by the director's oft-stated maxim, what he calls the inverse of Godard's, that "the camera lies 24 times a second."

If indeed that's his overriding philosophy, consider how efficacious it proves in building a successful movie thriller.

De Palma's movies don't simply feature twist endings; don't merely evidence tricky, winding narratives. No, at a genetic level -- in the language of film grammar itself -- his movies fundamentally trick the eyes. How does he accomplish this feat? Well, in Dressed to Kill, it's literally done with mirrors (particularly in regards to one character, Dr. Elliott). De Palma's nervy compositions also frequently feature enigmatic doubles (or triples...) of prominent characters, barely glimpsed. And his dream sequences arise unannounced in the screenplay...but with distinctive clues originating from the lighting. And De Palma's famous, long, curvy, cornering, unbroken shots -- accompanied by a melodramatic score -- can make us swoon.

De Palma makes audiences get caught up in the moment so much that...well...we misinterpret things. In other words: he has us right where he wants us.

I Borrowed Your Razor...

I hope that if you are reading this review, you've seen Dressed to Kill already (and preferably more than once). Because in fashioning a synopsis and analysis here, I will be spoiling the film's various surprises, and this film very much depends on those surprises. Consider yourself warned.

Anyway, Dressed to Kill is the story of a sexually-frustrated middle-aged wife and mother, Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson).

After a morning appointment with her dispassionate psychiatrist, Dr. Elliott (Caine), Kate visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Once there, she picks up a total stranger and -- after a tense lover's game in the museum's maze-like hallways -- shares a sexual encounter with him in a taxi cab.

After the fling is over, Kate learns (via a letter in her lover's desk from the New York City Department of Health...) that her new partner has contracted a venereal disease. Upset and unnerved, Kate flees his apartment for the elevator, only to recall on descent that she's left behind her wedding ring. Kate heads back to her lover's floor and retrieves the ring. But then Kate is unexpectedly murdered by a razor-wielding Amazon woman: a blonde in sun-glasses and long overcoat.

Kate's young-adult son, Peter (Keith Gordon) attempts to solve his mother's brutal murder with the aid of the only witness to the crime's aftermath: a sexy hooker named Liz Blake (Nancy Allen). Along with a police lieutenant, Marino (Dennis Franz), Peter and Liz come to believe that Dr. Elliott may be protecting the murderer, perhaps one of his psychotic patients. By night -- in the midst of a deluge -- Liz meets with Dr. Elliott in his office, and attempts to get a peek at his appointment book...

Sexual Worth/Emotional Dysfunction

In many critical senses, Dressed to Kill explicitly concerns the sexuality of the dramatis personae. At least three primary characters undergo a process of sexual awakening or development in the course of the drama, and the film's stylistic approach is tailored to each character's particular brand of change/maturity/neurosis.

First we meet Kate Miller, a married woman who longs for sexual excitement and romance in her humdrum marriage. The film's dazzling and erotic opening scene involves Kate masturbating in the shower as she gazes lustfully at the almost-naked body of her husband nearby. But this sexual fantasy almost immediately goes awry. It is literally hijacked by a man in the shower behind her, forcing himself upon her. At first Kate is tantalized, aroused, but then the love-making grows violent, disturbing. She screams...

...and suddenly we're gazing (from a high-angle perspective) down upon Mr. and Mrs. Miller in bed as Kate's husband completes one of his "wham bang" specials...a quickie with plenty of gratification for him, not so much for her. After he has completed the...uh...transaction, Mr. Miller pats Kate absently on the cheek like she's a good dog or something, and moves entirely out of frame. Kate is left center-stage, feeling sexually frustrated and angry. She can't find what she wants...the fantasy aspect of her sex life always gives way to grim, unromantic reality.

This pattern (fantasy giving way to reality) is repeated in Dressed to Kill's central set-piece, set in the Museum. Kate arrives there and sits down on a bench. But when she looks around her, we see that she is not gazing at art so much as the romantic nuances of human behavior. There are young lovers nearby...holding one another affectionately; touching one another in ways that suggest romantic intimacy. In another corner, brazen sexual hunger: a sleazy-looking man comes on to a beautiful blonde in an unsuccessful pick-up attempt.

Importantly, these shots of strangers navigating romance/sex are staged from the outside looking in; from one room into another, showcasing a frame within a frame. This particular perspective grants the compositions a feeling of the intimate, the voyeuristic. They also mirror Dressed to Kill's very first shot: a slow glide around a corner to discover Kate masturbating in the shower. This is important: the approach is one almost literally of "peeking in" from the outside.

These random incidents arouse Kate's sexual yearnings, and soon a man sits down beside her on the bench...a potential lover. Following his arrival, we get several minutes of smiles, awkward glances, self-recriminations, mixed signals...and then a full-throated, fast-paced pursuit that climaxes in the taxi-cab as the stranger pulls off Kate's panties and goes down on her.

It's important to note that this sequence is vetted without any dialogue whatsoever. Instead, the mesmeric set-piece works because of De Palma's skilled shot selection, the facial expressions of the actors, and Pino Donaggio's lush score, which arouses our feelings of romance at the same time Kate becomes aroused. All I can say is that this sequence is pure magic, pure cinema. Kate's passion becomes our passion. We're putty in De Palma's hands.

But in terms of importance, this scene represents the deliberate repetition of the "fantasy" paradigm De Palma has already established (with Mrs. Miller in the shower during the film's opening scene). As before (with the rape...), a fantasy encounter is followed by grim reality. After the sexual liaison, Kate learns her lover has contracted VD and all romance and sexual excitement evaporates.

Instead of mere disappointment however, what follows the sexual fantasy this time around is a wave of shame and guilt. Kate has cheated on her husband for casual sex with a stranger -- violating her vows -- and may now have contracted an STD. De Palma forces us to linger on these feelings of shame, guilt and anxiety by holding on Dickinson in the elevator for an abnormally-long period of time. She's desperate to escape the "scene of the crime," as it were, but can't. Instead, she's confined in the elevator. As before Kate was similarly confined in another cubicle: the shower enclosure.

Then a little girl gets into the elevator with Kate...and just stares at her. Although the child could have no way of knowing the sin Kate has committed, it doesn't matter. The face of "innocence" glares at Kate following her immoral behavior and that staring visage makes the case (visually) for Kate's recriminations . More importantly, this extended time in the elevator (with the girl bearing witness...) forces the audience to reckon with some very important questions that ultimately have no place in the rest of the narrative. How will Kate tell her husband what happened? Does she now have VD?

Much as Hitchcock misdirected the audience by accentuating the importance of the stolen fortune in Psycho (1960), De Palma makes us focus, laser-like, on the fall-out of Kate's affair during this lengthy elevator sequence. And of course, he's leading us astray...

Kate's ring, her marital vows, even the threat of venereal disease are totally meaningless in the larger drama. Kate is suddenly ambushed and murdered by a weird, homicidal assailant. Again, De Palma purposefully echoes the beats of Psycho: particularly the Janet Leigh trick which saw the murder of the film's protagonist (Marion Crane) after the first act. De Palma's variation on this trick is particularly strong, particularly visual, however: he passes the baton of "heroine" directly from Kate to Liz in a single shot: a close-up of their eyes meeting. A lingering look is exchanged between them, and we have our new lead.

Kate's son, Peter, is the second character in the film who undergoes a maturing or sexual awakening. The young man is a technical genius who toils on esoteric scientific contraptions to the exclusion of everything else. In the course of Dressed to Kill, we see him build a computer, operate a self-made "bug" to listen in on private conversations, and even defend Liz with home-produced pepper spray/mace. Peter even designs and constructs his own stop-motion camera to catch the murderer. But -- as his mother realizes -- Peter is still a naive boy. In an early scene, Kate suggests that Peter name his computer contraption "Peter"...a slang term for a penis. She then explicitly tells him not to stay up all night playing with "his Peter."

The sexually repressed Peter doesn't take this advice until after the horrible murder of his mother. Then -- finally-- he has an obsession beyond the care and nurturing of his "Peter." He leaves his bedroom, encounters beautiful Liz (a hooker...)...and even becomes her heroic protector. At film's end, Liz says she's gotten used to having Peter watch her explicit reminder that the action of the film has changed Peter from boy to man.

Peter's ill-fated mother out went in search of sex and romance...and found only death. Peter went in search of truth..conquered repression...and found the sex and romance his mother so desperately sought.

The third sexual awakening in the film involves the film's villain, Dr. Elliott. Elliott is actually a "woman trapped in a man's body," a man waiting to undergo sexual re-assignment surgery. But when aroused (by Kate and Liz, respectively), Elliott takes on the avenging female persona of Bobbi: a psychotic, razor-wielding murderer attempting to preserve her existence. This background is all explained tersely (and graphically) in one of the film's final scenes, yet another echo from Psycho (specifically the oft-criticized coda...). But well before this explanatory ending, De Palma offers us visual and audio tells as to Dr. Elliott's schizoid nature.

Every time Elliott is asked by a woman (again, Kate or Liz), if he wants to have sex, De Palma cuts to a shot of Elliott in a mirror on his desk. The face there -- though Elliott's -- symbolizes the disapproving glare of Bobbi...staring back at her "male" brother. We don't know it (at least consciously) during the film's progress, but these reverse angles are informing us that Dr. Elliott boasts a twisted reflection.

The aural tell is just as interesting as the mirror images. Early in the picture, Dr. Elliott tellingly refers to himself in the third person while noting that he has to "play" secretary in the office today. "The doctor will see you now," he tells Kate. In other words, Elliott isn't always "the doctor." Sometimes he's someone else. Sometimes he's Bobbi.

Elliott's sexual problem is two-fold. One, he is still experiencing the unwanted symptoms of male arousal when in the presence of sexy and willing women. And two, as Bobbi he expresses his sexual emotions in violent, fetishistic terms Look at the way Bobbi "dresses to kill" near the denouement, the long, lustful, purposeful way she unzips a nurse's blouse following one murder. The act of dressing as a woman is one thing Bobbi might be denied if Elliott's manhood reasserts itself; and in this sequence we visually detect the character's obsession with womanhood (but not necessarily hatred of womanhood, as critics argued).

The only character not overtly hung up on sex in some way in Dressed to Kill is Liz (Nancy Allen), ironically a successful, high-class prostitute. And one with a close eye on her stock portfolio to boot. Perhaps because sex is just business and not personal for Liz, she doesn't let it affect her judgment in deleterious ways.

Dressed to Kill's valedictory joke involves this character and her straight-forward, unencumbered view of sex. After Elliott is shot and incarcerated, Liz explains to Peter -- in graphic, explicit terms -- the nature of Elliott's sexual hang-ups. This description occurs in an up-scale restaurant, while horrified patrons listen on all sides. It's almost as though Liz is telling Peter a dirty joke in bad taste; and I suppose that's the point. Dressed to Kill is essentially the same thing: a long, dirty joke evoking passion and criticism on all sides from moral watchdogs...but completely acceptable (and sort of funny...) to any character not hung up on the hows, whos, wheres and whys of sex. People like Liz.

Your Lying Eyes and Ears

Another leitmotif in Dressed to Kill involves that De Palma-ism about the camera lying 24 times a second. Implicit in that statement is a distrust of technology itself. So it's extremely significant that Peter's technology in the film doesn't get to the truth of Elliott's story at all.

A camera is set up outside Elliott's office to snap photographs of patients coming and going (so Liz and Peter can identify the murderer...) but the camera only picks up "Bobbi." The camera can't comprehend what it photographs, so it cannot register that Bobbi is the same person as Dr. Elliott. This mistake sets up the dangerous finale in which Liz comes on to Elliott in his office. She doesn't know it, but she's arousing Bobbi's wrath by arousing Elliott.

Additionally, when Peter listens in on Dr. Elliott talking with Detective Marino at the police station, he hears only those truths that Elliott chooses to share...nothing that reveals the true identity of the murderer. Thus the doctor's "appointment book" becomes a kind of McGuffin...assumed to be all-important by police and witnesses alike, but actually signifying nothing of consequence. Bobbi didn't sign in. She's not a patient. She's...Elliott.

So the camera and the mic designed by Peter lie. And the form of Dressed to Kill echoes that content: De Palma's camera lies too. We constantly confuse Bobbi with her lookalike or doppelganger, Betty Luce -- the detective that Marino has assigned to trail Liz.

In one scene set in Columbus Circle, Liz is pursued by Bobbi and Luce simultaneously, and we can't distinguish between them. In fact, we don't know that we're even looking at two different characters! De Palma then fosters this confusion by arranging a misleading, split-screen montage. An image of Elliott -- listening to a voice mail from Bobbi -- appears on the left of the frame. At the same time, an image of what we take to be Bobbi -- but actually Luce -- appears on the right hand of the screen; spying on Liz.

See how the camera lies? In this sequence, it convinces us that Elliott and Bobbi are two different people when in fact there's a third, mystery personality (Luce). It's not a cheat; it's not a gimmick. We just have incomplete information. It's all adequately explained and makes sense in the end. But while we're in the thick of it, we believe we're seeing one thing but experiencing something else entirely. This is where De Palma truly excels, and we don't know if we should believe our lying eyes.

Think About Where Your Anger is Going...

Like many De Palma movies, Dressed to Kill is all about intertextuality. The references to Psycho are numerous, and as I've laid out above, considerable. From the Janet Leigh trick to the psycho-babble coda to the schizoid nature of the villain, it's easy to identify Psycho as the bedrock foundation and inspiration of the film.

And yet, Dressed to Kill is no simple knock-off. On the contrary, it assimilates the core Psycho components and then builds on top of them. Here, the Norman Bates character doesn't just pretend to be "Mother" by dressing up, but is on the way to actually becoming a woman. Furthermore, he doesn't live alone, in isolation, in some rural backwater.

On the contary, Dressed to Kill makes the schizoid man a respected professional who -- on first blush -- seamlessly operates inside our contemporary, technological, rational society. Madness has thus arrived in the modern city in Dressed to Kill...and it thrives there in anonymity. This isn't Psycho redux. This is Psycho + 1

Again, De Palma finds ways to honor his cherished source material. The film opens in a shower (since Psycho's most famous sequence occurred there...) but then builds to a fever pitch in another distinctive enclosure: an elevator. By starting with Angie Dickinson in the shower, however, Dressed to Kill essentially states that it is beginning where Psycho left off. It's the next step. (And Fincher's Fight Club [1999] is the next iteration of the schizoid drama, but that's a post for another day...)

Dressed to Kill not only quotes from Psycho, but also the Italian giallo tradition. Here we have a film with a mystery component, an operatic score, excessive blood letting, and flamboyant camera movements. Where have you seen that alchemical equation before, Bava or Argento fans? Hitchcock wasn't able to produce Psycho in color, but De Palma makes the most of this advance in movie technology. He uses garish, bright colors in symbolic, effective fashion here. In the elevator death scene, for instance, Angie Dickinson is garbed head-to-toe in immaculate white, a color which is soon spoiled by her spilled blood during the razor attack. The red-against-white image is powerful in almost a primal way, and it works thematically (as in giallo tradition); suggesting the loss of Kate Miller's "purity" after the marriage-wrecking affair.

It became a de rigueur kind of thing in the 1990s, but Dressed to Kill is also highly self-referential. The text it often refers itself. The valedictory restaurant scene I mentioned above -- a comedy of manners -- explains the plot of the movie in linear but subtly funny terms. It also anticipates the reviewer reaction to the film by those (like Klapper) who don't get the joke; casting these critics as horrified restaurant customers, disgusted at the explicit nature of Elliott's tale. But what really repels them is not the movie and not the dirty joke: it's human (sexual) nature.

Dream-like and sensual, Dressed to Kill is a sex fantasy gone awry...a dirty joke captured on celluloid. But De Palma makes it more than that with his daring and audacious visual imagination. The director takes scenes (like the dizzying museum pursuit) that might be brief or perfunctory in the hands of other helmsman and extends them into lengthy, bravura set-pieces that make our hearts quicken. De Palma teases us with nudity (body doubles and all...) but then glances over the specifics of intercourse (conducted entirely off-screen) for a revelation about venereal diseases instead.

After piquing our sexual interest, De Palma leaves us uncomfortable and trapped in an elevator, reflecting on guilt, shame and the idea that fantasies are best fantasies. And then, in true De Palma fashion, he finishes his masterpiece off with a terrifying dream sequence that makes our nerves jangle and our adrenaline pump. Even in closing, he determinedly one-ups Hitchcock: he resets reality/order to normal (with the explanatory psycho-babble), but then knocks it from the perch again with a harrowing scene of death and violence. This is either a prank or an acknowledgment that -- since Hitchcock -- order gets re-established less and less. In life and in movies.

Some critics may gaze at Dressed to Kill and argue that it is nothing but flashy style in the service of depravity. On the contrary, it's a thriller that teases us with our own sexual hang-ups and preconceived notions about sex. Dressed to Kill reminds us not only to be careful what we wish for, but that what we see...isn't always what we get.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Five Most Ludicrous Musical Numbers in Movie History

I recently watched Saturday Night Fever (1977) again and despite the 1970s fashions (or perhaps because of them...), it remains an endlessly entertaining film. In some other quantum reality, perhaps, we're all still emulating Tony Manero: wearing white jackets with lapels down to our shoulders and pants three sizes too tight.

But in this reality, something happened that stamped out forever the glitzy night-time world observed so brilliantly in John Badham's disco classic.

Well, not something...five somethings. They are (in no particular order): Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), The Apple (1980), Can't Stop The Music (1980), Xanadu (1980), and the sequel to Saturday Night Fever, Staying Alive (1983).

Et tu, Travolta?

Simply stated, these films -- all of 1978 -1983 vintage -- remain the most bizarre, garish and lurid movie musicals ever made. It's not just that these films are run-of-the-mill bad, it's that they each elevate badness to a fine art in unique, staggering ways. Believe me, if you haven't seen it, you can't even begin to conceive of The Apple.

And I might as well admit it: I'm unhealthily taken with these cult movies. They whisper to me of a time and place -- nay a world -- of extreme possibilities. Could you imagine the bad luck of seeing Sgt. Pepper in 1978? Then returning -- wounded and vulnerable -- to the theater in 1980, only to reckon with Can't Stop The Music? Then, after years of recovery, catching Staying Alive on the big screen? It's...madness.

Now, I wouldn't recommend you watch all of these films (well, actually, okay, I would...), but for your viewing pleasure, I have compiled the most ludicrous musical numbers from each production for your viewing pleasure today.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

1. "Get Back"

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) stars the Bee Gees. Here, the group sings entirely from the catalogue of the Beatles, an homage turned fromage. The film concerns the evil Mr. Mustard (Frankie Howerd), who plots to steal the magical coronet, drums and other musical instruments of the original Sgt. Pepper, the revered former leader of Heartland U.S.A. The Bee-Gees -- as the Lonely Hearts Club Band --- must retrieve the instruments, and also contend with such personalities as Father Sun (Alice Cooper) and Future Villain (Aerosmith).

In our first selection, Peter Frampton's heroic character, Billy Shears, attempts suicide after the alleged demise of his girlfriend, Strawberry Fields, only to get resurrected by Sgt. Pepper (Billy Preston). Sgt. Pepper then sings "Get Back!" while jazz-ercising and firing lasers out of his fingers.

#2."The Apple"

Set in the distant year of 1994, The Apple is the Golan-Globus epic of Moosejaw denizens and babes-in-the-woods, Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Alphie (George Gilmour), who star in the futuristic equivalent of American Idol called The World Vision Song Contest. After their performance, these innocents are seduced by Mr. Boogalow (Vladek Sheybel), a music/Hollywood agent and Lucifer himself. In the following song, "The Apple," Bibi makes a Faustian deal for fame. If nothing else, this hellish musical number forecasts the production design of "Satan's Alley." The lyrics from "The Apple" suggest "you'll be hypnotized. You'll be victimized." Consider that truth in advertising.

# 3. "Do the Milk Shake."

This number is from the fictionalized Village People bio-pic Can't Stop The Music, starring Steve Gutenberg and Bruce Jenner. The film was directed by Nancy Walker, who was famous for paper towel commercials. Otherwise, I don't really think I should comment on this one. Just ask yourself: knowing what you know about The Village People, what is this musical number really about?

#4. "Xanadu"

All kidding aside, Xanadu (1980) starring Olivia Newton John is really one of my personal guilty pleasures (and it's the only movie on this list I actually saw theatrically.) So I humbly ask you to "open your eyes and hear the magic!" as the movie's marketers suggested; mixing their metaphors with confusing razzle-dazzle. The number I selected from Xanadu is the triumphant denouement, showcasing the opening of a new roller-skating rink/night club. I dare say that this is the only musical number in history featuring Gene Kelly on roller skates, women in spandex, and split screens. And you know what? I love every goddamn minute of it.

#5 "Satan's Alley"

The Apple was just a warm up. Here's a (thin) John Travolta in the closing musical number from Staying Alive. It was supposed to represent a Broadway stage show entitled "Satan's Alley," but just try to imagine the logistics of presenting this number on stage (and without cuts?) It's like a three-ring disco circus. David Denby wrote one my favorite movie reviews ever regarding this film.

He wrote: "This is no ordinary terrible movie; it's a vision of the end. Not the end of the world, which will probably be much quieter than Staying Alive, but the end of movies...As you watch it, the idea of what a movie is - an idea that has lasted more than half-a-century - crumbles before your eyes." (New York Magazine, August 1, 1983, page 54).

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

All's Well That Ends Well: Final Episodes, Cliffhangers and Goodbyes

Approximately a week ago, author and blogger Brad Templeton penned a vast (and widely-linked) essay terming Battlestar Galactica's series finale ("Daybreak") "the worst ending in the history of science fiction on the screen."

His reasoning is sound, not to mention brilliantly expressed, and the author points specifically to three problems. They are: an egregious scientific error, an overall sense of storytelling laziness to resolve important "mysteries" (relying on God and God's powers as the explanation for a multitude of events), and most damningly, poor internal consistency. In that final regard, "Daybreak 1 & 2" don't even track with earlier episodes of the four season series, particularly one important installment set on Kobol.

I suggest you read the entire, meticulous piece for yourself, so you can draw your own conclusions. Personally, I agreed with the author on at least one of his main points. Although I never even registered the Mitochondrial Eve/scientific error (and scientific errors tend not to bother me that much anyway...), I was dumbfounded that audiences were expected to believe "Daybreak's" closing conceit: that a technological race would voluntarily (and in one voice...) give up health care, air conditioning, telephones, and indoor plumbing to live on a primitive planet in close proximity to their sworn enemies (you know, the ones who had attempted their genocide...). I mean, the Colonists had only survived the Genocide because of technology; because of their spaceships. I just don't believe for a second that an advanced people would willingly give it all up. I also disliked the final explanation -- or lack of explanation -- for Starbuck's character. It was a cop-out on a cosmic scale.

Yet I write today not to curse Battlestar Galactica's disappointing finale, but because the essay got me thinking about the ways that other genre series have arrived at their final chapters. It wasn't that long ago, actually, that most series just went off the air without any sort of wrap-up whatsoever.

We never saw the final voyage of the U.S.S. Enterprise's five year mission. Nor did we witness the Alphans discover a new home, or return to Earth. The Searcher never found those "lost tribes" of Earth.

Television audiences never knew if David Vincent stopped the alien invasion of Earth, or if Carl Kolchak finally convinced anybody that there were monsters running around Chicago. Nope. Those TV series just...stopped. The axe of cancellation fell...and that was the end of the story.

On the other hand, some notable series did get to inscribe their last acts, ending with some modest sense of completion (even if dedicated fans were left begging for more....) Now, I'm specifically discussing endings in this essay, folks, so you might consider the descriptions ahead as spoilers. If you don't want to know how a number of sci-fi series ended, then read no further.

"Fall Out"
First off, we have Patrick McGoohan's legendary series about individualism and "The State," called The Prisoner (1968). The 17-episode roster ended with an episode titled "Fall Out." If you've never seen it, there's simply no way to satisfactorily explain it, except to state that, well, it's really bonkers. The imprisoned Number Six (McGoohan) -- after undergoing a trial/psychological test of sorts -- discovers that the Village's leader, Number One, is actually a man in a chimp mask. No scratch that...Number One is actually himself. Then Number Six destroys the Village, flees with a midget, and -- through images repeated from the familiar opening credits montage -- we are led conclude that the whole cycle of imprisonment may be starting over again.

Though bizarre, the ending of "Fall Out" succeeds because it suggests that even outside the walls of the Village, Number Six will always be a "prisoner" in an increasingly de-humanized society determined to catalogue and number citizens. We relate this message to us: we're all prisoners.

Yet "Fall Out" isn't coherent in any traditional storytelling sense, and it actually abandons the tight, "literal" narrative of the earlier episodes for an entirely allegorical finale. Some regular viewers of The Prisoner were actually enraged by the abandonment of the literal for the metaphorical, while others undertook the tough task McGoohan had sought for them: they interpreted the psychedelic, powerful images and found their own answers about the underlying meaning.


Blake's 7 (1978-1981), another British sci-fi series, also featured a rather definitive and downbeat ending, and one much more literal in nature than "Fall Out." I like to call it "The Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid" End. After years of successfully fighting against the tyrannical and powerful Federation, Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) finally leads his gang of rebels into a trap from which they cannot escape.

The last scene of the episode "Blake" (and of the series) involves all the main characters being gunned down in slow-motion by Federation soldiers. Our last view of the cunning Avon sees him offering a strange smile...and raising his own weapon in a futile demonstration of defiance. The screen goes blank and laser fire dominates the soundtrack...

This ending was and remains perfect -- not because of the brutal massacre -- but because of the character-based events leading up to it. Before Avon faces the shock troopers of the Federation, he encounters the idealistic, missing hero of the series, Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas) and -- because of a misinterpretation and poorly chosen words -- ends up killing him in cold blood.

Blake's 7
always concerned character fireworks more than action, and "Blake" is true to that longstanding quality. Blake trusted too much...and died. And Avon trusted too little...and also died. In other words, the same problems that had always plagued these men throughout the series plagued the freedom fighters right through the violent finale. Yes, "Blake" is dark, but any other ending wouldn't have seemed realistic in Blake's 7's cynical universe. Tie-in writers, fans, and producers have toiled ever since "Blake" aired to figure out an acceptable way for the heroes to somehow survive the events of this final episode, but the massacre stands as the final video chapter of Blake's 7. And it remains one of the most mind-blowing series finales in the genre's history.

"All Good Things"

In 1994, after seven successful seasons in syndication, Star Trek: The Next Generation achieved the sense of closure that the Original Series had been denied. It occurred in an adventure called "All Good Things" that recalled the past (and the premiere episode, "Encounter at Farpoint,") had one foot in the present, and even featured a subplot set in the future, twenty-five years down the line.

Although "All Good Things" was mired in tongue-twisting techno-babble, the story -- which saw the Enterprise-D and Picard investigating a mystery in three time periods -- was satisfactorily epic: the entire universe was at stake. The God Entity Q even took Picard back in time to the Dawn of Man in one dynamic scene. But by going returning to the beginning of the series ("Farpoint"), and Q's "Trial of Humanity," "All Good Things" also granted The Next Generation series a nice book-ends quality. Q's trial was finally adjourned...and mankind passed with flying colors.

"The Truth"

The X-Files (1993-2002) ended after nine highly-rated seasons on broadcast television, and unlike other series finale's featured on this list, it's goal was not just to wrap-up character fates, but actually offer the viewer a linear, top-to-bottom explanation of the show's long-standing alien conspiracy and mytharc.

Creator Chris Carter used the occasion of fugitive Fox Mulder's trial to present evidence (and exposition) about the conspiracies that had become part and parcel of 1990s pop culture. Witness testimony, first-hand evidence, and character recollections painted -- for the first time -- a larger, more coherent picture of the X-Files meta-story.

So much of The X-Files also concerned two world views or perspectives in conflict...and in love, exemplified by the believer Mulder (David Duchovny) and the skeptic, Dr. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). Appropriately, "The Truth" reunited this pair, and gave them one last go at the Cigarette-Smoking Man, the enduring villain of The X-Files. Then, in a touching and romantic coda, Mulder and Scully talked about their future....and the planet's. There was even the hint of a sequel since these final moments discussed the date for the alien "colonization: 2012.


When creator Joss Whedon first imagined Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he projected the future of horror's most popular archetype, the "Final Girl:" a woman who could not only defeat the monster, but whom the monsters actually feared. The long-lived WB/UPN series followed the adventures of the heroic Slayer, but even as an admirable female superhero, Buffy was still trained by men (A Watcher), and sent on missions by men (A Watcher Council).

So it was only appropriate in the final episode of the seventh season that Buffy all-but-declared her independence. With the help of Willow's powerful magic, Buffy not only led an army against the forces of the darkness, she "awakened" the female power of would-be female Slayers the globe over, who were suddenly able to harness their "potential."

It was, perhaps the ultimate statement of "Girl Power," which seemed entirely logic given the development of the series, and Whedon's original intent of creating a character who could overcome monster/horror movie cliches. "Chosen" also saw the final destruction of Sunnydale's pesky Hellmouth, the source of all the series' monsters over the years. So not only were viewers inspired...they knew they could sleep safe at night.

Many other series had interesting conclusions too. Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) brought Voyager home in Star Trek: Voyager. Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) grabbed his young daughter Jordan (Brittany Tiplady) out of school and went into hiding with her after Peter Watts' death. And so on and so forth.

Another kind of series ending doesn't really bring closure at all. On the contrary, a number of programs ended on a catastrophic cliffhanger -- one with evil on the ascent -- that was intended to be resolved the following season. When that next season never came, the cliffhanger became the de-facto ending of the whole run. American Gothic (1995) offered one such cliffhanger, with Lucas Buck -- the Devil himself -- finally taking over the soul of his son in the South Carolina town of Trinity. Angel (1999-2005) ended with an unresolved battle against an army of demons in a dark alley' a perfect reflection of the main character's fight against a more powerful foe.

"The Trap"
Sapphire & Steel (1978-1981) was another genre series that went out with a cliffhanging bang. On a seemingly normal mission, our heroic "agents," Sapphire & Steel investigated a strange gas station and diner in a pocket universe of sorts. They quickly learned that the cosmic way-station was a trap sprung for them by an unseen enemy.

The serial and thus the series ended with Sapphire and Steel peering out from their inescapable prison...into infinity itself. This cliffhanger was ultimately resolved in a 21st century audio production, but the time trap stood for years...a chilling reminder of the dangerous, enigmatic nature of the series. It was an ironic capper too: after years of solving temporal riddles, Sapphire and Steel finally walked into a riddle they couldn't figure out, a deliberate reversal of the initial premise.

"The Return"

V: The Series (1985) had a tumultuous run on NBC, with an unusually high degree of cast and character turn over. Ham Tyler (Michael Ironside) and Robin (Blair Tefkin) had been written out mid-season, and Elias (Michael Wright) and Nathan Bates (Lane Smith) had been killed off. These unexpected deaths and surprise departures worked well in a series about a life-and-death Resistance fight against evil, militaristic aliens. The final cliffhanger was no different: it offered abundant surprises. Peace was suddenly declared on Earth, and the Star Child, Elizabeth (Jennifer Cooke), was slated to marry the Leader (unseen on a Visitor spacecraft).

In the episode's final moment, Elizabeth's human boyfriend, Kyle (Jeff Yagher), stowed away on the Leader's ship for the journey back to the distant Visitor home world. But a not-quite vanquished Diana (Jane Badler) revealed she'd planted a bomb aboard the same just waiting to detonate.

V: The Series ended with a long, dramatic pullback (from the viewpoint of the imperiled, departing shuttle...) as Willie (Robert Englund), Donovan (Marc Singer) and Juliet (Faye Grant) watched it lift off. Did Diana kill the Leader and the Star Child? Did Kyle stop the inter-species marriage? We'll never know, but at least V: The Series went out with a dramatic flourish.

How we judge the success or failure of a series finale ultimately depends, I suppose, on how we viewed the series that preceded the ending. Enterprise (2001-2005) had a terrible, insulting finale that randomly killed off a beloved character and ended with the terrible idea that the whole series was a holodeck game for Will Riker. But who -- watching that show -- could have honestly had high expectations for the finale? I know many people believe Battlestar Galactica set the bar high...and that's why "Daybreak" felt so weak. Let's face it: if the producers begin every episode of their series with the line that the bad guys "have a plan," the producers should probably have one too. And that plan should eventually be made clear to audiences. It never was. The mystery of the five Cylons overtook the series' real sense of drama in the last two years, turning Battlestar into what I once termed "a cosmic game of Clue:" a parlor game about guess who "the secret Cylon" was. Everything else became secondary...

But heck, at least the Galactica's crew didn't go down to Earth on flying motorcycles, right? Or encounter invisible cub scouts from space? Which series endings (listed in this essay or not) stick with you as being the best? Or particularly irk you?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Not Truly The Final Frontier, I Trust.

Forty years ago today, Apollo 11 became the first manned spacecraft to land on our only natural satellite, The Moon.

As for me, I was still in the womb, but my father informed me last night at dinner that he and my Mom were in Cedar Grove, New Jersey on July 20, 1969: visiting my grandparents on my mother's side (both now deceased), and glued to the television....along with approximately 500 million others.

In terms of genre entertainment, the Moon landing of July 1969 arrived barely a month after the last new episode of Star Trek ("Turnabout Intruder") aired on NBC.

Nonetheless, NASA's inspiring lunar accomplishment dominated the immediate future of the sci-fi genre on TV. For instance, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's UFO (1970) and Space:1999 (1975-1977) both posited the Moon as stepping stone to the stars.

I don't want to belittle NASA's sincere efforts in the forty years since the Eagle Landed, or the hard work of today's brave astronauts, but we desperately need to get back to space in an exciting way soon; not just to grapple with "flooded toilets."

Why? well, the answers to many enduring problems on Earth no doubt rest out there, in space. A new "space race" could bring forth amazing advances in technology, energy, medicine, transportation...the works.

But perhaps the most important reason for a serious return to space is psychological. There's a certain train of thought out there that the date July 20, 1969 represents the pinnacle of our civilization...and that the near half-century since has been nothing but slow, steady decline from that glorious apex.

I don't believe that for a second. With a little inspiration, and a lot of blood, sweat and tears, Moonbase Alpha could be within reach. Just a decade or so late...

In cosmic terms, that's nothing.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The De Palma Dossier

"The great movies that I remember are the ones that went right into my subconscious, and I don't know why they obsess me, or why I keep thinking about them, or why in a postmodern way I keep trying to recreate them, like Vertigo, for instance. It's just something that's inexplicable. These images have taken seed in your subconscious, and you can't get them the hell out. That's why I think when you make a movie you have to find a way to use that ability that film has to seed the subconscious. There are a few great directors that have been able to do it, and that's why we never forget these movies."

- director Brian De Palma (at the
Le Paradis interview, 2002)

Over the last couple of years on the blog here, we've studied the films of controversial directors whose work continues to be inspirational, influential and (to some...) infuriating, including William Friedkin and John Carpenter.

In the weeks ahead, I'll be turning my gaze to the forty-year career of another oft-misunderstood talent from the formalist school: Brian De Palma. Today, I'm posting this brief, general overview of the artist to provide a bit of background for the forthcoming reviews and analyses.

A native New Jersey-ite, who has been alternatively termed either "The American Godard" or "the New Hitchcock," Brian De Palma is a director renowned for his finely-developed sense of intertextuality.

What that word means in this context is that De Palma often mines the works of other film masters (including Hitchcock, Godard, Kubrick, Antonioni, Wilder, and Eisenstein) for inspiration, and then re-purposes that work as building blocks in his own pictures. He uses those movie inspirations as both visual and thematic "quotations."

The train station staircase action sequence in De Palma's The Untouchables (1987) is a perfect example of the former (a visual allusion). It borrows heavily from -- and then goes way beyond -- the famous Odessa Steps scene in Battleship Potemkin (1925). The footage of Double Indemnity (1944) that opens Femme Fatale (2002) is an example of the latter, a thematic foundation for the noir story that follows; a starting point with which to compare and contrast.

De Palma is a member of the "Movie Brat" generation that includes Lucas, Coppola, Milius, Spielberg, Shrader, and Scorsese. He understands -- like all great film artists -- that "form is created through content" and exerts an auteur's iron control over both. De Palma is regarded, according to New York's David Edelstein, as "one of cinema's most hypnotic stylists, a virtuoso whose multilayered tracking shots can expand your perception of space, time, and motion onscreen."

One commonly deployed De Palma shot is the the split screen -- which is used to represent everything from a fractured psyche to the light-speed cause-and-effect of directed telekinetic energy (in Carrie [1976]). Another is the unbroken tracking shot of remarkable duration (see: Snake Eyes [1998] or The Bonfire of the Vanities [1990]), utilized to preserve or establish for the audience a sense of space/geography and dizzying pace.

Also, De Palma appears obsessed with how we see (and how the camera sees), a fetish which has resulted in the filmmaker's work frequently being labeled "voyeuristic." More specifically, what De Palma's movies focus on is the act of seeing gone wrong; of mistaken sight. Of seeing one thing, but registering it (and therefore interpreting it...) incorrectly.

His cinematic efforts also frequently feature doppelgangers/doubles, intense violence (leavened by a macabre sense of humor...), camera technology as part of plot problem/resolution, dream sequences, and narrative u-turns that precipitously drop the bottom out of long-held audience assumptions about decorum.

De Palma has successfully toiled in a number of genre modes. He has crafted memorable crime dramas (Scarface [1983], The Untouchables [1987], Carlito's Way [1993], Black Dahlia [2006]), war movies (Casualties of War [1987], Redacted [2007]), Hitchcockian-style thrillers (Sisters [1973]), Obsessed [1976], Dressed to Kill [1980], Body Double [1984], Raising Cain [1992]), straight-up horror films (Carrie [1976], The Fury [1978]) and more "mainstream" blockbuster films, such as Mission Impossible (1996).

Like Carpenter, De Palma has often been attacked because of the violent images that appear in his films. He's been called a "misogynist" on more than one occasion (the release of Dressed to Kill; the release of Body Double), and his use of psychology has often been termed "facile" by critics. Recently, De Palma was accused of being unpatriotic for showcasing American troops in Iraq in what was termed "an unfavorable light" in Redacted. Although an acknowledged genius in terms of film style, many unappreciative critics still widely refer to De Palma as a hack.

"I've always been against the establishment from day one," De Palma told one interviewer. "I've never been accepted as that conventional artist. Whatever you say about David Lynch or Martin Scorsese, they are considered major film artists and nobody can argue with that. I've never had that. I've had people say it about me. And I've had people say that I'm a complete hack and you know, derivative and all those catchphrases that people use for me. So I've always been controversial. People hate me or love me."

First on the docket in our De Palma Retrospective, my personal favorite of his Hitchockian oeuvre: Dressed to Kill (1980). I'll post a detailed review on Friday, so if you get a chance, rent it, queue it, buy it, or pull it down off your DVD shelf and get to watching...