Saturday, September 19, 2009

Don't Tell Them What You Saw: Les Diaboliques (1955) vs. Diabolique (1996)

There are plenty of good reasons why H.G Clouzot's Les Diaboliques (1955) tops many "best films ever made" lists, even today. Filmed in spare, expressive black-and-white and dominated by fragile characters who might euphemistically be termed "dissolute," Clouzot's venture suggested -- or at least paved the way -- for elements of Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). Both film classics obsess on images of decay and death, and both successfully "trick" the first-time audience about character motivations and the ultimate direction of the narrative.

Les Diaboliques -- a title roughly translated as "The Devils" -- is set almost entirely at the Delassalle Boarding School, a campus almost in ruins from disrepair and neglect. The headmaster is the sadistic Miguel (Paul Meurisse), a man who grew up in poverty and who, in adulthood, clutches tightly to his wealth...which all arises from his wife, a former nun named Christina (Véra Clouzot). Miguel refers to Christina in not-so-loving fashion as his "little ruin," a pointed contrast, perhaps, to his big ruin...the school itself. Christina is unhappy that Miguel is so miserly that -- though they are rich -- they "live like poor people."

Miguel is also fooling around with a teacher at Delassalle, the sexy femme fatale, Nicole Horner, played by the smoldering Simone Signoret. But this is no ordinary adulterous love affair. For one thing, Christina is aware of the affair, and as the film starts, helps Nicole tend to her black eye...a result of Miguel's abuse. "The legal wife consoling the mistress?," another teacher at the school asks with astonishment.

Apparently so.

Together, Christina and Nicole plot to murder the evil Miguel, first by poisoning him, then by drowning him in a bathtub at Nicole's house in Noirt. The strategy is to transport the corpse (in a large basket) back to the campus, where it can be dumped in secret. But the murder plot goes awry, and Miguel's corpse goes missing after Nicole and Christina dispose of it in the school's filthy swimming pool.

This development is troublesome for several reasons, not the least because Christina suffers from a terrible heart condition, and the slightest bit of anxiety -- or terror -- could kill her. She is allowed "no emotions. No vexations," according to her doctor. But then, a little boy reports that he saw the headmaster alive...and the terror builds and builds until the unbearably suspenseful denouement.

Les Diaboliques qualifies as a film noir in part because of the overwhelming aura of hopelessness that blankets the movie. Poor, wounded Christina can never escape her husband...even after his demise. Secondly, the film's subject matter, a little bit police procedural, a lit bit mystery, makes it entirely simpatico with traditional noir values. Most important, perhaps, is the moral quandary the film exquisitely expresses. Christina is a nun who believes that "divorce is a deadly sin," and yet she knowingly participates in a murder attempt. Christina a keeps a shrine to her namesake, Christ, in her apartment with Miguel, but again...murder? It's the only way for her to keep the school...and her money. But does the retaining of material wealth justify killing even a really, really bad person? Though she dreams of ridding herself of Miguel, Christina fully understands the cost to her soul. "We are monsters," she laments, "I don't like monsters."

There's also a powerful sexual undercurrent here. Les Diaboliques is packed with innuendo, particularly during an early scene in which the dominating, abusive Miguel urges the saintly Christina to "swallow" her food, and she almost gags on the mouthful. Not to mention, of course, the hint of a lesbian attraction between the apparent partners in crime, Christina and Nicole.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, Les Diaboliques is also clearly part horror film. In the film's scariest and most-oft imitated scene, we witness Miguel rise from the dead -- in a bath tub -- his eyes transformed into white, unseeing orbs. This shocking, macabre moment is echoed in the film's enigmatic climax, which some critics have complained rather strenuously about. It suggests that another character has also returned from the grave, at least according to the testimony of a naughty little boy.

I have always maintained that the second "resurrection" might be real (as opposed to the first resurrection...) and not just the case of a schoolboy telling tall tales. On the contrary, there could be a haunting at the school. Why? The explicit subject matter of the film has been the cost "after death," -- to the soul itself -- of moral turpitude. And with all the Christ imagery in evidence here, the idea of resurrection is thus very much in play. The terrible act that comprises film's startling finale clearly demands retribution; even beyond-the-grave-style retribution. Christina's important statement that she has become a monster might even be interpreted literally. So I view the ending as being at least ambiguous, and thus totally consistent with the preceding narrative.

Deftly directed and entirely anxiety-provoking, Les Diaboliques is one of those films in which form reflects content to an admirable degree. The movie is dominated by images of water, of drowning. The film opens with rain splattering in a puddle on hard, broken pavement, our first indication of the "storm" coming. Miguel's (false) death occurs in a bath-tub. And then, of course, there's the swimming pool -- a much larger bath tub of sorts -- and the climactic return to a bath tub in Christina's apartment. This pervasive water imagery serves, I believe, to remind audiences that it is actually Christina who is drowning here. The whole world is closing around her, in a deluge of deceit and treachery.

"He'll Never Hurt Us Again:" Or "It's Men. Testosterone. They Should Put It In Bombs."

In 1996, director Jeremiah Chechik made an extremely literal remake of Diabolique, excising the criticized hint-of-the-supernatural of the original coda and substituting a contemporary, nineties, "Year of the Woman"-style, feminist context. Here, the narrative more plainly concerned a cycle of domestic violence; of men abusing women; and abusing wives.

Even more so, the film consciously reflected the lurid, tabloid culture of the Clinton Era -- the decade that gave our nation celebrities such as Amy Fisher, and the aptly-named Lorena Bobbitt.) The three-ring white-trash circus known as The Jerry Springer Show even makes a cameo appearance in the film (playing on a television in the background.) The message: attempted murder has become the language of the culture.

In the updated film, the story is very much the same as before. A murderous love triangle between headmaster Guy Baran (Chazz Palminteri), ex-nun Mia (Isabella Adjani), and man-eater Nicole Horner (Sharon Stone) ends...badly.
The "swallow" innuendo returns in this remake too, but is much more on-the-nose since Guy actually says "swallow it for once in your life," to his put-upon spouse.
But otherwise, there are long spells in which Diabolique is actually a line-for-line regurgitation of the 1955 film, only in (much less-effective) color. By contrast, Nicole's garish wardrobe in this version represents a brilliant, resonant touch: she's dressed like a white-trash cougar, contextualizing the character as part-and-parcel of the Jerry Springer Culture. Stone is terrific as heir to Signoret, playing a snapping, sarcastic femme fatale who apparently lives by the proverb, "the tongue is like a sharp knife; it kills without drawing blood." When another character reminds the smoking Nicole that second-hand smoke kills, Stone quips, "Yeah, but not reliably," and then stalks off. Ouch.

Where the two versions of Diaboliques diverge is in characterization, and in climactic action. The first film featured a rumpled detective investigating the disappearance of Miguel. He was a retired commissioner named Alfred Fichet, and he didn't really accomplish much in terms of his investigation. In keeping with the film's hopeless tenor, he arrested the guilty parties only after the the third-act, tragic death.
The remake of Diabolique pulls an early "Starbuck" on us (Dirk Benedict to Katee Sackhoff..) and changes the old man into a woman named Shirley Vogel, played by Kathy Bates. In this case, Shirley is a rather butch, rather crass, rather cynical cancer survivor. Like her predecessor, she also stumbles upon a crime in progress, but because the climactic violence is perpetrated against a male (and a nasty one at that...), Shirley lets it go rather an apprehending the guilty parties. She just shrugs her shoulders and joins the conspiracy: three women "survivors" allied against one monster of a man.

The nineties Diabolique involves a triangle, of course, but this time Nicole is the wild card and, in many ways, the film's protagonist. In the original film, she sided against poor Christina. In the remake, this is no longer the case. Nicole regrets her treatment of the saintly Mia, and joins her in murdering Guy. Critics, including Roger Ebert, absolutely hated this ending, feeling that it utilized the conventions of the slasher film in a gimmicky, cheap way. While the new Diabolique is clearly not in the same league as the original film, I argue that the re-interpreted ending actually works in context of the 1990s.
Early in the film, Nicole and Mia drown Guy, but it's a trick; Nicole and Guy are actually in on a plan together (only Mia doesn't know it.) The swimming-pool scuffle that ends the modern remake is staged, in close visual fashion, as a deliberate repeat of that earlier drowning...only in the pool this time. And here, finally, Nicole actually comes through; actually works with Mia. She actually gets her hands dirty.

In the earlier bathtub drowning, Mia noted to Nicole that she didn't seem upset by the execution of a cold-blooded, hands-on murder. This was so -- as we learn later -- because there was no real murder occurring. Nicole was playing at being a murderess, and the victim (Guy) wasn't really dead.
But if you study the swimming pool battle, it's clear that this time around, Nicole is absolutely shaken, mortified, by the battle. The confident facade of the femme fatale has finally dropped, and Nicole has embraced, at long last, her sisterhood in abuse and degradation, Mia. She's finally turned her venom in the appropriate direction: towards Guy.
It's no coincidence, either, that this Diabolique removes the relevant discussion of Miguel/Guy's poor upbringing. Exculpatory evidence is not presented, so-to-speak. This "Guy" is a person to be hated and despised, with no ameliorating humanity. And even his name, "Guy," reminds us of his offending sex. Why, this version even suggests the cad was having an affair with a third woman (whom he paid to have an abortion...), thus justifying Nicole's switching teams at the last moment. The subtext of this film: Guy -- like many an abusive man -- had it coming.

While it's abundantly clear that the nineties Diabolique will never make a list of "100 best films of all time," it could very well make a list of "100 Best Remakes" of all time, especially given Hollywood's blazing pace for recycling old material. The re-made Diabolique might rightly land somewhere in the high-twenties or low-thirties of such a tally. It would certainly place well behind Invasion of the Body Snatchers or John Carpenter's The Thing, and yet light years ahead of Jan De Bont's The Haunting (1999), or the 2009 Friday the 13th. But at the very least, I can assert that this remake attempts to speak relevantly to American culture in the 1990s, rather than just blindly echoing the moves of a great, timeless film.
It's also enlightening to consider how each film ends. Clouzot's 1950s Les Diaboliques ends with legal justice, but moral tragedy. The 1990s Diabolique ends with an illegal murder, but a murder that is morally justified. Take your pick: which ending is "happier?" And what does each ending say about the society (and time period) that fashioned it?

Friday, September 18, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Mission to Mars (2000)

"If you talk to these astronauts, and we spent a lot of time with them - I mean, it's "the last frontier." And it's completely devoid of the hellish corruption that I represent in a lot of my movies. So it's a kind of beautiful thing, and a departure for me. It gets weary to be so cynical all the time. And this is one area where you don't find cynicism."

- Director Brian De Palma excavates the Romantic subtext of Mission to Mars (2000), (Brian De Palma: Interviews; Bill Fentum, University of Mississippi Press, 2002, page 170.)

Lost in the 2000 - 2001 shuffle of competing Hollywood Mars movies -- including titles such as Red Planet (2000) and John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (2001) -- Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars remains a genre film that many people don't seem to remember very clearly. Or with much admiration.

Film critics savaged it, finding it difficult to comprehend that firebrand Brian De Palma -- mastermind of the blazing Scarface (1983) and the subversive Blow Out (1981) -- was behind it. Why? Well the quotation excerpted at the top of this review provides some indication. Mission to Mars is a film entirely eschewing corruption, cynicism and other earthbound traits of human impropriety or misbehavior, thus making it entirely out-of-step with the kind of movies that have been popular since the "Dark Age" of genre entertainment commenced in the 1990s.

In short, Mission to Mars is a movie about the sky we reach for; not the mud on our feet that tethers us to Earth.

An Invitation? Mission to Mars and The Romantic Movement

De Palma cleverly revised and contextualized 1920s-era American history in The Untouchables (1987) so as to engage in heroic myth-making on a grand scale. This was a response to the fact that America was a young country in global terms, without the supporting bedrock myths of older, more established nations. Thus Eliot Ness became an updated cowboy, an avenging white knight bringing justice to the "wild west" of Chicago. Al Capone was similarly transformed from thug and crook into a corrupt tyrant on par with Mussolini.

With Mission to Mars, De Palma undertakes a similarly bold task. Specifically, the director here fashions a flat-out Romantic space adventure; one that -- in the accepted style of that genre -- emphasizes human feelings, imagination and intuition, and which culminates in an emotionally satisfying, uplifting and transcendental climax.

In broad terms, Mission to Mars involves brave, selfless, futuristic heroes on a romantic quest to tame Mars and cope with the final frontier. They discover at the end of that journey nothing less than the ultimate human knowledge. Sure, there be monsters here (a seemingly-sentient Martian tornado rears and coils its head like a mythical dragon...) but the monsters of the film are all technological in nature, not psychological.

A brief refresher: Romanticism is a movement in philosophy, art and literature that lasted roughly from the 1790s through the 1850s. A response to the Age of Enlightenment, Romanticism championed the human imagination and human intuition over the intellectual, or science-based (read: technological). Romantic works of art also frequently explored national and ethnic origins, favored spontaneity and curiosity as human qualities, recommended a solitary life away from rules and boundaries, and often featured some form of spiritual awakening. A caveat: that spiritual awakening was often anti-establishment in execution; evidencing a revulsion of religion, for example.

Mission to Mars fulfills virtually all of those criteria, thus accurately meriting the descriptor of "romantic." Let's take them one at a time. First, consider the very heroic, very noble astronauts in the film. After dutifully making mission plans and adhering to technical protocols, they adjust on the fly when confronted with disaster again and again. Ingenuity -- not reliance on tech -- is definitely the order of the day. Plain and simple: these guys (and gal) survive on their wits.

When a micro-meteorite (another technological "monster") breaches the hull of the astronauts' ship and they can't pinpoint the origin of a deadly air leak, astronaut Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise) has a brainstorm. Using a futuristic soda container, he sprays the liquid inside a zero-gravity chamber to "seek out" the location of the breach. Similarly, when the ship's engine explodes, mission commander Woody Blake (Tim Robbins) improvises, suggesting a dangerous unplanned EVA and rendezvous with another ship in Mars orbit.

And again, after his team is murdered by a Martian "security system" at the Face on Mars on the mesas of Cydonia, Mars 1 commander Luke Graham (Don Cheadle) spontaneously improvises his survival shelter, creating a delicate ecosystem and balance of life (in coordination with oxygen-providing plants). Even the ultimate solution of the alien puzzle -- which requires a signal be sent to the Face on Mars using human DNA -- is reached under the auspices of human intuition; by McConnell's sudden flash of inspiration. This insight is visualized by De Palma using the technique of the flashback (one involving candy/M & Ms, of all things). Going even further, McConnell reached this solution after consulting with Luke, a man who lived on Mars alone for almost a year, and thus fits the Romantic ideal of leading a "solitary life" away from society and its accepted boundaries.

Cumulatively, it's not that Mission to Mars is anti-science; it's that the astronauts primarily rely on their human instincts to weather the various storms they encounter. Technology is a useful tool and assistant in a pinch, but not dependable to solve a crisis. A (technological) radar sweep of the Face on Mars is what activates the alien security system and kills the Mars 1 crew in the first place. The computers on the ship fail at a critical point, and the engines are left damaged...undetected. When not guided by human, romantic qualities (ingenuity, instinct, spontaneity, inspiration), technology can be very deadly, the film reminds us.

I also noted above that Romantic works of art often involve "national" or "ethnic" origins, and Mission to Mars again fits the bill, with the slight variation that it is actually a "global" origin revealed here. The astronauts on Mars are grouped (by the Martian sentinel) as citizens of a planet; not merely an ethnic group, or people of a single country. The astronauts discover the Face on Mars, and when they travel inside the vast alien structure, learn that Martians seeded life on Earth. That, in the words of the film: "They're us. We're them." Humanity originated...on Mars. The journey to Mars has thus been a journey of self-discovery, not just a visit to another world. We learn, at long last, where we came from. Who we are.

And in this discovery, we find a specific rejection of traditional religious values. It was not God who created Man in his own image, as superstition would have it, but the ancient Martians. If "God" is responsible in other words, then "God" is surely an alien. Thus Mission to Mars entirely subtracts the divine from the human equation, and lauds the ingenuity and curiosity of mortal, ephemeral, natural beings.

At the conclusion of Mission to Mars, Jim (Sinise) undergoes the spiritual awakening we would expect from a film of Romantic quality. He experiences an extraordinary epiphany -- which we share, thanks to De Palma's clever use of the montage -- in which the characters looks back across the entire sweep and movement of his life. He sees that every instant, every choice, every decision has led him to this moment on Mars; this moment of awaking. Of awareness. He sees images of his dead wife (Kim Delaney); and remembers her instinctive, emotional belief that "the universe is not chaos; it's connection," that "life reaches out to life." This is the revelation that has led man to Mars; that once led the Martians to seed Earth; and which will lead -- in the transcendental finale -- to Jim's journey to another galaxy.

From start to finish, Mission to Mars fits the mold of Romantic literature and philosophy. Yet for many critics, the virtuous, unblemished adventure of Mission to Mars was apparently a bridge too far, and they greeted the non-cynical Mission to Mars with...cynicism.

Writing for The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell wrote of the astronaut lead characters: "The director, Brian De Palma, catches them in noble profile so often that you wonder when the commemorative coins are going to be issued."

The critic for The San Francisco Chronicle, after opening his review with a snarky joke about NASA's real-life Mars mission failure, goes on to write: "We're supposed to share the characters' awe at the wonder of the universe, but more likely the audience will wonder whatever were the filmmakers thinking."

Variety cut to the chase and simply called the film "highfalutin."

Reading these snippets, it's abundantly clear that these (and other) reviewers were unwilling to approach Mission to Mars with even the smallest sense of innocence or astonishment. Yet if they can't understand why astronauts are heroic and noble; if they can't feel some sense of wonder at a splendidly-visualized expedition to Mars and an emotional revelation about mankind's prehistoric origin, then something is missing in them; not in De Palma's movie.

How exactly has a Romantic mission of space exploration become something "highfalutin" and not an opportunity to feel...child-like? Did critics even try to meet the movie Mission to Mars on the terms it set out for itself? Or is innocence as extinct as the film's ancient Martians?

Judging by reactions, Mission to Mars remains out-of-step with the entertainment of the 2000s. It's the Romantic response to an age of cynicism, and technology dominating humanity. The film's dialogue, esprit-de-corps and emotionality -- all part and parcel of Romanticism -- were interpreted by cynics in the audience as being simply "corny," or "cheesy." We have forgotten, it seems, how to take a film at face value. When confronted with honesty and sincerity in our entertainment, we recoil and try to act superior to it. We mock it, instead of legitimately countenancing and feeling it. I submit this is what happened with Mission to Mars.

Hello Beautiful: Some Couples Dance. Some Couples Go To Mars

No discussion of a De Palma film is really ever complete without a mention of the set-pieces the director so ably stages. In Mission to Mars, he creates another dazzling one: the EVA from the destroyed spaceship and the tragic attempt to rendezvous with the REMO, a re-supply module.

Here, four astronauts -- with nothing to hold onto but each other (another canny visualize of the film's Romantic motifs...) -- traverse the emptiness of space and attempt not merely to survive; but to rescue their friend on the surface (Luke) below. Woody Blake makes a heroic but dangerous maneuver to save his wife and his comrades. He manages to attach a tether to the REMO, but then overshoots the ship himself...and begins a long slow drift into the atmosphere of Mars...where he will burn up. Space affords no second chances.

The special effects are rendered with great beauty, accuracy and precision in this sequence, and they reflect the perspective of a director who understands what good framing can mean. For an uncomfortably long period, man and wife stare at each other across a relatively small and yet entirely un-traversable gap; on opposite sides of the composition. They are lost to one another, able to communicate and see...but not able to touch. It's...agonizing. When it becomes plain to Blake that his wife, Terri (Connie Nielson) is going to die attempting to save him, he commits the ultimate act of chivalry (another Romantic quality?) He removes his helmet, thus killing himself and stopping any doomed-to-failure rescue attempts. In his final gesture, however, there is no terror, no fear. Only acceptance.

Throughout this scene, De Palma's unsettled, dizzying camera captures all this orbital action with a sort of vertigo-inducing intensity. It's a very convincing depiction of man in space, and more to the point, terrifying...even to passive spectators. The scene successfully posits the idea of humans as small, adrift creatures in the vast cosmos; which is just the right touch for a second act crisis; before man's place in the universe is discovered and affirmed in the third act.

Some of the earlier characters scenes between Terri and Woody even forecast this sad end. There's a "dance" sequence in zero gravity on the spaceship early in the film, and it establishes their sense of human "connection," before space tears ultimately the couple apart. A number of critics complained about the tenor of these character-building, romantic scenes, but remember, this is supposed to be a film without cynicism. De Palma does portray the astronauts in operatic, noble terms, black-and-white...because that's how the heroes of a Romantic drama should be portrayed. The director is just adhering to the form, but again, it was mistaken as "cheesy" or "sappy" or "syrupy."

Mission to Mars
also shows-off some typical De Palma flourishes. In the "camera lies 24 times a seconds" category, he starts the movie with a wicked, tricky opening shot. It's a view of wide-open, magnificent sky as a single rocket ascends to the Heavens...only to burst open and rain confetti down on a backyard barbecue in Texas. Yep, it's just a toy...

Later, the camera tricks us again, showing us the imposing mesa on Mars and leading us to believe it might be the source of water. In fact, it is the Face on Mars -- an alien structure -- buried under rock and dust. One discovery has been mistaken for another. The crew has acted on hubris and made a mistake. They assumed they were the only intelligent life on the planet.

The critical viewer may also pick-up on the fact that Mission to Mars -- perhaps more than any other De Palma film, relies on the first-person subjective point of view at critical points in the narrative, especially during the last act. This occurs so that De Palma can reel us -- the audience -- into the spiritual climax. His P.O.V. shots, which position the camera amongst the astronauts, remind us that we too are team members sharing this transcendental adventure. We are part of the journey.

If Mission to Mars has any real failing, it is a failing in special effects technology. The spacecraft action and the landscapes on Mars remain positively stunning, but the depiction of the Martian Being in the film's denouement leaves something to be desired. (And that single tear may be gilding the lily, even for a film of the Romantic school). The alien appearance does not hold up particularly well in 2009, alas. I watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind on Blu-ray last week (review to come soon...!) and the live-action animatronic aliens featured in that Spielberg film -- produced over 30 years ago -- hold up far better than the CGI E.T. in Mission to Mars, created just eight years ago. This is very much a case in which a director is undercut by the vicissitudes (and advancements) of technology.

Mission to Mars
features a number of De-Palma trade-mark tributes (to Kubrick, to Cameron, to Spielberg, to Clarke, even to Byron Haskin), but in some critical, entirely beneficial way, this is one of De Palma's most direct, simple efforts. The meta-textual stuff is simply not that important here; and it plays second fiddle to the film's Romantic depiction of astronauts and the space pioneer milieu.

In Mission to Mars, De Palma created an inspiring film about the breadth of human imagination and ingenuity. It's also a film about how -- as a culture -- we have seemingly lost the will and capacity to do the hard work of reaching for the stars. How, as a people, we have stopped dreaming about the next horizon (a fault not shared by the film's Woody, who wears a necklace of a "Flash Gordon" spaceship around his neck as a reminder of the fantasies that guide him). We'd rather see a film about brooding heroes vetting black-hearted vengeance against despicable terrorists than one that imagines that the sky really is the limit.

And the critical reaction to the film only serves to prove De Palma's point. He might as well have been speaking Klingon. No one really wanted to look at the mode he was operating in here, or why it matters so much to an understanding (and appreciation) of Mission to Mars.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Best Year Ever!

Well, it's happened. According to my stats page, in 2009 Reflections on Film and Television has already surpassed the total number of readers for the year 2008! And with three-and-a-half-months still to go.

Every year since I began it in April of 2005, this site has shown solid growth, but not quite on this scale...and I owe it all to you folks, the readers.

And the icing on the cake: an educational blog "hub" (concerning online degrees...) today also tagged Reflections on Film and Television as one of the "Top 100 Film Studies Blogs," alongside such greats as Reverse Shot, and Senses of Cinema.

You like me! You really like me!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

New Film Books From McFarland

Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek

Studying the Star Trek myth from the original 1960s series to the 2009 franchise-reboot film, this book challenges frequent accusations that the Star Trek saga refuses to represent queer sexuality. Arguing that Star Trek speaks to queer audiences through subtle yet provocative allegorical narratives, the analysis pays close attention to representations of gender, race, and sexuality to develop an understanding of the franchise’s queer sensibility. Topics include the 1960s original’s deconstruction of the male gaze and the traditional assumptions of male visual mastery; constructions of femininity in Star Trek: Voyager, particularly in the relationship between Captain Janeway and Seven of Nine; and the ways in which Star Trek: Enterprise’s adoption of neoconservative politics may have led to its commercial and aesthetic failure.

The Films of Audie Murphy

This work not only traces Audie Murphy’s life as a film actor (from Beyond Glory, 1948, to A Time for Dying, 1971) but also provides a biography that runs from his birth to his three years in the army, winning every possible combat medal including the Congressional Medal of Honor—and from his Hollywood debut at James Cagney’s invitation to his final dramatic decline, gambling his fortunes away, becoming involved in violent episodes, and dying in a plane crash in 1971.

Each of the 49 film entries gives full credits, including casts, characters, crew, date of release, location, and cost, backgrounds for directors and main players, and comments and anecdotes from interviews with Murphy’s colleagues. Critical reviews are quoted and the work is richly illustrated with film stills and private photographs.

Since his rise to fame in the television series 21 Jump Street in 1987 and his subsequent transition to film acting, Johnny Depp has received constant criticism for his choice of roles—at least until his popular turn in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. This book aims to reveal the ways in which Depp’s choices of film roles, though often considered eccentric, allowed him to develop into the representative film actor of his time. It organizes all of Depp’s films chronologically, narrating in the process his transition from underestimated teenage pretty boy to bona fide Hollywood hotshot. Along the way, the book addresses Depp’s relationship to earlier film actors, especially to Marlon Brando and the silent comics; the influence of Depp’s androgynous sexuality on both his choice of roles and his acting; and his relationships with directors Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton.

Cyborgs, Sant
a Claus and Satan

In the three decades since the first SF film produced for television—1968’s Shadow on the Land—nearly 600 films initially released to television have had science fiction, fantasy, or horror themes. Featuring superheroes, monsters, time travel, and magic, these films range from the phenomenal to the forgettable, from low-budget to blockbuster.

Information on all such American releases from 1968 through 1998 is collected here. Each entry includes cast and credits, a plot synopsis, qualitative commentary, and notes of interest on aspects of the film. Appendices provide a list of other films that include some science fiction, horror, or fantasy elements; a film chronology; and a guide to alternate titles.

Monday, September 14, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK #91: At The Movies (1982 - 1986)

Today, I review the reviewers.

The subject of this ninety-first cult-tv flashback is At The Movies: the syndicated 1980s-era film review program that introduced many TV viewers to the late Gene Siskel, critic for The Chicago Tribune, and Roger Ebert, film critic of The Chicago Sun-Times.

In the New York area, At The Movies was broadcast on WPIX, channel 11, and usually aired around 7:00 pm on Saturdays...right before I often headed out with friends to catch a new release. And the recommendations of these TV critics always carried considerable weight in my film selection process.

Siskel and Ebert had already hosted the PBS predecessor, Sneak Previews, prior to this Tribune-sponsored variation on the format. And in 1986, the duo moved on again, this time to Disney. Two inferior critics, Rex Reed and Bill Harris, manned their stations on At The Movies and the show drifted into silliness and pop-culture irrelevancy before merciful cancellation.

The format of At the Movies was simple. After a cheeky opening sequence which found Ebert and Siskel sneaking into the balcony of a movie theater, a short clip of a new movie played on the big silver screen before them (and positioned between them in the frame). Then, following the preview, we'd switch to the reverse angle -- facing the balcony -- as Siskel and Ebert introduced each other. I always felt that last bit of business was a nice, gracious (and original) touch in what was clearly a competitive partnership. To their credit, Ebert and Siskel never choked on each other's names or credentials...

Then, in the course of a fast-talking, high-spirited, ceaselessly-amusing half-hour, the two critics reviewed four new releases, assessing them, finally, with a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down."

The series occasionally featured a fun segment with "Aroma the Skunk," the show's mascot (a critter who always sat next to Ebert, for some reason...). This led into a spirited discussion of "The Stinker of the Week."

Sometimes, the critics even turned their gaze to new "home video" releases, and I recall one installment of At The Movies in which the duo discussed the 20th anniversary release of "The Cage," the original Star Trek pilot starring Jeffrey Hunter.

Other movie critics -- not to mention several textbooks on film criticism -- have been notably rough on Siskel and Ebert over the years. An Introduction to Film Criticism (Longman Inc., 1989) dismissed the duo as a "Laurel and Hardy imitation" and noted that their reviews were "as shallow as the average review in a daily newspaper; simply the unsupported opinions of the reviewers," (pages 17-18).

With respect to the authors of this book -- an otherwise outstanding study of critical approaches to narrative film -- I disagree. While it is true that Siskel and Ebert on At The Movies reduced film criticism to a simple (but useful) binary decision of thumbs up/thumbs down, it's also critical to make note of the medium in which they toiled. In fact, their program devoted more time to discussing film as an art form than any other weekly program in television history. Of course, the drawback of the TV format is time, and that should also be acknowledged in film books too. In the freewheeling blog format here, for instance, I can write about a movie until I'm blue in the face, but that's simply not the case in television. In a half-hour span, how many films can be debated in depth, especially once you throw in commercials, plus several clips of each film described?

To ameliorate this concern, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert talked fast, working in as much detail and analysis as was humanly possible. And they often devoted entire half-hours to a single relevant subject, so they could go into deeper detail. I remember an episode on the Star Wars trilogy (following the premiere of Return of the Jedi), another on the films of Woody Allen, and a third about the durability of the James Bond franchise. I remember that the critics also devoted one episode to sequels ("The Stinkers of 1983") and another one to reporting on screen violence. Again, there was simply nowhere else on TV you could go to find this in-depth perspective on modern film.

I would also argue that Siskel and Ebert, on At the Movies, traveled well beyond the basics, and well beyond simple "unsupported opinions." In their review of Gremlins (1984), they got down to the satirical aspects of Joe Dante's initiative, and even the palette of the film, which lampooned Norman Rockwell's vision of America. In their review of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) they noted -- before just about anyone else did, I think -- Spielberg's drift towards on-the-nose sentimentality. Their review of Ghostbusters (1984) brought up relevant comparisons between Bill Murray and Groucho Marx. And in that review of "The Cage" that I mentioned above, they were able to contextualize the episode's narrative (about the dangerous, numbing nature of illusion as "narcotic") to the mid-1960s drug culture.

I was in the sixth grade when I first started watching At the Movies, and I had never, ever, seen anybody, anywhere discuss films with this degree of specificity; in these contextual and historical terms. Within the obvious constraints of TV programming, Siskel and Ebert thus managed to provide a kind of weekly history lesson in cinema. They brought up films I had never heard of, and films I would never have sought out without their guidance. I watched a few old clips of the series again on You Tube this week -- after not seeing At the Movies in years -- and once more, I found myself sucked in by the passion and charm of these guys. Even today, their motormouth reviews are packed with interesting insights.

When I began watching At The Movies, I preferred Gene Siskel to Roger Ebert. He was so acerbic, and had this funny manner of rearing his head back -- almost like a lion -- and then leaning forward when he was about to score a point. He seemed a bit more camera-savvy than his sparring partner, and could really land the zingers.

But then I began reading Roger Ebert's movie yearbooks in 1987 (and purchased every new edition of the book through 1996...) and found that my tastes more closely aligned with his. Roger Ebert also seemed much more fair-minded, I soon realized. He often recognized and acknowledged the artistry of a film, even he didn't necessarily approve of the subject matter on personal terms (he championed Wes Craven's Last House on the Left, for instance.) I also began to grow more frustrated with Siskel over the years because I felt that his personal biases sometimes prevented him from recognizing a good film. He gave a "thumbs down" to James Cameron's Aliens (1986) because the film put a child, Newt, in harms way. I never felt that was a valid criticism, even as a kid. As I like to say, how would Gene Siskel have judged the movie had the aliens -- vicious, slobbering beasts -- treated the child with kid gloves? Of course, that would have been silly and unrealistic, and a good critic like Siskel would have noted that terrible lapse in tone and realism. Yet the critic had put Aliens in a box from which the film could not escape; from which it could not achieve a good review. No doubt I've done the same during my writing career, but I do try hard to remember this example.

Ultimately, I came away from At the Movies preferring Ebert. I always liked how -- when the camera turned to him -- he would absently straighten out his cardigan and then almost imperceptibly glide forward in his chair, towards the a wise philosopher sharing wisdom with his best student in the spirit of knowledge, not arrogance or superiority. To this day, I make Ebert's blog a regular stop. He's the only film critic ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, and just recently he was judged America's most trusted pundit. Still, it's a crying shame there's no "Collected Criticism of Gene Siskel" available in print ten years after the man's death. Ultimately, it was the discovery of Ebert on the book store shelves that drew to me to his manner of thinking; to his reasonable tone, fair-mindedness and consistent standards. But Siskel remains an important enough figure in the annals of film criticism that someone ought to assemble a collection of his reviews in print, and contextualize his work.

As I noted above, At the Movies went on sans Siskel and Ebert, but without these guys at the helm it was almost a self-parody, just two critics bitching over movies they didn't like, with no clear understanding of the standards applied. I watched the new crew a few times and found the enterprise...embarrassing.

I attended the University of Richmond in 1988, and watching television wasn't really an option or concern for me at that point, so I didn't keep up with the new Siskel and Ebert series very closely. Then I got married, and moved into my own writing career, and only occasionally saw Siskel and Ebert's show again in the later 1990s. However, I was very upset to learn that Gene Siskel had passed away in 1999, and tuned back in a few times to watch the new sparring partner, Richard Roeper. I had no problems with Roeper as a film critic or on-screen personality, but felt that the magic was gone; that nobody really challenged Ebert the way Siskel did. Siskel made Ebert better; and Ebert made Siskel better. Perhaps it was the spirit of competition, perhaps it was friendship, perhaps it was just chemistry...but their partnership worked. It worked so well, in fact, that filmmakers have gone out of their way to acknowledge (or attack) the duo. The 1987 film Willow featured a two-headed dragon named Sissbert, for instance. And the dreadful Godzilla of 1998 featured a New York Mayor Ebert and his assistant, Gene. And who can forget, Carpenter's They Live (1988), which revealed Siskel and Ebert to be insidious alien invaders?!

At the Movies, more so than Sneak Previews or the 1990s version of the series also reminds me of a special and cherished time in my own life. The movies reviewed on the program in those years are ones that I recall with nostalgia and affection, whether they were actually that great or not. Ghostbusters (1984), Aliens (1986), Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), Fright Night (1985), The Right Stuff (1983), The Last Starfighter (1984), Gremlins (1984), Dune (1984), Starman (1984), Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), and so on. This was the period of dueling James Bonds (Octopussy vs. Never Say Never Again in 1983), Woody Allen on blazing ascent as a serious filmmaker (Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days), and more. So for me, this cult tv flashback isn't just about remembering the good times watching Siskel and Ebert on At The Movies, it's about the movies that informed by teenage years.

You can view some clips from At The Movies -- and Siskel and Ebert at their talkative best -- below. If you watch closely, you may find yourself perched on the edge of your seat, opening your mouth to add a comment, chuckling a little bit, and nodding your head in agreement. Even if you don't agree with the reviews, the most important and lasting gift of At The Movies is that it fostered a passion for film in the TV generation; my generation. Approve of what Siskel and Ebert had to say or disagree vehemently with their conclusions, you can't deny their passion or their energy. They were good critics, and they gave us great television.

So until next time, we'll see you...At The Movies.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Attention All Sections Alpha: Happy Breakaway Day, Ten Years Later!

September 13, 1999 -- the day the moon blasted out of Earth's orbit, with all 311 inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha in tow. Remember that?

Today: September 13, 2009. And I'm still waiting for the next episode...

Actually, I've always considered Space: 1999 a good luck charm. My first book, Exploring Space: 1999 launched my book-writing career in 1997, and is still selling strong, a whopping 12 years later. My first novel was a licensed Space: 1999 novel, The Forsaken (2003). Even my first periodical sales -- to Rerun, Cinescape and Filmfax, respectively -- all involved, you guessed it: Space:1999. And through Space:1999, I also met the late, great Johnny Byrne, and interviewed Martin Landau, Brian Johnson, Kevin Connor and Catherine Schell, A Space:1999 convention on September 13, 1999, in Los Angeles even introduced me to my dear friend, Mateo Latosa, who became composer on my web-series, The House Between.

So pull your bell-bottoms out of mothballs and celebrate Breakaway Day! Look up at that night sky and...just pretend the moon isn't still around. Now if I could just wrangle command of an eagle.