Friday, March 05, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Collapse (2009)

Forget Orphan, Pandorum or Zombieland, the Chris Smith documentary Collapse is one scary-as-hell movie. Basically, it's a talking-head documentary about the end of the modern world. And it features one riveting speaker at center stage: a man named Michael Ruppert.

Some critics and journalists uncharitably term Ruppert a conspiracy theorist and others have labeled him an alarmist. Yet there's one thing you absolutely can't dispute after watching this film. The man is absolutely spell-binding; electric.

When Ruppert expresses himself, he does so with such great confidence, such incredible intelligence, you virtually hang on every syllable. He's profound and he's compelling, but, of course, what we really want to know is this: is he also right? Is he predicting the shape of things to come?

Over an 82-minute span, this former Los Angeles Police officer and self-described "cartographer" -- who maps how the world really works, not the way we think it works -- describes in excruciating detail why the end is nigh not just for America, but for the entire industrialized world.

For human civilization itself.

The lynch-pin, of course, is Peak Oil. Oil is the very commodity that allows for the production of plastic, that enables modern farming, that helps us build electric plants and nuclear reactors, and more. Take oil out of the human equation, and suddenly everything from the food distribution chain to commuting to your day-job is right out the window. Goodbye Wal-Mart. So long, Target.

What's worse, according to Ruppert, is that the world has no realistic Plan B. There's no back-up paradigm to keep society solvent, secure and productive once oil runs out. Ruppert also alleges that the CIA has known about Peak Oil since the 1970s, and that Dick Cheney's secret energy task force in 2001 concerned this very topic; how to secure the oil fields of Iraq in what is, essentially, a resource war end-game.

In riveting fashion, Ruppert escorts the audience right through every detail of the Peak Oil scenario, explaining why A.N.W.R. drilling, Arctic Drilling and even new Iraq pipelines are -- at absolute best -- momentary solutions to the crisis. Furthermore, Ruppert dismisses Ethanol, electric cars and other "alternatives" with withering but indisputable logic. Without oil, you can't make tires, he reminds us, so what the hell are electric cars going to ride on? Finally, Ruppert does hold out some sliver of hope for solar and wind power.

Late in Collapse, Ruppert mentions Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief, and notes that the modern world is now firmly ensconced in the stage between denial and anger. And that more anger is on its way, as more of us realize a paradigm of "infinite growth" is contrary to the very laws of physics.

To boil down "infinite growth," what Ruppert is saying here is that our economy isn't going to get better...not so long as money and oil are finite commodities. What he's saying is that we're in for more wars to control the last drops of oil. What he's saying is that our way of life is unsustainable.

And if you watch Collapse, you'll see a man who is absolutely anguished over what he believes. Ruppert's beliefs have made him Public Enemy Number #1 to many in rigid ideological circles (think Cheney), a pariah to others, and just a nutcase to the masses. Given this, Ruppert seems to have made no recent emotional attachments to other human beings, though he loves his dog, taking long walks on the beach, and rock'n'roll music.

Collapse concerns global apocalypse, but in some meta-fashion, it's actually about Michael Ruppert's personal apocalypse. What he knows -- or what he thinks he knows -- keeps him isolated, alienated and marginalized. And he will absolutely not compromise his beliefs. No matter what. He likens himself to a German citizen in Hitler's Third Reich; one who could see, ultimately, Hitler's destination and the pain and trauma it would cause the world. If Ruppert were living in that time and place, he would never put down his beliefs and go along with Group Happy Think. And he feels the same way today: he's not about to stop conveying his message of collapse when there's the chance -- even a slim chance -- that he will be heard by someone who can come along and change things.

"We're trapped by old ideas," Ruppert states at one point (and I may be paraphrasing a little). He insists we need a President like Thomas Jefferson who will spark a revolution. Not a violent, physical, bloody revolution but one of fresh ideas, of new thoughts. We need to tear down the conceits we have blindly accepted for decades and start again, he says, with the concepts of balance and sustainability replacing dead ideologies like socialism, communism and -- yes -- capitalism. As Ruppert points out, all of those systems of belief are predicated on the idea of infinite growth.

Throughout Collapse, Michael Ruppert makes his case in a compelling manner, and one bordering on arrogance. When questioned repeatedly about "human ingenuity," he never really answers. Isn't it possible to *think* our way out of this brewing crisis? He doesn't seem to think so, but the movie suggests that Ruppert is as trapped in his old ideas as are the people he so vociferously criticizes. He has -- for good reason, no doubt -- lost hope. He sees only a coming "suicide" of the human race on the horizon.

I agree with Ruppert on the facts (about Peak Oil, about the love of money being the root of all evil, and on the need for a new renaissance in human thought), yet throughout the film I couldn't completely buy into his doomsday interpretations.

Here's why: human beings remain adaptable and inventive. Oil has brought us great riches in the last 120 years, but it wasn't "oil" that imagined X-Rays, CAT scans or MRIs. It wasn't oil that mapped the human genome in less than twenty years. It wasn't oil that conceived the cure for Polio, or invented the Internet. Resources are limited here on Earth, it's true, but the human mind's capacity to grow, evolve and seek new knowledge is infinite. There are probably a million minds in America today working on the problem of Peak Oil, and also considering realistic energy alternatives.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the great sweep of human history has always been towards improving the human condition. I don't believe we're going to sacrifice everything we hold dear because oil runs out. We will transition (a term Ruppert also uses) -- and there will be some tough times -- but I believe we will endure, and ultimately prosper. That's why my favorite part of Collapse involves Ruppert's stirring lecture on two countries that have been forced to transition: North Korea and Cuba. In North Korea, Ruppert tells us, there was starvation and death after the collapse of the Soviet Union, primarily because it was a top-down, centralized country. In Cuba by contrast, the government liberated and encouraged the people, telling them to take local ownership of their own survival and food-growing facilities. That's actually what happened, with a sort of mini-boom of organic gardening taking hold across the nation.

So yes, ninety-nine percent of all life forms that have ever evolved on Earth have suffered extinction.

But again, alone among these life-forms, man boasts the capacity to re-build the world to his liking; and even seek resources beyond the limits of the Earth. Our understanding of our universe is growing at a rapid pace; perhaps even a rapid enough pace to out-march dangers like over-population and Peak Oil.

Ruppert would no doubt call me a Pollyanna (or at the very least ask me what energy source will power our rockets when oil runs out...) but, as Collapse makes plain, for this man the sky has already fallen. The film neither endorses nor rejects Ruppert's view of things, but instead paints a picture of a man who could be a modern Cassandra...or who may have trapped himself in a purgatory of his own depressing construction.

As citizens of planet Earth, we should deal with cold, hard facts -- yes. But we should also realize that no single doomsday outcome is pre-ordained. To quote a famous science fiction franchise, there's no fate but what we make. And even though we're silly, argumentative creatures, we've accomplished amazing things during our ascent. We've touched the stars.

A thousand years ago, there are many people who would have said such an accomplishment was against the laws of physics too. But we did it, and we're still here. How did we do it? Creativity, imagination, team-work, a sense of belief in ourselves, in our community. Michael Ruppert understands these elements are important, but he is so alone in his own life, it appears, that perhaps he doesn't give these variables the weight they deserve when calculating catastrophe.

See this movie and decide for yourself.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Trick Was to Stay Alive: My Road Trip to Michael Myers Mecca

Yesterday I took a two-hour-and-a-half-hour pilgrimage up I-85 North to Hillsborough, North Carolina, the home of "The Myers House, NC." The house is an authentic replica (down to the last detail) of the original Myers Place seen in Halloween (1978). It's so accurate, it's eerie. You drive up an unpaved road, through a forest, and out into this open area. And there, surrounded by woods, is The Myers Place.

My journey wasn't all for curiosity's sake and fun (though it was undeniably fun): I was joining -up with a film crew from A & E there; one preparing a program about John Carpenter's seminal slasher flick. The special, Halloween: The Inside Story is due to air in October, and I was interviewed for about 90 minutes by a delightful and well-prepared crew.

I was also introduced to Kenny Caperton (pictured next to the Michael Myers mask in the fourth picture down), the owner and proprietor of "The Myers House, NC." He's a great guy, and is a rabid collector of all this incredible Halloween memorabilia, including the British one-sheet poster pictured at the top of this post. He also owns a Michael Myers mask autographed by Dick Warlock, George Wilbur and the other actors who have played "The Shape" in the movies.

Recently, Kenny shot his own 25-minute Halloween-related tribute movie, "Judith," inside the house. I gave him a copy of my book, The Films of John Carpenter, and he gave me the grand tour of Michael's digs. I have to admit, the first time I saw The Shape's face glaring out from the foyer...I was taken aback. Jeez! Kenny quickly informed me they only put out the Shatner Mask for visitors...

It was quite a day, and quite an adventure -- especially for a writer who doesn't get out of the house much -- and here's the link to The Myers House, NC. Check it out! I'll also be writing more about Halloween: The Inside Story as the broadcast date nears.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK #103: The Others (2000)

In the year 2000, veteran genre writers Glen Morgan and James Wong joined the staff of the Jon Brancato/Michael Ferris-created supernatural TV production, The Others.

The short-lived dramatic series concerned the frightening adventures of a sort of psychic "A-Team" investigating creepy cases of demons, ghosts and other denizens of the spirit world (much in the spirit of Poltergeist: The Legacy [1996-1999], but not nearly as cheesy).

The Others lasted for a dozen episodes on NBC (airing on Saturday nights from 10:00 to 11:00 pm EST) before a hasty cancellation brought the investigations to an end.

Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks executive-produced the genre program, and during its brief run, The Others saw episodes helmed by prominent horror directors such as Tobe Hooper, Bill Condon, Tom McLoughlin, and Mick Garris.
Also on board was one of my all-time favorite genre TV directors: Thomas J. Wright, who over the years has guided great episodes of Beauty and the Beast, Nowhere Man, Dark Skies, The X-Files, Millennium, Freaky Links, Dark Angel, Tru Calling, Angel and Firefly.

In terms of format, The Others revolved around a troubled college student named Marianne Kitt (played by Julianne Nicholson), and her decision to join a misfit group of psychically-inclined investigators (the titular "Others.") Kitt came to this decision after a case (in the pilot episode) involving her haunted dorm room, visions of the dead, and a realization about her own psychic capabilities.

On The Others, Melissa Crider played Satori, a New Age "sensitive." Gabriel Macht was Mark, a handsome young empath with medical training, Bill Cobb played the group's spiritual leader, the respected medium Elmer Greentree, and a pre-Enterprise John Billingsley was a professor in folklore and mythology, Miles Ballard. John Aylward was also aboard as the cranky blind-man and expert in ESP, Albert. Finally, Lord of Illusion's Kevin J. O'Connor portrayed Warren, the sort of "Mad Dog Murdoch" of this psychic bunch. The series approached the supernatural subject matter with seriousness, but -- as is the case in all Morgan and Wong efforts -- there was also a sly sense of humor in evidence.

One of the finest (and most harrowing) episodes of The Others was titled "Souls on Board," which aired February 26, 2000 and was directed by Texas Chainsaw Massacre auteur, Tobe Hooper. Penned by Daniel Arkin, the story at first glance involves a cliche common to genre TV: the imperiled plane, and in-flight crisis. You've seen it before, perhaps, on The Twilight Zone ("Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"), The Sixth Sense ("Coffin, Coffin in the Sky"), Freddy's Nightmares ("Cabin Fever"), The X-Files ("Tempus Fugit") and The Burning Zone ("Night Flight"). Yet despite the familiarity to other horror shows, "Souls on Board" proves a tense, atmospheric and claustrophobic hour.

For director Hooper, "Souls on Board" represents a return to Poltergeist (1982) territory, as it involves the idea of restless spirits aboard Spartan Air Flight 602. It turns out -- our investigators learn -- that the plane was recently re-fitted with salvaged parts from a crashed plane, Flight 390, and the new airline may be haunted by the (dead) crew of Flight 390.

Like many episodes of The Others, "Souls on Board" is beautifully shot. It feature a slight blue-gray tint that makes everything in the mechanical world of the airliner interior seem cold, inhuman. A shiver-provoking prologue spotlights a black box that hauntingly broadcasts the moaning cries of anguished spirits. And a scene involving Elmer's flying phobia captures well the common fear of flying (which yes, I share...) In one thoroughly frightening moment, Hooper's camera captures the image of an ivory-white, open-palmed hand banging on the exterior of a plane window. The white- against-black night-time imagery is startling and highly unsettling.

Other episodes of The Others are just as macabre and creepy. Space: Above and Beyond's Kristen Cloke portrays a gorgeous demon in one episode, and the show's final installment is a real shock to the system. Without giving away the end of The Others, let's just say it shares much in common with Blake's 7's final episode. If you did happen to catch this climactic episode, let's just you probably never forgot it...

The Others aired during the reign of The X-Files, and so could easily be dismissed as another exploitative knock-off or rip-off (like Sleepwalkers, The Burning Zone, Fringe, etc.), but the talent involved here raises the bar, I think. And as I recall from my initial viewing (admittedly ten long years ago...), The Others was downright chilling at times.

As of yet, there's been no official DVD release of The Others, but dedicated fans of genre TV would surely welcome it.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Cult-TV Faces of: Darren McGavin

Darren McGavin was one of cult television's greatest "monster hunters." He not only hunted monsters, on at least a few occasions he played monsters himself. How many of McGavin's cult TV faces do you recognizes? Series and episode titles?

Monday, March 01, 2010

Richard B. Riddick: Escaped convict, Murderer and John Carpenter Anti-Hero

"All you people are so scared of me. Most days I'd take that as a compliment. But it ain't me you gotta worry about now..."

-Carpenter-esque anti-hero Riddick (Vin Diesel) assesses the situation in Pitch Black

In my previous post, I described writer/director David Twohy's Pitch Black (2000) as "the best John Carpenter movie not actually directed by John Carpenter." In terms of explanation, this comparison all comes down to the vital character of Richard Riddick (Vin Diesel), and the way that Pitch Black's anti-social hero interfaces with his distinctly imperfect universe.

Specifically, Riddick relates to his world and views his surroundings (and fellow humans) in a manner remarkably similar to the Carpenter anti-hero prototype depicted in the auteur's filmed works from Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) to Escape from New York (1981) to Ghosts of Mars (2001).

Given this postulate, I propose six essential qualities of the Carpenter-esque hero and his world. After noting pertinent examples in Carpenter's cinematic canon, I will describe how Riddick -- at least in Pitch Black -- also fits the bill.

1.) The Carpenter Anti-Hero is a man whose reputation precedes him. He's also a Bad MF.

In Carpenter's oeuvre, the anti-hero is often a notorious man known because of his (usually criminal...) exploits. His deeds have separated him from most of humanity; and the masses gaze at him with a combination of fear, awe, and curiosity.

Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) in Assault on Precinct 13 is a subject of intense curiosity to members of the establishment class, including his jailer, Starker (Charles Cyphers): "You're not a psychopath. You're not stupid," he says "why did you kill all those people?" This question allows us to understand that Wilson is not simply a run-of-the-mill thug, an indiscriminate killer. There was something...else going on when he committed his crimes.

In Escape from New York, Snake Plissken is greeted at virtually ever destination with the same comment; one that establishes his history and mythic stature: "I thought you were dead." In Escape from L.A. (1996), a satiric take on the character, this comment is changed to "I thought you'd be taller." The point, in both circumstances, is that before meeting the anti-hero for themselves, people already boast a pre-conceived, larger-than-life notion of him and his actions.

The anti-hero may be a law-breaker, but he's no ordinary law-breaker. He's much more than that. In Pitch Black, Riddick is described by Jack (Rhiana Griffith) in similar fashion, as an accomplished murderer, a total BMF: "He'd probably get you here, right here, under the chin, and you'd never even hear him. That's how good Riddick is!," he establishes. Earlier, Riddick's captor, Johns (Cole Hauser), notes that Riddick is dangerous "only around humans." And that if Riddick finds you in your sleep, he could well "skull-fuck you." Again, this is myth-making pure-and-simple; a creation of the character as something out of the realm of the ordinary.

Why build-up a character, a criminal, like this? Well, when the moment of dying comes, these various films require a protagonist of extraordinary skill and efficiency; one the audience can have utter confidence in. And, Carpenter is eternally in the anti-establishment camp, so traditional heroes, like policeman, aren't going to do the job. Carpenter's anti-heroes universally-combat members of the establishment too, including Hauk, Malloy, Starker, etc. Riddick has this kind of establishment nemesis as well: the drug-addicted Johns.

2.) The Carpenter Anti-Hero is a Man of Unique and Distinctive Vision. Literally.

The Carpenter anti-hero is universally a maverick "born out of time," to quote Wilson, a man who views the world quite differently than the forces of authority who dominate it.

Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) sees the United States as corrupt and bereft of freedom in both Escape films. John Nada (Roddy Piper) discovers the alien conspiracy behind humanity's existence (and the Republican agenda...) in They Live (1988).

In Pitch Black, Riddick is also a character who shuns authority, and exists only around the periphery of it.

More trenchantly, the "vision" of these characters is all hampered (or perhaps augmented?) in a fashion that visually separates them from the other dramatis personae in the films. Snake wears an eye-patch. John Nada adorns a pair of sunglasses (which he wears throughout the film), so that he can see reality as it is; the very opposite of rose-colored glasses.

Riddick is no different. His eyes have been surgically altered. "When you get sent to a slam, where they tell you you'll never see daylight again, you dig up a doctor, and you pay him 20 menthol Kools to do a surgical shine job on your eyeballs," he tells Jack. This means Riddick can see in the dark (and also see who is sneaking up on him.) Like Snake and Nada, Riddick's vision is literally a quality that separates him from others. The idea that he "sees" differently is critical to an understanding of the anti-establishment character, and we have that in Snake, Nada and Riddick.

3.) The Carpenter Anti-Hero establishes kinship with a woman with perceived comparable qualities.

A long-time admirer of Western director Howard Hawks, John Carpenter often populates his films with the so-called Hawksian woman. Authors Tim Bywater and Thomas Sobchack describe a Hawks woman in this fashion (Introduction to Film Criticism, Longman, 1989, page 72):

"She has a sense of identity beyond her alliances (with high society), and she is committed only to those personal ties she wishes to acknowledge."

Think of Feathers (Angie Dickinson) in Rio Bravo (1959), or Leigh (named after Leigh Brackett) in Assault on Precinct 13. In the case of the latter, Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) is able to cross societal barriers to accept Napoleon Wilson -- a criminal -- as a trusted ally and even a man of honor. In Ghosts of Mars, Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) is able to put aside her role as hard-boiled cop to team up with the notorious criminal Desolation Williams (Ice Cube). They come to realize that they are, in essence, two-of-a-kind.

In Pitch Black, Riddick similarly detects something kindred in pilot Caroline Fry (Radha Mitchell): they're both survivors; they both understand their situation, as well as the sacrifices that will have to made. Only in Caroline's case, after nearly making a decision that would kill her wards during the crash, she willfully steps back from the moral precipice. She refuses to accept her own survival as the bottom line and actively seeks to save the other people stranded on this pitch black planet of the flying piranhas.

Importantly, Fry also chooses to place her trust in Riddick over his nemesis, Johns, who masquerades as a police officer (but is really a merc). So again, a Hawks-styled self-sufficient woman has put aside established "roles" in society, and selected an alliance based on her own "personal ties" and feelings about which man is more trustworthy.

Riddick mercilessly tests Fry, urging her to leave the other stranded castaways behind, but she beats him at his own game. She shames Riddick by her refusal to act in selfish terms. They may both be tough; they may both be capable, but Fry is connected to the human race in a way that Riddick is not. Riddick thinks he can grow Fry's killer instinct; Fry proves she can nurture Riddick's dormant conscience.

4.) The Carpenter anti-hero is a man been burned by religious faith, though it still has a place in his psyche.

The Carpenter anti-hero is one with few connections to the mortal coil, and yet who feels equally disappointed by the dogma of religion and faith.

In The Thing (1982), Kurt Russell's helicopter pilot MacReady notes that "faith is a hard thing to come by these days." In Assault on Precinct 13, Wilson comments that, as a boy, he met a preacher who told him that, as he grew up, he would "have something to do with death." This odd comment affected him. It was a prophecy that came true.

Riddick also has a relationship with faith that isn't strictly positive. When he is questioned about his religious beliefs by the Imam (played by Carpenter regular and star of The Thing and They Live, Keith David), Riddick rails against him, and against the Divine's role in his life:

"Think someone could spend half their life in a slam with a horse bit in their mouth and not believe? Think he could start out in some liquor store trash bin with an umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and not believe? Got it all wrong, holy man. I absolutely believe in God... And I absolutely hate the fucker."

Incidentally, Riddick's bad childhood also gives him another trait in common with Carpenter anti-heroes such as orphaned Jack Crow (Vampires [1998]), and Nada, from They Live.

5.) Through the Anti-hero's actions, some aspect of "The Order" is changed.

The Carpenter anti-hero is one who, through often his final act, changes the shape and order of things in his world.

In Escape from L.A., Snake Plissken activates the Sword of Damocles and plunges the world into darkness, so that America can start over, and liberty can be re-born.

In They Live, John Nada destroys the alien satellite dish sending constant hypnotic signals to all human beings, revealing the world as it truly is; not through the filter of reality the alien echo chamber has created. In The Thing, MacReady destroys the base, and holds the Thing at bay in the icy winter, even though it means his eventual death.

In an intriguing variation of the Carpenter aesthetic, the order that Riddick changes in Pitch Black involves his own personal code of conduct. After Fry dies, instead of fleeing the planet in the escape transport, Riddick returns to rescue the Imam and Jack. He essentially fulfills Fry's mission. He is shamed by the fact that she has "died for him," (certainly a religious allegory; a kind of Christ-like self-sacrifice from Fry that essentially washes away Riddick's sin). "Not for me!" He complains. He views himself unworthy of Fry's sacrifice, and now must make himself worthy.

After the escape from the planet, Jack asks what should be done if the transport encounters the authorities (and mercs). "Tell them Riddick's dead. He died somewhere back on that planet," Riddick states, an acknowledgment that the change has come from inside his soul. The old Riddick is dead. The Riddick that Fry tried so hard to nurture has finally taken his place.

6.) He is a man whose enemies represent a faceless, unthinking legion; a legion that doesn't recognize individual personality, pain, or even humanity.

The Carpenter anti-hero -- a flawed (but strong) human -- is almost universally pitted against a very specific kind of enemy: an attacking horde that seems to lack the anti-hero's enormous sense of individuality.

The gang in Assault on Precinct 13, Street Thunder, consists of hundreds of undifferentiated goons who keep attacking the police station regardless of personal injury or mortality. They just keep attacking, like robots, or zombies.

Inside New York Penitentiary, Snake encounters the "Crazies," another band of indiscriminate, animalistic killers. Even in Ghosts of Mars, the warrior Martians are not differentiated as individuals on the whole (save for Big Daddy Mars), but rather as a horde. And when one dies, his spirit moves into another body, sort of the ultimate in anonymity and horde-attacking. Likewise, Prince of Darkness also features hordes of homeless people as "cells" manipulated by Satan.

Although not human, the flying dragons of Pitch Black boast some of the same characteristics. They are indeed a swarm; a beast-like enemy that seems able to act both collectively and individually, and on instinct rather than evolved human motives. Riddick defeats them because he can "see" them in a way the others can't. He learns their weak spots.

Given how easily Riddick fits into the Carpenter anti-hero paradigm, Pitch Black is not merely a terrific, scary and engaging horror film (and one of the best of the 2000s), but a production that faithfully pays homage to one of the finest genre directors of the past quarter-century. Thus Riddick joins the ranks of Napoleon Wilson, Snake Plissken, John Nada and Desolation Williams. He is a criminal, a murderer, an outsider, and a maverick.

And when "the tide is getting high" and the "time of dying" is at hand, Riddick is also the one man you absolutely want fighting at your side.