Saturday, July 31, 2010

Images of Film -- On the Net and Unbound

Stephen Russell-Gebbett, blogger-extraordinarie at Checking on My Sausages, and MovieMan0283, another fantastic blogger at The Dancing Image, are really onto something with this widely-proliferating, imaginative meme regarding "images on film," particular images that "stand for so much of what makes Cinema such a rich and exciting medium." MovieMan's post, "In The Beginning" lays out many of the details. Thank you both.

On Thursday, I posted about images of America and America on film, after getting the tip from J.D. at Radiator Heaven. And today, I see that many other fantastic bloggers are posting galleries of the imagery that has captured their imagination over the years. I consider this high level of interest a testament to Stephen's and MovieMan's great idea, and to the way that the images from film history powerfully resonate with audiences. But also, specifically, how individual that sense is. Film -- a medium ostensibly meant for the masses -- ends up seeming particularly personal when you look through this lens.

So today, I just wanted to briefly point out to readers where a couple of new, intriguing and gorgeous galleries are up and available for viewing.

Le0pard13 at Lazy Thoughts from a Boomer has put up a lovely gallery regarding "Heroic Silhouettes" in the Cinema, and I was reminded of this post last night when I watched Book of Eli. There are some iconic heroic silhouettes in that post-apocalyptic thriller, and I think Le0pard13 is really onto something by gathering them together. Suddenly we see that these images are not chance; not coincidence...but an essential ingredient of our collective film "grammar," visual shorthand for a "hero."

Jeffrey at Beers on the Beach has assembled a gallery near and dear to my heart, given my love of all-things outer-space related. His collection is called "The Vastness of Outer Space" and highlights how filmmakers have visualized the unknowable, infinite nature of the final frontier. How do you describe the infinite? Well, filmmakers from Stanley Kubrick to Robert Wise to Ridley Scott to James Cameron have visualized the idea in memorable fashion.

Trick or Treat Pete, another blogger I really admire, has gone the horror genre route (yay!), and in artistic, dedicated fashion created a gallery at Deadly Serious to cinematic "Moments in Madness." Film is a tool which, at its best, tells us something vital about the human condition, the human psychology. And this memorable gallery is a walk on the dark side of human instability and psychosis. I love it!

Sunday Updates: Another one of my favorite bloggers, Sci-Fi Fanatic, has posted his gallery today, and just as I knew it would be, it's a dazzling and thought-provoking treat. At Musings of a Sci-Fi Fanatic, you can see "Science Fiction Images In Techni-COLOR." This is how Sci-Fi Fanatic described this lovely collection: "I love the use of color in cinema in general, but it particularly effective and fun within science fiction. It lends an image, a moment, a scene, a story, a kind of power or mood or feeling or even alienness that would be lost without its accent. Color or lighting, whether in a live action or special effects shot, enhances a picture giving it new meaning or another depth altogether." Well said, and this is a gorgeous and eclectic gallery.

Last, but never least, Will at Secure Immaturity, another blogger I have become a big fan of, presents today "Images of Reflection: Both Dark and Light." This impressive gallery focuses on portraits, on the human face, and on the light upon it. It's a great collection.

I hope you enjoy these image galleries too, and I just want to again thank J.D. for tagging me, and also Stephen and MovieMan0283, for originating and developing fascinating meme that enables all of us to view film in new, personal, and infinitely intriguing ways. Kudos!

Friday, July 30, 2010

En Garde: The Magic of the Fantasy Sword Fight

Although these days I generally live by the axiom that the pen is mightier than the sword, I experienced an epiphany on the subject of swords yesterday. Particularly sword-fighting in the movies. (and in genre movies, specifically, I guess.)

It was about four in the afternoon on Thursday, and I was playing outside with my three-year old son, Joel.

We were pelting each other with water balloons (it was like 100 degrees out...) when Joel picked up a stick -- and quite unknowingly -- began brandishing it as though it were a sword.

I picked up a stick too, and before we knew it, we were locked in a fast-moving sword fight of epic proportions...up and down my drive-way.

When Kathryn arrived home from work at about 5:00 pm, that's precisely how she found the two of us: Joel had a "sword" clutched in each hand, and was fearlessly attacking me -- whirling about -- while I cowered in a defensive posture, parrying his lunges

In that moment, I was transported back to my own distant childhood in the 1970s. I experienced a flood of memories from favorite films; ones I hadn't thought about in a very, very long time.

For instance, I recalled Saturday afternoons in hot summer, playing with a toy sword and shield, and recreating with friends the magic of Jason and the Argonauts (1963), or the thrill of the sword-fights against other fantastic Harryhausen-created monsters in the Sinbad flicks (The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad [1958] and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad [1974].)

I remembered -- surprisingly -- how my favorite Star Trek episode as a six-year old kid was actually "Day of the Dove," because it pitted Captain Kirk against Klingons...with swords. God, I can't tell you how many times my friends and I put on our Star Trek utility belts from Remco, then ended up fighting each other with swords instead of phasers....

And naturally, of course, I thought of Star Wars. George Lucas was extremely clever in the way he crafted a sci-fi variation of the swashbuckling sword -- the "light saber" -- for his new cinematic universe. The 1970s was definitively the era of gun-toting, silver-screen anti-heroes like Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood) and Kojak (Telly Savalas). Accordingly, in Star Wars, swords (er...light sabers) were explicitly positioned as being "an elegant weapon for a more civilized time."

Funny, that's precisely what Star Wars was too: a throwback to another, more romantic era of Hollywood history, before anti-heroes became all the rage. Think Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) for instance. Touche, George, touche.

So anyway, I began to consider how, as a kid, many of my favorite fantasy/sci-fi movies involved sword-play in one mode or another. And then I realized that sword fighting had to absolutely be the geek equivalent to a sports obsession. I mean, just watch the amazing fight between Robin Hood and Sir Guy in that 1938 film (on a winding staircase, no less...), and you can see how the action is all about dexterity, speed, and physical grace. It's fascinating. It's a recognition of physical prowess, skill, athleticism and training... only cloaked in romantic, fantasy, and dramatic trappings. This fight is available on YouTube, but the embed is seek it out if you haven't seen it.

Now look at how the cinematic sword fight standards are re-parsed in a more modern film like The Princess Bride (1987). There, the battle between two evenly-matched opponents is an opportunity not just for physical dexterity and speed....but for razor wit as well. Yep, the sword-fight is definitively the thinking man's sports addiction. Remember the Star Wars Kid, who in a (not-so) secret moment, picked up a light saber and just went nuts...expressing his inner geek? Well, that kid took a lot of mean-spirited ribbing, but I truly believe each and everyone of us who grew up with Star Wars (and also with sword-fights on film) understands the "force" that was driving that kid to take up the sword-play.

It's not a violent impulse or anything. But to pick up a sword and lunge at your enemy...well, it's empowering, somehow. To know that all of your body is in tune -- a perfectly calibrated instrument -- and that you are moving with grace and purpose and determination; that your brain is reacting and acting with lightning fast-agility to each new certainly beats the hell out of jogging. And watching Joel yesterday, I think this love of the sword fight is genetic.

So today -- on a lazy summer day when I'm feeling slack -- I've assembled below some of my favorite cinematic sword fights to spark your own memories. I'm sure I've left quite a few battles out (I couldn't find Ash's on-the-rampart battle from Army of Darkness, alas...), but these were the ones that popped to mind. The one in Jason and the Argonauts still dazzles me: it's a meticulously-constructed, perfectly edited combination of solid film techniques. I love how it doesn't rely on quick cuts or close-shots or a jerky camera to depict the special-effects-heavy action. Instead, exhilaration comes from watching the movements, the choreography; from the sense of escalation and tension of seeing the main characters in jeopardy.

And I know people dislike The Phantom Menace (1999), but this sword duel between two Jedi and a Sith Apprentice must be one of the most dazzling in genre film history. Lucas may have gotten other things wrong, (Jar-Jar) but he certainly got this sword-play right. He's aided in no small part, I should add, by the scoring of John Williams...which still gets the blood pumping.

Anyway, here we go. If you can, watch the clips in their entirety, so you get the feel of the building momentum before each fight commences. After you're done watching, take your kids (if you got 'em) for a sword fight in the drive way.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Thanks for the Meme-ories: Images of America on Film

My friend and amazing fellow blogger, J.D. at RADIATOR HEAVEN recently tagged me regarding a meme circulating around the Inter Tubes. The meme originated with Checking on My Sausages and involves the assembly of a gallery of images (must be screen-grabs/captures...) that "stand for so much of what makes Cinema such a rich and exciting medium." J.D. selected images of isolation on his great blog, particularly from the cinema of Michael Mann. His collection is, in a word, stunning.

As per the rules of this particular meme, I've now selected my individual topic: images of America in film; particularly those that have sparked my imagination.

One of the aspects of this great country that I love the most deeply is its seemingly eternal capacity for self-reflection, self-criticism and sense of imagination about the future. In other words, we have been afforded a great freedom in this country: the freedom of our artists to express their opinion about the nation that nurtures them.

The images I have selected for this post represent the entire spectrum of positive and negative imagery, and span several decades (the late 1960s through 2009). If you read my blog with any regularity, you know my enduring theme that the technological art of film reflects "who we are;" that historical context is vitally important to an understanding and solid interpretation of any movie. Over the years, the cinema -- with startling imagery, as you can see -- has reminded us of who we are, who we can be, and what pitfalls we must avoid to build a better future.

Below are some of my favorite such film images of America and Americana. There's one still of Wall Street (The Stock Exchange...) in shambles, which is something we can certainly relate to today, in the aftermath of the Great Recession. There's also an image, circa our Bicentennial, of the "giant monster" threatening our future (hint: It's Big Oil). Another image represents patriotism, unity, and the spirit of of "Let's Roll-ism" shortly after 9/11. There's also Norman Rockwell-esque view of a wintry middle America that I've always admired, and a stirring pic that represents the death of innocence for the Boomer Generation...right in front of Old Glory. Another imnage I like very much remindsus that the future need not be bleak. That we can be caretakers of the land, of the Earth, even in the 23rd Century.

My favorite image, however, is the one showing middle America (Kansas?) experiencing an ICBM launch. The land and the farms speak of such beauty and peace, and the launches could easily be mistaken for fireworks. It seems to me, this cinematic moment captures with eloquence what we stand to lose,should the unthinkable occur. This would be a paradise lost. Amazingly, even the missile launches look gorgeous, and I think the subtle message is the paradoxical beauty of destruction. Perhaps we're addicted to it.

Anyway, here are the images.

Now, in the tradition of these Internet memes, I'm supposed to say, "Tag, You're It" to five additional blogs that I would be interested in seeing take up this challenge of capturing images that reflect film's rich and exciting possibilities and legacy.

In no particular order, I'm going to politely suggest several personal favorites: Joe Maddrey at Maddrey Misc, who recently produced Nightmares in Red, White and Blue, Kindertrauma, Slammed & Damned, Vault of Horror, and Zombos Closet of Horror. These are all blogs (and bloggers...) that I love, and all of them boast a distinctive sense of "vision" that I find fascinating.

Photos (Top to Bottom): Planet of the Apes (1968), Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1969), King Kong (1976), Superman 2 (1981), Gremlins (1984), Blow Out (1981), They Live (1988), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), South Park: The Movie (1999), Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008), and The Day The Earth Stood Still (2009).

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 112: The Outer Limits: "The Zanti Misfits" (1963-1964)

Imagine you're a little kid again. The year is 1963. And it's a Monday night.

You've just adjusted the channel on your (b&w) TV set to ABC. The Outer Limits is airing, and this week's "transmission" from the Control Voice involves the creepiest alien creatures you've ever seen: skittering, howling, relentless, big-eyed ants known as Zantis.

And In the final act of this Joseph Stefano-penned nightmare, the damned Zanti Misfits are EVERYWHERE.

They're crawling down walls, attacking American soldiers, and jumping -- literally -- out of the woodwork of a hotel-turned military installation in Morgue, CA.'s pretty much an unstoppable onslaught of insectoids.

In vetting this harrowing denouement, the classic TV anthology truly lives up to producer Stefano's famous mission statement: "The viewer must know the delicious and consciously-desired element of fear..." (Gary Gerani. Fantastic Television, Harmony Books, 1977, page 57).

Another story element that Stefano always insisted upon in each episode of The Outer Limits was a focus on some important aspect of "the human condition." "The Zanti Misfits," directed by Leonard Horn, lives up to this dictum too, revolving specifically around the contemporary problem of what a"civilized" society should do with its criminals.

Here, the U.S. Government is "co-erced" by the technologically-advanced alien Zantis into accepting on our soil a shipment of their extra-terrestrial criminals. The draconian Zantis are described by the teleplay as being "perfectionists" and are genetically incapable of executing their own kind, even their most heinous law-breakers.

The Zanti Misfits encounter two small-time Earth criminals, played by a very young Bruce Dern (!) and Olive Deering, upon landing in the California desert. This unexpected incident could cause the destruction of the Earth since the Zanti insist on privacy for the prisoners. And it is learned very quickly that Zanti have no qualms about killing human beings.

In the end, the Zanti escape their prison ship with their guards and overrun the town of Morgue, now the U.S. "warden" post for the prisoners. The U.S. Army and an inexperienced military historian, Stephen (Michael Tolan) fight for their lives, and it's utter chaos in the aforementioned final scene. The Zanti are finally taken out with fire, with rifles...and with good old-fashioned bug foot-stompin.'

The kind-hearted general in command of the installation (Robert Simon) fears a Zanti reprisal for this violent response from Earth men, but a transmission from the Zanti home world reveals a surprise and, indeed, some sense of relief.

"It was always our intention that you destroy them," the Ruler reveals, referring to the Zanti criminals.

In other words, the Zanti were banking on destructive human nature to resolve their problem of housing criminals. worked. As the final narration from the Control Voice points out rather trenchantly, the Zanti solution is not a human one or an in-human one. It's just a...non-human one.

What I appreciate most about The Outer Limits, and the reason why it remains worthy of extensive study and remembrance today, is the fact that each episode of the series is shot in exquisite and expressive horror-movie fashion. This episode opens, for instance, with an establishing shot of a sign reading "Restricted Area: Do Not Enter," which raises viewer anxiety and fear. What's behind the sign? What's behind the fence?

As a book-end to this mysterious opening shot, "The Zanti Misfit's" final composition reveals another sign, this one cast-off on the ground, disordered and revealing the name of the desert town: "Morgue."

Of course, the hotel and surrounding lands have been turned into a literal morgue, at least for the the sign transmits, with much gallows humor, a sense of truth. The bottom-line is that this TV drama from 1963 features, in some important ways, a deeper sense of classic film style (and film grammar) than many of the major motion pictures produced today.

In between these book-end "sign" shots, the episode finds time to orchestrate a terrific upside-down, claustrophobic of Bruce Dern surrounded by rock, expressing well the idea of death. And -- for 1963, anyway -- the Zantis are rendered pretty convincingly through stop-motion photography, especially in close-up.

I've pulled some screen-shots of these famous alien beings (probably the most famous of all Outer Limits bears...) and you can see for yourself the amazing detail on their faces, around their mouths and lips, for example. Amazingly, the Zanti are also depicted by the production as unique individuals. There's one alien criminal with facial hair ...a beard, actually. I wasn't expecting that level of differentiation in alien insects, nor so much attention to detail either.

These malevolent creatures are shot well too. Horn's camera frequently zooms-in jarringly on close-ups, and gives the audience full-on, disturbing views of these little buggers howling and complaining about their treatment and predicament. When a chase sequence in the desert is presented, -- with the Zanti pursuing Olive Deering's character -- Horn goes with a hand-held camera, and the sudden herky-jerky nature of the camera really gets the blood boiling.

I know Leonardo Di Caprio is currently working on a feature-length remake of The Twilight Zone. Well, if The Outer Limits ever gets the same silver-screen treatment, "The Zanti Misfits" would be a prime candidate for inclusion in the project. The alien villain of this installment is extremely memorable (and disgusting...) and the central scenario is tense and involving. Frankly, I still freak out a bit watching the last five minutes of this episode.

Believe me, if you watch "The Zanti Misfits" in bed and in the dark, you'll be nervously scanning the floor (and your blankets...) for signs of these nasty, malicious bugs. Recently, the great blogger Trick or Treat Pete at Deadly Serious listed "The Zanti Misfits" as one of the things that perpetually give her the willies.

I wholeheartedly occur with that assessment...

Monday, July 26, 2010

Defending The Indefensible: Torture Porn and Horror Today

Well, first things first. I better be more careful what I wish for.

In recent reviews here on the blog, I have lamented the "safe," mainstream nature of some 2010 Hollywood horror fare. I've even mentioned in some cases my first edict of the genre: Do the Psyche Harm.

Well, lo and behold, I've finally gotten around to screening Pascal Laugier's controversial Martyrs (2008), a movie that -- most definitively -- does the psyche harm.

The continuing controversy over that film -- re-counted in detail via the remarkably divided critical reaction -- comes down to one thread, simply: Is the film art, in the self-same tradition as The Passion of Joan of Arc? Or is it merely an ultra-gory, gratuitous example of that currently despised-genre: so-called "torture porn?"

The debate itself -- re-argued endlessly with the arrival of each new Saw or Hostel installment -- is sort of hypocritical. Some of the same genre voices who have so vociferously defended and championed the once-hated slasher movie trend of the 1980s have been among the very first to jump on the bandwagon deriding so-called torture porn.

Yet in both cases, these horror films (whether slasher or torture porn) decisively reflect what's happening in our culture, in the world itself. One can't (or at least shouldn't...) blame these contemporary movies for holding up a mirror to our contemporary beliefs, to current events, to modern mind-sets and fallacies. Sure, the torture porn films -- just like the slasher films that came before them -- abundantly feature their own brand of highs and lows. But to dismiss an entire sub-genre out of hand with an easy, negative label is to miss out on some very powerful, very worthwhile material.

You see, I'm old enough to remember when it was the the slasher film that was termed an "incitement to violence," and directors of the form (including John Carpenter and Brian De Palma) were actually called "pornographers" by the likes of journalists such as Zina Klapper, writing in Ms. Magazine.

I'm old enough to remember when Janet Maslin in The New York Times (back in 1982...) wrote of slashers: "you leave the theater convinced that the world is an ugly, violent place in which aggression is frequent and routine."

I remember when Commonweal's critic, Tom O'Brien said that Friday the 13th "literalizes the violence against women [that] feminist groups have identified as the core of pornography."

I remember when a critic I deeply admire, Roger Ebert -- who was insightful enough to recognize the social value of Last House on the Left -- opined of slasher movies (and the F13 series specifically) that they portray a world in which "the primary function of the teenagers is to be hacked to death."

He missed the point. The primary function of the teenager in the 1980s slasher film was to survive the gauntlet. To survive in a world in which the deck seemed stacked against him or her; in which Mother Nature herself -- giving cover to Jason during his bloody attacks via thunderstorms and lightning strikes -- seemed determined to snuff teenagers out. In the pervasive "apocalypse mentality" of the 1980s, when the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, James Watt said Judgement Day could well be at hand for this "last" generation, these movies -- and the slasher form itself -- had something vital to tell teenagers.

Be resourceful, and you will survive.

And yet today, these lessons of recent history seem forgotten. I see the "torture porn" genre harshly criticized, in the very tradition of these attacks on the slasher film, but without many substantive arguments as to what's actually wrong, corrupt or immoral with the form. Is it because these movies openly concern cruelty? Extreme violence? Blood and guts?

If so, when did horror lovers become so...milquetoast? The Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn't all about a simple tea party, you know.

I've written about this before, but good horror movies are all about pushing boundaries, about shattering taboos, about transgressing traditional senses of decorum, and that's what films like Hostel, Saw, the Last House on the Left remake and Martyrs spades. The question becomes: are these transgressions based purely on puerile, sadistic impulses? Or do they carry with them a higher aesthetic purpose? Do these movies tell us something critical about "who we are" right now, at this juncture in history? Is there a purpose and morality to the violence featured on screen, or is it all just bread and circuses?

The simple answer, of course -- exactly like the slasher film before it -- is that the fair-minded individual and reviewer should take each example on its own merits, and judge on a case-by-case basis. One should not paint an entire classification of horror film with one easy brush-stroke.

But at its apex, the the "torture porn" format addresses several important aspects of today's culture with cogent authority. First, it reflects the reality that the media already inundates us (on the 24-hours cable news networks) with ultra-violent images on a almost-daily basis. From government-authorized imagery of vanquished enemy corpses (Saddam's Hussein's sons) to battlefield imagery itself, we've witnessed a lot of real-life "horror" since 9/11. We've seen torture in the photographs from the Abu Ghraib scandal, and also fictional torture performed routinely by American "heroes" like Jack Bauer on 24. And the New York Times won't even use the word "torture" when it applies to the United States doing it. When we torture, it's "coercive interrogation techniques." Ex-President Bush has said he would (illegally) authorize water boarding all over again, too. To quote Bob Dole: "where's the outrage?"

I'll tell you where the outrage is: it's in the moral barometer of the horror film. If we visit torture upon others for our own reasons, is it right for other nations to visit torture upon our people, on Americans? This is the subtextual context of the Hostel films: blow back.

Even if we truly boast noble motives for torture (preserving security, sponsoring democracy across the world) does that behavior make us heroes or monsters? Well, my friends, the self-same question applies to JigSaw (Tobin Bell), a horror movie icon who also has "pure" motives for the torture he inflicts upon others. He wants to "help" them. He wants to "free them" from their demons.

In the 2009 version of The Last House on the Left, Dr. Collingwood expresses not one recrimination about his murderous actions; and that's also the official take of our government today. President Obama wants to "turn the page" on American moral abuses of the Bush Years thus leaving them unaddressed...and unpunished. That's also the state in which we leave Dr. Collingwood in the film. Mari (like America) is safe and sound, but he (like our nation) hasn't yet looked in the mirror and faced the consequences of his bloody actions. That needs to happen.

And the very best of the torture porn films deal with this admittedly gruesome subject matter in a trenchant, thoughtful manner. Martyrs seems to ask, what comes after torture? What arises inside a person after such brutality?

Until we deal decisively and responsibly with what's been done in our names, for our "security," this repressed evil will bubble up and return as symptoms...certainly in our entertainment, especially our dark entertainment. This has always been so, and I submit, will continue to be so as long as horror movies exist. The form mirrors our worst fears, our darkest psychological demons. Horror can comment on our times in a way that other genres can't and don't. Love them or hate them, torture porn films fit this definition to a tee. They live up to the historical legacy of the horror format.

I guess what I'm saying is really simple: don't blame the messenger. Torture porn films may not be to your personal taste (they certainly aren't universally to mine, either...), but at the very least they have a right to exist, and more-so, are actually serving a valuable social purpose within the pop culture, at least in this age. And if it is necessary to deride these films, get to specifics. What is it about the form that is corrupt, immoral or wrong? What about these films debauches you? If you are a critic, you owe it to your audience, to your readers, to explain the "why" behind the dislike of this sub-genre.

It's always easy to bash and mock the movies that don't fit our preconceived notions of what the genre could be (just look at the universal mocking and tongue-lashing that Twilight gets from genre writers, on a daily basis.) A lot of people don't like torture porn, either and that's absolutely fine. It's not my preferred thing, as I've stated. But the form shows us where we are, and isn't, actually, you know, porn. Or if it is, I guess the slasher films were pornography too....

And I guess I'm a porno blogger...