Saturday, August 14, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Clash of the Titans (2010)

I first saw the original Clash of the Titans (1981) when I was eleven or twelve, at the Clairidge Theater in Montclair, New Jersey.

As a kid, I loved the movie without reservation, and found the fantasy, romance and adventure -- so ably imagined and executed by Ray Harryhausen -- entirely to my liking. The stop-motion effects/creatures were startling for their time, and painstakingly-achieved.

Specifically, I recall the film's atmospheric opening, which featured a Mother and her young child cast cruelly into the hungry a coffin. And then there was Medusa: a terrifying, nightmare-inducing creation lurking in the shadows, first seen in flickering candle-light. She was a nightmarish apparition, and one that endured in my memory for years after first watching the film.

Well, I'm not eleven years old now.

But in judging the remake of Clash of the Titans (2010), I must ask the all-important question: would an 11-year old child today enjoy this Clash as much as I enjoyed the cult original all those years ago?

The undeniable answer is, yes...absolutely. I should make no bones about that. This is an elaborate, big-budget fantasy film with well-realized creatures and monsters, and some serious, dynamic action.

However, as a forty-year old film critic, I might point out my grown-up reservations about this re-imagination. I could explain, for instance, that this new version of the legend is decidedly less romantic in flavor than its predecessor was. The original film highlighted a love affair so passionate and enduring that it was recounted in the stars themselves, in the constellations of our very night sky. But here, Princess Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) is almost an after-thought in the screenplay and never casts more than a longing look at hunky Perseus (Sam Worthington). He hardly seems to notice she's there.

No time for love, Dr. Jones.

I might also note that there is far less humor, far less magic, and indeed, far less joy in this remake than was found in such abundance in Harryhausen's comparatively innocent picture. I might even note how the new film makes a mean laughing-stock out of the original film's R2-D2 surrogate, a golden clock-work owl named Bubo.

In our contemporary pop culture, there's just no space in the cinema for a cute-little sidekick like Bubo, I suppose, which explains why he is dismissed with that nasty in-joke. I mean, Bubo doesn't have golden testicles, and he doesn't fart, belch, rap or anything like that.

The point of this rumination is simply that we are in a different place, entertainment-wise, than America was in 1981, and this Clash of the Titans is definitively a product of today, not a product of that era. In other words, we are much further down the line away from theatricality and artificiality in the cinema than we were thirty years ago. Rather, the pop culture needle today points further towards realism and naturalism than ever before in our nation's history. Still, I don't think you can blame the movie for reflecting this reality. We can't rightly expect it to reflect anything other than the culture in which it was created.

But because of our culture's increased, almost obsessive demand for realism, even the Gods of Olympus are somehow smaller-than-life and less magnificent in this version.

We demand definitive answers and immediate gratification about mysteries in our culture today, and so this Clash of the Titans insists on explaining the exact relationship of the Gods to humans: they thrive on our worship, literally, like our emotions are tasty nutrients. Zeus eats our love; Hades our fear. What humans get from the Gods, apparently, is environmental stability. Nature is controlled, at least until we step out of line.

Accordingly, much of this film involves how the humans of Argos tire of the Gods' capricious, tyrannical ways and decide to strike a blow for human independence. They want their country back. They want liberty and freedom. And yes, this is indeed a metaphor for the culture war going on in the United States today. There is, actually, a timely subtext here, and like The Dark Knight, it's on the "right" side of the spectrum, which is relatively rare in Hollywood.

The realistic approach to the drama dictates the very look of Clash of the Titans. Our protagonist, Perseus -- still a hero from Greek Mythology -- spends the duration of this film covered in dirt, grime and scorpion guts, and is also something of a lunkhead. This incarnation of Perseus lacks the imaginative, curious spark, and even the energy that defined Harry Hamlin's Perseus.

The character's background has been made even darker in the remake too, for the purposes of increased brooding and sustained emotional angst. Not only has Perseus lost a mother, but his biological father has been transformed into a monster, Calibos. Even Perseus's adopted family is murdered in tragic fashion...right down to his innocent little-sister. Let me be clear: what entirely motivates this Perseus is the ugly and commonly found human emotion of revenge. He's not in it -- like the people of Argos -- for liberty, freedom and emancipation from tyranny. Rather, he's got it in for Hades (Ralph Fiennes), who pulped his family's boat in a fit of rage.

As Spinal Tap might say at this point...none more black.

Or more bleak, really.

Symbolizing these changes in character motivations and story particulars, 1981's immacualte white Pegasus steed has been made entirely black for the remake. I'll try not to read too much into this significant color change, but it's worth mentioning. at least. More dramatic, perhaps, is the use to which Pegasus is put by the producers. In the original Harryhausen film, Perseus had to capture Pegasus, and laboriously train the horse. He had to put in significant time and effort to wrangle and tame the noble animal. In this version, Perseus literally just hops on his new steed with no introduction, no training, and no taming. Again, instant gratification. The original movie rewarded patience. This movie has no patience at all.

Once more, however, I don't blame the movie so much as the culture. Everyone's a dark knight these days. And we want action, not foreplay, apparently. But the upshot is that this new Clash of the Titan feels a bit commonplace and enervating, instead of magical and uplifting.

Again, this remake downplays romance to an alarming degree and I think that's its cardinal sin. Never once does Perseus think about (or even mention, actually...) rescuing Andromeda from the fangs of the Kraken. Instead, he wants to destroy the Kraken so he can get at Hades, who will be vulnerable once his creation is defeated. Thus the core of the Clash of the Titans story has been changed from one in which love motivates the hero to one in which hatred motivates him instead. Andromeda is a cipher in this story -- a minor cog in the narrative wheel -- and all the action is geared towards the destruction of the enemy, not the love of another human being. She gets rescued, sure, but it's a side-effect of the vengeance-quest.

This extreme shift in the story's core may be the very reason why Perseus's supposedly inspirational speech at the doorway to Medusa's temple plays so woefully flat and almost laughable. It's supposed to read as a tribute to mankind's nature, and his ability to stand up to a huge, overgrown power like the Gods (metaphorically the U.S. Government). Someone must stand up and say "enough," declaims Perseus, channeling his blue collar, fisherman father (Pete Postlethwaite).

But you don't inspire people based on hatred, with only the thought of tearing something down, because of a heightened sense of victimhood or personal grievance. Simply opposing an existing structure for the sake of opposition accomplishes nothing; nature abhors a vacuum. It's "that vision thing:" it must be present for a new philosophy to take root in the hearts and minds of a people, and Perseus never makes the important case here that humans would be better off on their own.

In fact, he's a hypocrite. Perseus accepts Zeus's help throughout his quest. Zeus gives him a magical sword...and he (eventually) accepts it. Zeus gives him the coin to pay the ferryman...and he accepts it. Zeus even resurrects his would-be lover, Io. In other words, Zeus "entitles" Perseus...he successfully brings Perseus into the existing (apparently corrupt...) system, through these hand-outs.. Thus the film's message is thoroughly corrupted too. You can't trust the Gods...unless they're on your side. You must destroy the Gods...unless they can be helpful to you, personally. Do you really want liberty, or just gold coin?

In addition to altering this story from one about love to one about hate, there's a weird, paradoxical quality about the remake too.

Specifically, there's much more violence in this version of Clash of the Titans, but somehow -- simultaneously -- much less terror. The original Medusa was the kind of imaginative, grotesque creation you'd think about before going to bed at night; and this Medusa -- though spectacularly rendered -- won't affect the delicate psyche at all.

My three year-old son could watch this Clash of the Titans and not be bothered in the slightest by Medusa's presence or appearance, whereas I wouldn't let him near the original film for several more years, because of Harryhausen's suggestion and intimation of terror in the Medusa sequence. Medusa was a nightmarish, legitimately scary creature in the original. Here, she's spectacular and amazing, but not scary.

Again, that tells you something about the culture now. It more readily accepts violence, but also blanderizes the violent material to some degree so as to achieve the widest possible reach...and the biggest audience.

These are the reservations of an adult film critic, one seeking narrative and thematic consistency, and gazing at the context that breathed life into the remake. But I've got to go back to that eleven-year old child: If I were eleven, I would absolutely love this movie.

And here's why. Even though it is a remake of an existing story, this Clash of the Titans boasts some amazing, and imaginative creatures as well as some commendable narrative invention. For example, the giant scorpions of the original have been improved upon approximately a thousand-fold. The movie even gets creative in the way the beasts are utilized in the plot. Here, the Scorpions are battled to a standstill, then harnessed as steeds, as transportation. The imagery of men riding giant scorpions across rocky terrain is powerful, and a testament to human ingenuity (which fits in with the movie's theme). Secondly, the movie adds some great new creatures as sidekicks for Perseus: the djinn, desert wanderers and "conjurers" who also have a grudge against the Gods. If I were a kid again...I'd be first in line to buy action figures of these guys. The Djinn are mysterious, inscrutable, magical and pretty damn awesome.

In terms of action and special effects, the Kraken, Medusa, the Stygian Watches, the Ferrymen and all the other mythical creatures are brought to colorful, vivid life in effective and creative fashion. I know the purists hate this fact and will no doubt criticize me as a generational traitor, but stop-motion animation isn't exactly cutting edge, or particularly efficacious these days. We can enjoy the craft as nostalgia, and as a fine, difficult art that is past its prime. But the computer-generated beasts of this Clash of the Titans are truly impressive, save for Calibos, who looks like a steroidal burn victim rather than a creature from the realm of fantasy. But the new technology works. It enables Perseus and his men to engage these gigantic creatures in a fashion that, as an eleven year old, would have absolutely thrilled me. I've argued before that the computer doesn't understand the flesh, and enumerated the reasons why CGI doesn't work well in the horror genre. I stand by that argument entirely. But horror is about flesh and blood, and fantasy films are a different beast all together.

I also appreciated the fact that Louis Leterrier and the other makers of this film have thrown in some narrative curve balls for the old-timers already familiar with the story (I mean me.). Here, Perseus rides up to the roaring Kraken with Medusa's head in a bag, ready to turn the "colossal elemental beast" to stone...when banshees arrive and promptly steal the bag out from under the hero. That's a new and fun wrinkle that gives way to an unexpected (and delightfully rendered) special-effects action-scene. Getting Medusa's head seems like an easier task this time around, but holding on to it proves more difficult.

My wife Kathryn really, really didn't like this movie. She's a fan of the original, and she fell asleep in this movie. She said that it was emotionally-empty and there wasn't one character she cared about, or who seemed real. I don't disagree with those points. The movie is flat in terms of human dimensions and relationships, but emotional truth is not really the movie's point. This is a movie that showcases brave men fighting giant monsters, and on those admittedly limited, simple terms, it succeeds. The confrontations are thrilling.

So I enjoyed the movie as a modern-day throwback to the great Harryhausen pictures of yesteryear - with swords battling scorpion claws, and men menaced by inhuman beasts -- and I would definitely recommend this one to kids. But as an adult, you may find the film relatively shallow. To sufficiently enjoy it is not difficult, however, if only you follow the advice Perseus receives from Io.

Ask only what you need to know, nothing more.

If you don't ask too much of it, this Clash of the Titans is an exciting fantasy. Gaze too deeply, however, and your heart will turn to stone.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Tooth, The Whole Tooth and Nothing But the Tooth... little boy Joel had to have his front (baby) tooth unexpectedly extracted today, after he fell on a concrete driveway a few days ago, and the tooth turned an unhealthy gray.

Joel was an absolute champ about the whole procedure (including the shots...), but I'm still shaking and quaking after watching the tooth get tugged and pried from of his little mouth. We had a great dentist, who asked if I was going to faint, and then questioned me: "does hemorrhaging bother you?"

That would be an affirmative...

Anyway, I spent all morning at the dentist and have not been able to get back to my review of Clash of the Titans (2010.) I'm going to try to get back on it now, but honestly, I just want a good, stiff drink....

Somebody please tell me that being a parent gets easier...

What I'm Reading Now: I Am Number Four

"The events in this book are real. Names and places have been changed to protect the Lorien Six, who remain in hiding. Take this as your first warning. Other civilizations do exist. Some of them seek to destroy you..."

-- Pittacus Lore.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 114: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Time of the Hawk"

Earlier this week, I posted about genre television and specifically "first season wonders" and "second season blunders."

Keeping with that theme, today I want to remember "Time of the Hawk" by Norman Hudis and directed by Vincent McEveety, the premiere episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century's hotly-debated second season. The two-hour episode aired on NBC, January 15, 1981, following a lengthy writer's strike, and eventually earned an Emmy nomination for "Outstanding Cinematography in a Series" for director of photography Ben Colman.

Loyal viewers of Buck Rogers' first season were in for a shock with the opening moments of Season Two. Dr. Huer (Tim O'Connor) and Dr. Theopolis had been erased from the format (along with the Earth Defense Directorate), and were never mentioned again. The Draconians were also gone.

Instead, Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard), Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) and Twiki -- now voiced by Bob Elyea -- were officers ensconced aboard a starship called "The Searcher," heading out on a space mission in search of the "lost tribes of Earth." They hoped to find humans who had fled Earth following the nuclear holocaust... and re-establish contact.

New characters on the series included the gruff, temperamental commanding officer of the Searcher, Admiral Asimov (Jay Garner), a dotty, scatter-brained professor, Dr. Goodfellow (Wilfrid-Hyde White) and an officious robot called Crichton, who refused to believe that humans had actually constructed him. Dennis Haysbert -- later President David Palmer on 24 -- had an early, recurring role as a "communications probe officer."

"Time of the Hawk" introduces the second season's most prominent new character, a noble bird-man called "Hawk" (Thom Christopher).

As the two-parter commences, Hawk and his mate Koori (Barbara Luna) return home to their peaceful village on the distant planet Throm in the Argus Sector, only to find that drunken humans have murdered all of their people, including Koori's family. Hawk swears vengeance on the human race and begins to launch lightning raids against human-owned starships from the cockpit of his deadly fighter, the war hawk.

"The Galactic Council" orders The Searcher to stop this "devil" called Hawk, and Buck tracks the bird-man down to the City-State of Neutralis on Throm, where Hawk's ship is often serviced by local engineers who are -- you guessed it -- "neutral" in matters of conflict.

"Forget the hatreds of the past," Buck urges Hawk, "help us discover the future..."

The first thing you may notice about this particular narrative is the overt western genre structure.

A decent lawman (Buck Rogers) on a frontier of sorts (the West/Space) needs to bring in a terrible criminal from a different or "alien" culture (think of Hawk as a native-American, a wronged Apache-Chief...), but it is mankind's (America's...) difficult history actually put on trial, particularly for the crime of genocide.

Indeed, this structure was absolutely intentional. New Buck Rogers producer John Mantley had also overseen a decade's worth of Gunsmoke (1955-1975) stories, and had re-vamped a script from that long-running series to open Buck Rogers's sophomore sortie

Mantley told Starlog Magazine's Karen E. Willson (#39, October 1980, page 18) that "something can be said for the fact that Matt Dillon and Buck Rogers are the same man, six or seven hundred years apart. They're 'both' superheroes -- the difference is that up to now, Buck has not been very real. In the first show that Matt Dillon was in, the 'heavy' blew him down. He didn't outshoot the heavy. He even hanged the wrong man once. That made him very human. In the first show of this year, Buck is going to be soundly whipped in the air by a character named Hawk..."
In theory this may have sounded like a strong and intriguing idea -- to allow Buck to finally meet his match after a season of handily dispatching space tyrants -- but Mantley's concept was also, plainly, a western re-tread, a rerun.

Author Norman Hudis explained to CFQ's Steve A. Simak (CFQ: "Back to the Future," February/March 2005, page 46) that Mantley and fellow producer Calvin Clements Jr. had "used the story at least twice before when they worked on Gunsmoke. The idea was very vaguely about somebody who was wanted either by the police or by some authority but he was safely hiding somewhere. The only way they could entice him out was to flaunt his girlfriend or romantic interest and [then] he took the chance of coming out of hiding..They both giggled about it and said 'We've used the story twice before in the Old West and now we're going to use it in outer space.'"

Basing a high-profile re-vamp of an already popular show on a decade's-old rerun may not have been the best or most creative way to countenance a futuristic series going into a critical time period, but nonetheless, Hudis's version of the familiar tale is emotionally affecting at points. "Time of the Hawk" proves a fine introduction for Hawk, at the very least.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century's second season faced additional concerns too. The shooting schedule per hour-long episode was cut an entire day from what it had been the year before. And the budget per episode of the series was drastically reduced, to approximately half-a-million dollars a show. This meant that props and miniatures largely had to be re-used from older episodes (and other Glen Larson series...), a fact which gave the new season a kind of bizarre, on-the-cheap visual aura. The Searcher, for example, -- the starship Enterprise of this new season, essentially -- was simply a redressed version of a vessel seen in "Cruise Ship to the Stars" in the first season. Had this fact simply been mentioned in the screenplay -- that a civilian ship had been retrofitted for the mission -- the re-use of a familiar miniature might not have been so disappointing.

And Buck is also seen in "Time of the Hawk" tooling around in a Colonial shuttle craft from the original Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979). These two space vessels don't appear to be products of the same technology, history or culture...and that's part and parcel of the problem. In visual terms, the new Buck Rogers just looked scatter a spaceship and prop vault at Universal had been raided.

The same criticism applies to Searcher's bridge: it looks like a hodgepodge of spare parts from the first season of Buck Rogers. It's crowded, ugly -- and again -- cheap-looking. And don't get me started on the fishbowl space helmets Buck and Wilma adorn early in the show. Suddenly, we're back on Rod Brown and the Rocket Rangers.

The criticism of slipshod production values does not affect however, anything Hawk-related in this premiere episode. Hawk is introduced with great flourish, and actor Thom Christopher remains a powerful presence as the stoic, dangerous bird man. The actor brings tremendous gravitas and dignity to the role, and his "war hawk" fighter is one of the coolest, most sinister-looking miniatures ever featured on Buck Rogers, replete with retractable claws that can tear apart enemy ships.

At least this introductory episode, with its western storyline, boasts the sense to present Hawk as an authentic menace (right down to his ship...), and as a character who seems believable in terms of the genre. Some people have complained about Hawk's costume, but I submit that the overall look of the character works just fine, especially given Christopher's serious, intense interpretation of the part.

The central idea governing Mantley's re-vamp of Buck Rogers was that characters and ideas would now take prominence over space battles and action scenes. Hawk is a good step in that direction: an "outsider" with his own world perspective, and a serious counterpart for the more impish Buck.

Yet, after "Time of the Hawk," Hawk (like Maya before him on Moonbase Alpha and the Maquis after him on Voyager...) is far too easily and quickly assimilated/integrated into an existing crew structure. There's not much sense in presenting an "alien" character who quickly fits in with human buddies. You lose the chance to mine drama from that conflict. Hawk should have always had a different way of doing things, and always chafed at his proximity to humans. Thom Christopher always maintained his dignity, and the character's "outsider" traits, but often with precious little assistance from the story lines that followed "Time of the Hawk."

This was not the only problem with the "new" approach of the second season. Wilma has very little of substance to do in "Time of the Hawk," and soon becomes a console jockey in the series, flying the Searcher and pushing buttons. In Season One, Deering was a sexy, independent, operative for the Directorate. Here she's almost invisible, as if Buck Rogers had also adopted a Western-style aesthetic about the role of women.

In space, in the distant future, this is nothing short of absurd.

"Time of the Hawk" also presents Crichton and Asimov, two dreadfully-cartoonish, cardboard characters who hurl insults at each other ("ridiculous lamp post!" "kettle belly!") and, if anything, evoke only memories of Dr. Smith and the Robot on Lost in Space.

Where is the so-called "serious" drama in this relationship? Bickering is not a substitute for mature storytelling, just because Star Trek did it (and did it well...) with Spock/McCoy.

Most disturbing of all, perhaps, Buck and Wilma are now forced to endure playful romantic banter that, in contest, just seems ridiculous.

In their first scene of the season, they engage in a mock argument, flirt a little bit, and then reconcile...but it's all over nothing at all. It's strictly canned characterization. Everyone is too jovial, too emotional, and trying too hard to be likable and "human." This was also my problem with some of Space: 1999 Year Two: everybody was trying so hard to laugh and smile that it actually became painful to watch. Gil Gerard and Erin Gray are enormously likable performers, and one just wishes they had better material to work with here. In Buck Rogers' first year, Buck and Wilma had great chemistry and shared a kind of tongue-in-cheek relationship. The stories may not have been overtly serious, but the characters seemed real and human, and not forced, like grins had been plastered to their faces at gunpoint.

In terms of story lines, one can argue that the new season of Buck Rogers tried sincerely to make a statement about conformity, and the way that people fear or kill that which they don't understand. "Time of the Hawk," "Journey to Oasis," "The Golden Man," and "The Dorian Secret" all -- at least tangentially -- revolve around the idea of prejudice against those who are deemed different. This is a commendable and consistent theme. The best enunciation of it -- for all its flaws -- is likely in "Time of the Hawk," which condemns man for his predilection to render other species extinct because differences are perceived as threats. "The history of your race is written in its own blood," Hawk tells Buck at one juncture, and the point is made.

Looking back, I enjoyed (and still enjoy...) several episodes of Buck Rogers' second season, mainly "Time of the Hawk," "The Guardians," "The Satyr," and "Testimony of a Traitor," but the second season changes -- excluding Hawk -- by and large did not improve the series. Today, the first season is generally regarded more highly. Still, I can't help but wish that the second season had been granted a full renewal instead of just thirteen episodes. Maybe those last dozen or so episodes that were never produced would have been the very ones that revealed just how well the second season format might have worked. We'll never know.

Lastly, I'll say this. At age 11...what I wouldn't have done to get my hands on a war hawk model kit...

The center-piece of this two part episode is a still-impressive space/sky battle between Buck (aboard an Earth starfighter) and Hawk, aboard his bird-of-prey-shaped ship. The effects and photography are outstanding, and, for once, Buck is facing an enemy that is his equal.

Koori dies from wounds sustained in the aerial battle, and Buck captures a grieving Hawk, who has shared with him the history of his bird man culture. Apparently, Hawk's people once lived on Earth (in pre-history) and dwelt on Easter Island before mankind nearly rendered the aliens extinct.

Later, on the Searcher, Hawk is tried for murder, for his war on humanity. Buck defends Hawk before the tribunal and the bird-man is allowed to serve out his sentence on the ship, joining the team, as it were.

Monday, August 09, 2010

First Season Wonders and Second Season Blunders?

I've always wanted to write a book-length survey entitled First Season Wonders/Second Season Blunders. In broad strokes, the subject matter would be the notion that if something's not broke...don't fix it as applied to television history.

In more concrete terms, a dedicated viewer can gaze back at genre TV history and detect all these programs that began with tremendous promise and survived a difficult first year on the air, but -- for whatever reason -- got drastically re-formatted for the second season.

In this re-vamping process, the qualities that were initially so endearing about the series in the first year were often sacrificed. It's the proverbial "throwing out the baby with the bath water" syndrome.

Space: 1999 (1975-1977) is a perfect, early example of this. After Year One, which had garnered "amazing ratings" in the U.S. (Adler, Dick. The Los Angeles Times: "Some Lame Re-running." January 7, 1976, page 23), an American producer Fred Freiberger replaced Sylvia Anderson and, well, "Americanized" the British-made series.

Although the wonderful and charming character of Maya was added to the series format, and some of the new, pumped-up action was undeniably fun, the second season boasted no real sense of story-arc or "build-up" like the first season. More importantly, Space: 1999's overwhelming sense of atmospheric, Gothic terror was overturned for a familiar universe more in keeping with the then-popular Star Trek.

Now, I don't "hate" Space:1999's Year Two for a variety reasons. I don't hate any of these shows I'm writing about today. Specifically, I adore Catherine Schell's Maya, many episodes are solid ("The Metamorph," "The Exiles," "Journey to Where," etc.) and there would have been no second season without Freiberger's participation. Still...much of what worked so well about Space:1999 disappeared for the second season approach. A minor tweaking instead of such a drastic re-vamp seems to be the very thing that might have saved the series.

Over the years, this perspective has largely been re-affirmed in fandom -- though there are also strong Year Two advocates and devotees out there -- and also by the series cast and crew itself. "I liked the first season better," Martin Landau told Starlog in July of 1986 (Lee Goldberg: "Martin Landau: Space Age Hero," page 45.) Landau went on to say:

"It was truer. They changed it because a bunch of American minds got into the act and they decided to do many thing they felt were more commercial. I think the show's beauty was that it wasn't commercial, it had its own rhythm. I felt the episodes we started with in the first season were much more along the lines I wanted to go. To some extent, that was corrupted."

The late Johnny Byrne, who had been script editor on Space:1999's first year felt much the same way. He always praised Freddie Freiberger for ushering Space:1999 survival into a second year, and always felt Freiberger was a friend and a good man. But Byrne didn't necessarily like the new direction of the series.

"Freddie's priority was to make it more American, more pacey. He kept saying, 'Above all it needs more humour'. What that reduced itself to was a crass line at the end of a scene with fixed smiles coming on the faces of the unfortunates who had to endure it on screen. People were dashing around so much that when they did have a moment to speak, they had to deal largely with story. They became a bit too knowing, they understood too much; they were up against the odds, but they were there to kick ass." (David Richardson, TV Zone: "Writing 1999, Johnny Byrne," Issue 54, May 1994, page 11.)

Later in the disco decade, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981) underwent a similar metamorphosis between seasons.

The first year was a jocular, swashbuckling, tongue-in-cheek venture that saw Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) and Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) basically acting as secret agents in the 25th century. They subverted space dictators, battled despots like the Draconians and Kaleel (Jack Palance), and even rescued a "defector" from a communist-styled (!) planet during the "space Olympics."

In short, the first season Buck Rogers played like an outer-space variation on Mission: Impossible, only with more colorful characters and a light-hearted sense of humor. Was it the deepest outer space drama of all time? Of course not, but the series had a distinctive groove and was extremely popular with audiences (it finished in the Nielsen top 40 against serious competition: Robin Williams and Mork & Mindy.)

Producer Bruce Lansbury departed the series after the first season and was replaced by Gunsmoke's John Mantley...who shepherded major changes. The second season re-vamped the formula to make Buck Rogers in the 25th Century more like Star Trek. Suddenly, Buck and Wilma were officers aboard an advanced spaceship, The Searcher, going from civilization-of-the-week to civilization-of-the-week. The series had a new resident alien like Mr. Spock, Hawk (Thom Christopher), who promptly became Buck's version of Tonto, or something. Wilma Deering became less assertive, reduced almost solely to the role of Buck's romantic interest. Buck and Wilma bantered a lot, but Wilma lost her edge.

Like Maya, I always liked Hawk and appreciated the actor who performed the role (Christopher), but very soon the second season of Buck Rogers felt like a bad Star Trek rip-off. By the end of the series' run, Wilma was being chased around by mischievous alien dwarves, in what had to be one of the worst hour-long episodes I've ever seen on network television.

Star Gil Gerard -- who had also not enjoyed the less-than-serious direction of the first season -- liked the direction of the re-vamped second season even less. He told an interviewer recently: "I hated that season, it was such a rip off of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. I was thinking: why are we doing this? I always wanted Buck to stay on earth, but we got a new executive producer who had no respect for the audience and the show."

Another example of this First Season Wonder/Second Season Blunders Syndrome: SeaQuest DSV (1993 - 1996), which began has a hard-science, hard-tech look the unexplored "universe" of the Earth's oceans, but became -- in its second season -- yet another derivation of Star Trek (do you sense a pattern emerging here?), down to resident alien-style characters like Dagood, telepathic doctors/counselors, and alien invaders/nemeses.

I still recall the fuss it generated when series star Roy Scheider noted in the press his displeasure with the format changes of the second season.

Specifically, he decried the alteration from "mostly fact-based programs to science fantasy." (Kachmer, Diane C. Roy Scheider: A Film Biography, McFarland, 2002, page 159.). Scheider also noted that he was "very bitter about it," and felt "betrayed." The second season stories, he suggested were not "even good fantasy" and Star Trek did that kind of stuff "much better than we do."

In a new wrinkle, however, SeaQuest returned for a third year with another revised format, and one that was arguably far superior. Michael Ironside portrayed a new, steely-eyed, hard-edged captain, Hudson, and a TV veteran, producer Lee Goldberg brought in some good writing and some much-needed character/situational tension.

But it was too late
. The ratings sunk...and so did the SeaQuest. Perhaps if these third season changes had arrived during the second season...the format change would have worked in this instance. It's tough to say.

On and on you can travel, through the corridors and dead ends of genre TV history, gazing at this syndrome. Battlestar Galactica's second season became the dreadful Galactica: 1980, a cheapening and, dumbing-down of the original space opera format that gave the world invisible, high-jumping, "super scouts" playing baseball on Earth to save an orphanage. Again, a sad shift away from a program that had performed admirably in the Nielsen ratings and had earned a devoted fan base in just a year.

And what about NBC's Heroes, a 21st century sci-fi series which also saw a dramatic second season slump? Was the problem in that case adhering to an existing formula too closely, or shifting away from it (to take Hiro back in time?)

In all of these situations, I should add, producers surely did their best and acted in good faith to inject life into programs that were perceived as "failing" series. No one sets out to make a bad show. Did they aim too high? Too low? Would these series have been better off making only minor modifications? Again, it's impossible to know.

One important takeaway from these examples, however: Star Trek is great, but Star Trek is its own thing, and a fledgling sci-fi series would be better off developing new, inventive formats, rather than aping Gene Roddenberry's. If you look at recent outer space shows such as Farscape, Firefly and SGU, you might argue the lesson has finally been learned.

Historically-speaking, other genre series have undergone format changes too, later in their runs, and it seems that, critically and historically-speaking, we tend to judge them far less harshly than the shows which shift in the second seson. The Twilight Zone became an hour in length during its fourth season, and then promptly-shifted back to a half-hour for its fifth and final season. The Outer Limits eliminated most of the "bears" for its second season, and focused more heavily on science fiction than horror. Land of the Lost went from being about a closed-off pocket-universe in its first two seasons to a valley of mythical monsters (like Medusa, the Flying Dutchman and the Abominable Snowman...) in its third and final season under Sam Roeca's leadership. And in its last season, The A-Team went to work for The Man from U.N.C.L.E....

Which of these aforementioned format changes irked you the most? Or, contrarily, do you think that these shifts were not actually "blunders" at all, but improvements?

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Leapin' Lizards: Diana Returns!

Well, I had given up on the less-than-stellar remake of V, until this news surfaced yesterday. TV Guide reports that original series star Jane Badler will appear as a recurring guest on the second season of ABC's alien-invasion series. And, get this: she's playing a character named...Diana. From TV Guide:

"When V returns, we will learn that Anna (Morena Baccarin) is keeping her mother prisoner on the mother ship in a never-before-seen section that has been designed to look like the Visitors' home planet. Both Morena and Laura Vandervoort, who plays Anna's daughter, Lisa, told me they, too, were hoping Jane would take the role. Still stunningly beautiful at age 56, Jane's Diana, who will be a recurring character, is perhaps the only reptilian being who will be able to put Anna in her place. November suddenly can't come soon enough."

Well, it looks as though the makers of V just found about the only way in the universe to get me to re-sample a series that I was thoroughly unimpressed with. Kudos! And thanks to my friend Fred, for sending me this news. I can't wait to see Badler back in action...

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Cropsey (2009)

Filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio open their critically-acclaimed 2009 documentary, Cropsey with a brief re-cap of a popular and long-lived urban legend; one that the movie explicitly positions in Staten Island, the least-populated and most heavily-wooded borough in the state of New York.

By the filmmakers' own account, the mythical figure called Cropsey is a hook or axe-wielding maniac who reputedly dwelt in the woods near a vast abandoned institution for mentally-retarded children, the notorious Willowbrook State School which Robert Kennedy famously termed a "snake pit" and which the movie aptly describes as the "the Town's Leper Colony."

You can view a clip from Geraldo Rivera's famous, and authentically-disturbing 1972 expose on Willowbrook here. It's not for the feint of heart, so gird yourself.

Parents in the immediate area surrounding the 365-acre "school" -- from the 1970s through the 1980s -- warned their children not to play near the grounds...for fear that Cropsey would strike.

Thus Cropsey is a local Bogeyman figure, the filmmakers establish, one "lurking in the shadows," waiting to abduct and murder the good, unsuspecting children of Staten Island. He's a bedtime fairy tale parents warn their kids about to keep them in line (and keep them safe).

Even before the documentary's opening credits begin, the directors enunciate their central thesis, which -- simply stated -- is this:

What if the urban legend of Cropsey is real?

Despite this tantalizing opening gambit connecting Willowbrook State School, convicted kidnapper, Andre Rand (alias Frank Rushan), and Staten Island itself to the regional, long-standing Cropsey urban legend, this is not actually the case Zeman and Brancaccio present in the text of their feature film. In fact, the stated thesis is virtually ignored.

Specficially, murder suspect Andre Rand's connection to the legend of the so-called "Cropsey Maniac" is tenuous at best, fatuous at worst.

In no meaningful, substantive or even rudimentary fashion does Cropsey explore the urban legend of, well, Cropsey. There is no discussion whatsoever of of the killer's unusual name --- Cropsey -- a moniker that may have originated in Brooklyn, near Cropsey Avenue (around Coney Island) and in close relation to the Creedmore Psychiatric Center, constructed in 1912.

There is no mention of the fact that the word "crop" means to "cut off" or to "cut very short," a verbal approximation of this killer's murderous activities. Or that to crop also means "to harvest" and "sow," and that this legendary killer "sows" revenge for the wrongful murder of a member of his family. All of these aspects of the urban legend are important...they hint at the reasons why this particular tale exists and flourishes from one generation to the next.

Nor is there discussion in Cropsey of the fact that, in the early eighties, a cult slasher film called The Burning featured a villainous killer called "Cropsy," and that the character stalked a summer camp...the location for most Cropsey tales, going back to the disco-decade. A clip or still from the pertinent film might have been nice; revealing how the urban legend arrived in the pop culture lexicon and expanded its grasp on the popular imagination.

Now, both filmmakers do offer thoughtful, careful interview answers on these particular subjects (the urban legend and the movie) when asked specifically about them. For instance, at Cinema Blend, Zeman and Brancaccio describe ably other variations of the Cropsey tale, and the details of The Burning...but if the viewer seeks any of this substantive information in the film's actual text, he or she will be sorely disappointed. It's entirely ignored.

Contrarily, scholars in American folklore have studied the various Cropsey myths in detail since at least 1977 (Lee Haring, and Mark Breslerman. New York Folklore: "The Cropsey Maniac," Volume 3, Summer-Winter, 1977, page 15).

In 2006, folklorist Libby Tucker usefully summarized the urban legend in an article for Voices, called "Cropsey at Camp:"

"According to the Cropsey legend’s usual plot line, Cropsey was a respected community member who lived near the camp with his son. When a couple of campers accidentally caused his son’s tragic death, Cropsey went mad and swore that he would get revenge. Running off to hide in a shack in the woods, he waited until the anniversary of his son’s death. Then he randomly chose a camper to attack with an axe. The unfortunate camper died instantly. If I were a counselor telling this story to a group of campers huddled around a campfire, I would end the story with its usual clincher: “Cropsey is still out in these woods. Tonight is the anniversary of his son’s death, and he may pay a visit to your bunk at midnight. Good luck!”

Tucker further writes about the hunt for the historical Cropsey

...My first example comes from Maureen Berliner, who posted her recollections of Cropsey stories on the popular web site ( in 1997. Her earliest memories of Cropsey scares date back to the mid-1970s. Berliner remembers that the first camp she attended, Camp Orensika Sonikwa, had a framed article hanging on the wall: a copy of the original newspaper piece about Cropsey. This piece of proof seems to confirm that Cropsey is a real person..."

Right here, as one can immediately detect, there's a trail to excavate in discovering the truth or non-truth of the Cropsey urban legend, the stated purpose of this cinematic documentary. Maureen Berliner, former attendee at Camp Orenskia Sonikwa, claims to have seen a newspaper article that features the story of the real Cropsey. So...why wasn't this article tracked down, or its existence disputed in the film?

In the movie, there is zero follow-up on claims of this sort; no attempt whatsoever to uncover the documented origination of the proverbial Cropsey. There is no interview with Berliner either, who claims to have seen such documentation with her own eyes. Furthermore, the movie does not investigate the variations of the myth at locations like Surprise Lake Camp, also surveyed by Tucker, a folklore teacher at Binghamton University. The filmmakers, it seems, actually feel no interest in determining if there is an historical Cropsey, who he might actually be, or where his story may have originated.

So the documentary, Cropsey, is very much a case of bait-and-switch. The movie is called Cropsey, and the text of the film suggests that the "urban legend" of Cropsey is real...but it makes no attempt to find if there is, actually, a historical Cropsey.

Instead, the movie very much involves the true-crime case of the inscrutable, suspicious Andre Rand, and his guilt or innocence in a series of kidnappings and murders on Staten Island, crimes spanning the years 1972 - 1987. In particular, Rand was apprehended for the disappearance of 12-year old Jennifer Schwieger in 1987. The original New York Times article on his capture is available here.

Mysteriously, Jennifer's corpse was discovered on the grounds of Willowbrook almost immediately following reports in the media of Rand's capture, despite the fact that search teams had gone over that very area before and found nothing. Some suspected a frame-up.

This is indeed a disturbing criminal case, and a tragic one without many answers. But it doesn't involve Cropsey or his urban legend in any substantive way.

If you want to find the truth of the legendary Cropsey (again, the stated goal of this film...), I submit, the way to go about it, is to learn all the variations of the long-lived story, and determine if a man named Cropsey ever really lived.

And then, if he did, pinpoint the locations of the crimes he is responsible for. Did crimes occur there? Who was guilty? Are the crimes still occurring? Or is the legend merely...a legend.

Significantly, Cropsey makes no effort to put Rand at the scene of any Cropsey crimes save for the so-called "unlucky seven" on Staten Island. The movie thus makes no effort to connect Rand's story to the actual details of the urban legend (the plot for revenge because of a family member's unjust death), for instance.

In other words, the use of the name Cropsey in this film is a total gimmick. The pre-existing Cropsey urban legend is not the subject of the film at all. Accordingly, the film's thesis is never proven....or even addressed, actually. The film ends, and there is no exploration of whether or not the "urban legend is real." No real connection has been made between Rand and the details of Cropsey's tale.

Unfortunately, this bait-and-switch in presentation fits in with the filmmakers' unfortunate tendency to sensationalize their story. First, they seize on subject matter their movie doesn't truly concern -- the Cropsey urban legend -- and then, they inject themselves into the proceedings, at about the hour-point, to explore the dark, "scary" tunnels of Willowbrook.

In pitch-black night, of course...

Front and center before the camera, our two intrepid documentarians bicker. "I'm going in there," insists Joshua, looking into the dark abyss of Willowbrook. "I'm not going in there," counters Barbara Brancaccio. "I'm going in there," Joshua reiterates.

This debate goes back and forth, and you get the sense the filmmakers are trying to re-capture some of the magic of The Blair Witch Project.

On the dark grounds, the filmmakers (with the camera on, naturally...) just happen to encounter a group of strangers armed with blinding flashlights. The strangers turn out to be local kids. False alarm! But the subject of the film at this point is Devil Worship and Devil Cults, and so this image of dark, silhouetted strangers adds to the storyline's creepy vibe.

Indeed, this whole incident seems awfully contrived. Would a good, earnest documentarian really undertake this expedition to Willowbrook at night? Especially knowing that the tunnel system is still ostensibly populated by the homeless? With Rand, the movie's alleged Bogeyman behind bars, what were the filmmakers seeking there at night? A jolt moment for the audience, apparently.

Or, perhaps-- like the title of the film itself -- this scene is another slick attempt to ramp up the marketable, sensational aspects of the documentary. One wishes the filmmakers had resisted the urge to inject themselves into the action as on-screen personalities, like characters in a horror movie. It feels a tad cheap, especially given that the real, tragic subject matter of the film involves children who were murdered, and the pain their parents still carry to this day.

Despite such considerable concerns and questions about the film's organization and presentation, there are many elements of Cropsey that are indeed highly laudable, and impressive. Like some true-life variation on Rod Serling's "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," the movie carefully makes the case that the community of Staten Island has literally become unhinged by the terrifying abductions and murders. So desperate is the community (down to the police officers), to catch a culprit (any culprit...), that Rand is brought to trial and convicted with no real physical or forensic evidence connecting him to at least one of the disappearances. In their need to find and punish a monster, these good people seem to fall into a kind of blind hysteria. They are so desperate for "closure" that they don't stop to think if the right man has been apprehended.

One of the victim's fathers seems to understand this mistake and the rush to judgment. "Closure is a bullshit word," he suggests. His daughter is likely dead, her body has never been located, and he will never really know for sure the facts of her whereabouts, even if "the law" has deemed Rand guilty and put him behind bars. What kind of closure is that, really? It's cover-your-ass closure; meant to soothe a worried, possibly dangerous mob.

In the community's eyes, Rand has ascended to the level of literally, as the headlines scream, a "Hannibal Lecter." In the press, in the community, in the shared history of Staten Island, Rand becomes not merely a very sick man, but something infinitely worse, and far more evil. He's "a white-trash Jim Jones," mesmerizing a cult-following of the (dangerous...) homeless on the grounds of Willowbrook. He's a "necrophiliac," having sex with corpses in a local graveyard. He's involved in Satanic, devil-worshipping activities, holding black mass by moonlight. As the film rightly points out at this juncture, it's impossible to distinguish "facts from folklore" in Rand's case.

But again, this is not the folklore of Cropsey, the urban legend. That's an important distinction. This is a community's faulty but understandable way of dealing with something authentically horrible. If the movie had been called Rand, or Disappearances at Willowbrook, I'd have nothing to complain about because the filmmakers have done a fine, admirable, extremely dedicated job examining the Rand case. But they named the film Cropsey; they opened with the supposition that maybe, just maybe, Cropsey's urban legend is real. And then they don't follow through on any of it.

But again, I can't dismiss this movie out-of-hand. Another fascinating aspect of Cropsey involves the fashion in which the filmmakers build a case for the "subterranean," secret history of Staten Island. With maps, good location photography, interviews, and TV news footage, the movie explains, in assiduous detail, how Staten Island was, for much of its existence, a dumping ground. In one corner, you've got the Farm Colony, where tuberculosis patients were left to rot. At Willowbrook, nearly five-thousand mentally-retarded kids were warehoused, forgotten and ignored by society at large. And the island is also "one big garbage dump" for New York City, a dump so large it can be seen from Earth "orbit," as an interviewee humorously notes.

What are the psychological ramifications of this bizarre, dark history? What undercurrents are at large? The movie points out that when Willowbrook was closed in the mid-1980s, many patients took to the hospital's tunnel system, remaining on the grounds as squatters. They became, as the movie describes them, "a whole underground of people." Underground people, subterranean history? What must this past do to the psyche of a community?

And, as the movie also points out, it's easier to blame those "underground people" for a terrible crime than to look to your affluent neighbor down the street. Andre Rand may very well be guilty of the crimes he was convicted of; but he's also a very convenient suspect. His famous (drooling...) perp walk shows him to be mentally-ill, at least.

Cropsey is not really about a famous urban legend, as it promises. It fails resoundingly to deliver on its thesis. But on the other hand, the movie gets powerfully at the idea that our society looks for scapegoats, not necessarily the guilty, when something terrible occurs. The movie proves that we don't always seek truth; sometimes we just seek monsters to punish. And in pursuing that quest, we elevate a flawed man to the realm of urban legend. Rand isn't Cropsey, but he might as well be, given the news report and hysteria concerning him.

I just squared the circle there, linking Andre Rand to our societal need to create bogeymen, to create urban legends. I wish the movie squared the circle too. It's case -- as I understand it -- is that in pursuing a criminal and trying to undo a great wrong, we sometimes elevate that criminal to "monster" status so we can feel good about punishing him, truth be damned.

That's fine. That's valuable. That's socially illuminating. But it still doesn't explain the mystery of Cropsey. It doesn't explain why the Hudson River Valley is still haunted by this specter. Or why the specter continues to exist after a generation. The filmmakers' case would have been infinitely stronger had they examined and excavated the historical basis for Cropsey -- if there is one -- and then compared that story to Andre Rands'. What would the commonalities be there? What would be learned in the comparison? Why do we make Bogeymen out of real human beings? The movie edges to the precipice of these tantalizing questions, but never pursues the answers.

In summation, Cropsey is very intelligently, very poignantly about the tragic Andre Rand case, yet very exploitatively and sensationally about the Cropsey urban legend. It's one thing sold under the guise of being something else. That the "something else" in this case is actually troubling, compelling, intriguing and inarguably well-presented is sort of beside the point.

Mid-way through the film, Andre Rand expresses the idea that the people and law enforcement officials of Staten Island are "perpetrators of a fraud" and that "evil-ness sells."

Perhaps the makers of Cropsey learned that lesson too well?