Friday, January 14, 2011

There is Nothing Wrong with Your Browser...

Peter Enfantino and John Scoleri, the talented writers who guided us through "A Thriller a Day" have launched a new blog devoted to the classic 1960s sci-fi TV anthology, The Outer Limits

The blog is called, appropriately, We Are Controlling Transmission, and you can find it here.

There will be episode reviews on the blog every Monday-thru-Friday, plus episode spotlights from a panel of critics (including two episode analyses by yours truly...) and more.    

We know MGM is prepping an Outer Limits movie right now, so this is a timely look back at a landmark series in genre history.

I'm already following the site, and hope you will too..

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 127: Survivors: "The Fourth Horseman" (1975)

I recently watched and greatly enjoyed the first season of AMC's zombie drama, The Walking Dead.  After it was all over, I started thinking more about the history of post apocalyptic genre television, from Planet of the Apes (1974) to Jericho (2006 - 2008) to The Walking Dead, and struck on the Terry Nation series Survivors (1975 - 1977).

For those of you who have never seen it, Survivors is an absolutely grim and thoroughly fascinating British program about an insidious pandemic which wipes out modern civilization and leaves the shattered survivors to re-learn all the old trades in order to build a new -- and hopefully better - world.

In other words, Survivors is sort of The Walking Dead, only without the periodic threat of rampaging zombies.  

Here, the true enemies are modern mankind's ignorance of his own technology and history; and the threat of dangerous, power-hungry men and women who see only opportunity in global tragedy.  The series is set in a new Dark Ages of sorts, with (some) humans afforded a second chance to get things right.

Survivors first aired on the BBC beginning in April of 1975, and was conceived and written by Terry Nation, the man behind Dr. Who's pepper-pot Daleks as well as the classic cult-tv series, Blake's 7 (1978-1981). 

Produced by Terence Dudley, the first series of Survivors stars Carolyn Seymour (Space: 1999, Star Trek: Voyager, Otherworld)  as Abby Grant, a not-terribly special or notable middle-class housewife living outside London.

But Abby's life changes forever in "The Fourth Horseman," the inaugural episode of Survivors.  After the opening credits, we find ourselves in Abby's comfortable country home as she deals with the inconvenience of a "couple dozen cases of the flu" in nearby London.

In short order, the inconveniences pile atop each other, and snowball  The phone lines become jammed.  The trains from London are not arriving on time, or have been canceled all together.  The radio tells an even worse story in America.  There's no electricity in New York, and a State of Emergency has been declared.  There are rumors that millions of people have already died in India and in secretive China.

Before long, the episode cuts to another main character, a single woman named Jenny (Lucy Fleming), whose roommate is suffering from the mysterious illness.  While her roommate is succumbing to lumps under the arms, fever and chills, Jenny goes to the hospital to seek help, and it's a scene of a modern health system in chaos, overrun and failing.  This is one of the most chilling moments in the entire episode.  A line of scared citizens are lined up in the halls, getting flu vaccines in their arms while an understaffed facility attempts to deal with the frightening and fatal unknown.

A doctor soon informs Jenny that the flu-like sickness has a six day incubation period and almost inevitably results in death, but that certain people appear to possess a "natural immunity" to the "mutant virus, not yet identified."  The doctor also implores Jenny -- who appears to be immune -- to escape while she still can, before the cities become "like open cesspits."  

Soon, he warns, garbage and corpses will line the untended streets...

The remainder of "The Fourth Horsemen" is every bit as bleak as this initial act. 

Abby grows ill but after several days unconscious, awakens "cured."  She promptly  finds her husband (Peter Bowles) dead on the sofa, and civilization, essentially, destroyed.

While Jenny wanders the  London streets alone and deals with thugs and looters, Abby sets off in search of her son, Peter, at his boarding school. 

Instead, she finds only an old man with a hearing aide, a teacher, who discusses the state of the world and a possible future. His perspective proves valuable. 

"The aftermath will be worse than the disease," he tells her.  "What is important is learning again," he establishes, pointing out that most 20th century people would not know how to make a candle from scratch, let alone create a machine to generate electricity. 

As this man stresses, "you need to know every part of every process" and "all the old skills and crafts must be learned."

This is difficult and frightening for Abby to accept at first, as part of the "generation that first put man on the moon," but soon she starts to see the wisdom of her mentor's words; and begins formulating, even in this pilot episode, a way forward. 

I admire this aspect of Survivors very much, and it fits in well with Space:1999, which also premiered in 1975 and concerned a global apocalypse of sorts.  Both series very much involve what Science Digest editor Arielle Emmett called (in regards to 1999) "the downfall of 20th century technological man."

What remains most shocking, perhaps, about Survivors is that this pilot episode has not aged significantly in thirty-five years.  Any fan of Dr. Who will immediately recognize the 1970s era visual aesthetic: film for exterior location work and videotape for interior studio work.  But the important thing is that the ideas have not aged a day, and indeed, the teleplay and its presentation are rather artful in presentation

For instance, "The Fourth Horseman" opens with a shot of an automated tennis ball machine, one that "serves" tennis balls to a human player, in this case Abby.  Thus the very image that the Survivors story commences on is one of, if not excess, let's say "leisure technology." 

Abby spends her afternoon staying fit, playing tennis with a recreation machine.  This idea fits in with the theme of the story: that the technological man of the 1970s, faced with a population-destroying pandemic, will no longer have access to such leisure pursuits, nor the wherewithal to construct such machines.  Later, close-ups and insert shots of radios, televisions and other modern conveniences appear, making the idea of the soon-to-be-lost technology a leitmotif of "The Fourth Horsemen.'

Another great moment comes late in the show, when Abby cuts off most of her long hair and burns down her house, making a clean separation from the lost past. She's living in a new world now, and her first act in this world is, appropriately, to re-shape her appearance to a more practical, less glamorous one.  Her second act is to destroy the symbols of the old world's leisure and convenience: the fully powered, air-conditioned modern home.

An absolutely riveting premiere, "The Fourth Horseman" has some nice visual touches beyond these, including a drastic pullback from Abby -- right up into the sky -- as she begs God not to let her be the only survivor.   The episode also gains significant frisson and impact from its deliberate comparison of this 1975 pandemic to the 1918 Influenza, which killed 50-to-100 million people worldwide (some 3% of the population). 

Over 500 million people were infected in what has been termed "the greatest medical holocaust in history."  Hard to believe I'm writing about something that occurred less than a hundred years ago, isn't it?

Terry Nation's implication with this comparison is obvious and important.  Something like this deadly plague has happened before (in 1918) and it could easily happen again, on even more catastrophic scale. 

Indeed, this bugaboo is very much with us today, in 2011.  Remember last winter and the widespread fear of the H1N1 Swine Flu?  Or all the talk the year previous that about avian flu? 

The fear, of course, is that with modern air transport, a person could do precisely what a clumsy scientist does in the opening credits of Survivors: bring a fatal disease from country to country before anyone is even aware there is a problem.

Later episodes of Survivors, such as "Genesis," find Abby preaching the cause of "re-learning" old skills to the other ragtag survivors of the plague.  She also clashes with men and women who see opportunity in doomsday, including a governmental official who fancies himself a Feudal Baron, and an aristocratic woman who wants to hoard goods because cash has no value, and people will work for her in exchange for food.  It is her goal to get a piece of the pie, and live in comfort...and goddamn the other unfortunates.

Survivors was remade by the BBC in 2008 -- following up on the contemporary fears of SARS and other viruses -- and was recently cancelled following a second season.  I have not seen the new series, but I can wholeheartedly recommend the original 1970s series to fans of post-apocalyptic science fiction.  

The original Survivors is unswervingly bleak, devoid of Hollywood bullshit, and intensely frightening.   The writing is superb, and Terry Nation artfully utilizes the end of the world  scenario to raise questions about human nature, and issues such as law enforcement, allocation of resources and other post-apocalyptic, existentialist obsessions.

The series is also available on Netflix, but make sure you queue the original series and not the remake.

Below is the ahead-of-its time, information-age opening montage for Survivors, which diagrams with beautiful efficiency the frightening spread of the pandemic:

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Catfish (2010)

Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman's documentary Catfish is a cautionary tale for the Internet Age, a compelling and yet surprisingly emotional reminder to not always believe everything you see Online. 

The controversial 2010 film is also a testament to how important the Online or electronic experience has become to our society and our relationships in 2011; an epoch when you "sext" your prospective partner without ever having met her face-to-face, and when photos on Facebook are readily accepted as truthful identification of strangers.

Catfish depicts a strange and unnerving chapter in the life of successful New York photographer Yaniv Schulman, whose work was recently published in a prominent magazine. 

Following that publication, Yaniv  is contacted by 8-year old Abby Faccio, a child prodigy who produces a startling and life-like painting of his photo, and who, after that introduction, keeps sending him further packages.  Each package has a new painting in it, and more:T-shirts and the like.

As Yaniv's brother and friend -- the film's directors -- record him in his studio responding to Abby's unusual artistry, Yaniv is drawn deeper and deeper into her world.  For instance, he learns of her beautiful and eccentric mother, Angela and their home in Michigan.  One day, a snowstorm there topples their 150-year old maple tree, and it has to be bulldozed.  Yaniv reflects that their life sounds great " least from Facebook."

And then, finally, Yaniv starts to develop a long-distance relationship with Megan, Abby's 19-year old sister.  Megan, I should add, is a gorgeous ballet dancer who plays the cello and guitar and rides horses on her farm.

Recognize this face?  It's Megan Faccio, or is it?
Soon, Yaniv is head-over-heels in love with a woman he has never met, and Catfish portrays this budding romance in totally electronic terms, with a dazzling flurry of images and posts on Facebook, with IM chats, music downloads and even establishing shot imagery that purposefully suggests the layout of Google Maps. 

YouTube makes an important appearance in the film too.  We get extreme close-ups of Internet transmission buttons reading "Send" and "Confirm."  The impression is instant connection, not to mention instant gratification.

But Yaniv's keyboard love life comes into question unexpectedly when he learns that the songs Megan has downloaded on Facebook and represented as her own work are actually already on YouTube; the recordings of other artists. 

Appropriately, the photographer begins to suspect that there is much more going on than meets the eye, and commences a road trip to Michigan with his filmmaker friends to meet Megan, Angela and Abby face-to-face.  He wants to know if he's been lied to.    He wants to know if the Faccios are "complete psychopaths."

To tell you anything further about Catfish would probably ruin the effect of the film's heartfelt, even devastating third act.  But suffice it to say, before you learn the "secret" of Megan, Angela and Abby Faccio, these documentarians wring significant anxiety and mystery out of their cautionary tale. 

A 2:00 am, thick-of-the-night stop at an apparently abandoned horse farm supposedly belonging to Megan will have you on the edge of your seat, simply because you have no idea what to expect.  And once it is established that dishonesty is involved with the Facebook profiles, the movie makes the most with very little, causing you to wonder how strange, diabolical or weird the journey's destination and resolution might be.  This is a brilliant feint, especially given the film's valedictory moments.

I wrote above that Catfish is controversial, and that's because many people (including some critics) don't believe it is a legitimate documentary.  Rather, they believe that elements of the film (particularly how things are set-up in the first half) are deliberately staged. 

I will state, unequivocally, that there is no way that anything that occurs in the third act could possibly be staged, or faked.  Rather, it is one of the most unexpected, heart-rending twists I've seen on film in a long time, and no conventional Hollywood narrative would have dared taken this unglamorous direction. The person who is the subject of this third act, in that Michigan house, does not give a movie performance; but delivers - staggeringly - the entirety of a personality; of an individual life.  She presents everything that Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter can't, even at their pinnacle.   This human portrait that ends the film is so powerful it takes the breath away.

Whether any part of Catfish is faked may be of great interest for the historical record, but ultimately it doesn't matter in terms of how well the movie works. 

In this case, the idea that a documentary may not be exactly what it claims simply mirrors the subject matter; the idea that Facebook and other social networks aren't venues of strict truth.  As readers here well know, I  steadfastly believe that cinema reaches an apex of  quality when form echoes content, and so -- even if artificial to some extent -- Catfish passes that test.  The film's ultimately questionable form echoes the questionable content of Megan, Angela and Abby's online, electronic lives.

Romance via Photoshop.
I wish I could write more substantively and fully about Catfish today, but again, to do so would really spoil a very special, very singular viewing experience.  It's one you should reflect on for yourself.

Kathryn and I watched this documentary the other night and we were both perched on the edge of our seats throughout.  We were thirsty, but couldn't be roused from the sofa even to get a glass of water.  The movie -- at 89 minutes or so -- feels like about five minutes in duration.  It's literally that compelling. It draws you in.  You feel like you're typing on the keyboard yourself, or more aptly, looking over Yaniv's shoulder as he types.

What's the take-away from Catfish? Perhaps only that human beings are strange, multi-faceted creatures, and that our Internet avatars are alter-egos that may represent many things, but not the totality of that equation.  Those online "lives" may represent fragments of a personality.  Or projections of who we are...or would like to be.  They can be manifestations of fantasy, desire, or, at times, of a need to escape unpleasant reality.  
I've never seen a movie get at this relatively thoughtful and deep notion better than Catfish, though I have not yet seen The Social Network.   Regardless, it will be a very long time before I forget the lives that Yaniv intersects with in Ispheming, Michigan.   

To quote Yaniv, this movie may really "freak you out," or it may, unexpectedly, rouse in you deep feelings of...sympathy.  

And the caution in the cautionary tale?  The Internet is life all right, only it is life Photoshopped.

Best to keep that in mind.