Friday, February 04, 2011

From the Archive: Director Kevin Connor

[John's note: I had the great pleasure of meeting film director Kevin Connor at the Space:1999 Main Mission Convention in Manhattan in the year 2000.  We sat on at least one panel together, and late one evening, a group of fans and I got together with Mr. Connor at the hotel bar and he recounted some amazing stories of his film and TV career.

A few years later, I interviewed Mr. Connor for Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), and for Filmfax Magazine (2008).  The following transcript is the full interview I believe, only re-organized in chronological fashion of Connor's memorable genre films and TV efforts.]

Interview with Kevin Connor

MUIR: How and when did you become involved with the Amicus anthology From Beyond the Grave (1973)?

KEVIN CONNOR: I purchased an option on a book called The Undead by Chetwynd-Hayes (1919- 2001) and took twelve of the best short stories and turned them into a half-hour TV series. I couldn't sell them for love nor money until they fell into the hands of Milton Subotsky of Amicus Films. He took them to Warner Bros. who bought the idea as a feature film.

Milton took four of the best stories and devised a link using Peter Cushing as a sort of a narrator. Milton then suggested I direct the piece which hadn't been my intention, but he said that editors make good directors because they know what is required to make a scene. So I am ever thankful to Milton for giving me my break.

MUIR: What are your memories of working with David Warner on the first story, (which involves a man luring unsuspecting prostitutes back to his apartment, and an evil mirror)?

KEVIN CONNOR: I was very lucky to have such a wonderful cast for my first movie, and David Warner is a marvelous actor. I'm not sure whether he really enjoyed doing a horror film, but he gave his all and was to me, as a first-time director, extremely supportive and not difficult.

MUIR: What about the second story, involving Donald Pleasence?

KEVIN CONNOR: The fun thing in this story was that Donald's real daughter, Angela, played his daughter in the movie. They were a really spooky pair. In this section I also had the wonderful Ian Bannen and Diana Dors. The third story had Maggie Leighton and Ian Carmichael. It was a tongue-in-cheek spoof.

MUIR: The fourth story, about a doorway into the realm of an undead sadist, is quite terrifying. What are your memories of working on this installment?

KEVIN CONNOR: In this story we had Lesley Anne Down (her first feature film) and the exceptional Ian Ogilvy. This did have a bloody element, but it worked out very well. My cameraman was the excellent Alan Hume and we had great fun creating some stop-motion tricks with a disintegrating body.

MUIR: The wraparound segments involved Peter Cushing as a shopkeeper selling cursed antiques. What was it like working with Cushing?

KEVIN CONNOR: Peter Cushing was a gentleman and really supportive of me as a first-time director. I worked with him on several other movies and he became a good friend. Peter was a very particular actor and took his craft very seriously. He was very detail-conscious and didn't look down on the genre.

MUIR: Did you know that this very premise later became the format of a TV Show (Friday the 13th: The Series).

KEVIN CONNOR: I didn't know that it became a format for the TV show. Although the compilation film is nothing new. I seem to recall two black-and-white movies of Somerset Maugham short stories called Trio and Quartet, and of course Amicus made several films along this format.

MUIR: Do you think that your background in editing helped make From Beyond the Grave move along at such a good clip, and tell short stories more effectively?

KEVIN CONNOR: Yes, editing really helps. As an editor, I learned more from bad directors than I did from good directors. When a scene had been badly shot and I didn't have the material to speed up the action you realize very quickly that cover can get you out of a lot of trouble.

MUIR: Next up was The Land that Time Forgot (1975).  And I have to tell you, this was my favorite movie when I was a kid. I loved dinosaurs and submarines...and the two together was perfect bliss. Let me ask first, how did you first become aware of this adaptation of the Burroughs book? Was it your connection to Amicus/Subotsky and Rosenberg, that brought you to discussions to direct?

KEVIN CONNOR: I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed the picture. Yes, Amicus seemed to like what I had done for them on 'Beyond the Grave' and offered me 'Land'.

MUIR: What were your thoughts on the script (by Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn) when you first received it?

KEVIN CONNOR: The script had already been written when I came on board. Milton, I think, had changed the script somewhat, either for economic reasons or whatever. So I never knew how much of the Moorcock/Cawthorn script remained. There were never any discussions on how much or how little the book had to change

MUIR: How long, do you recall, did you have to prepare the film?

KEVIN CONNOR: In those good old days, a production was split into thirds: one third prep - one third for the shoot, and the final third for post production. Today, the first and last third are condensed considerably. So I guess I had around 6-7 weeks prep. I must admit.

MUIR: What were your thoughts about casting?

KEVIN CONNOR: I thought I was getting another Western 'cowboy' actor. But Doug McClure turned out to be a great asset and a lifelong friend. Doug was a Hollywood product in every sense of the word - very camera aware - great in fights - did all his own stunts, hit his marks - came prepared etc. Susan (Penhaligon) and John (McEnery) were both solid British actors and good fun.

MUIR: At what stage did discussions of special effects begin in earnest, and was there any talk about using stop-motion animation?

KEVIN CONNOR: We were always set on the 'puppet' concept - but the idea of shooting them on Vista-Vision plates for the rear projection was fairly new. We shot all the monster plates over two weeks before main shooting. I had a very close hand in shooting all the special effects - I always do in all my movies - so yes, the approach was a combination of live action and hand puppets.

MUIR: Overall, the film is a a mix of location work and studio work, so how was your time was split?

KEVIN CONNOR: I would think probably seventy percent on the stages, the rest on location and on the Shepperton back lot and the local sandpits. We were probably on the interior submarine set for a week, and ten days on the exterior set that was built on 'H' Stage at Shepperton Studios. It wasn't particularly claustrophobic - you don't notice that kind of thing when you're shooting a movie. It's so absorbing.

MUIR: The book-ends of the film, with Tyler throwing the bottle off into the sea....where was all that location material shot? It's quite beautiful.

KEVIN CONNOR: The book-ends were shot on the Isle of Skye and I went up there with a wonderful aerial cameraman, Peter Allwork, and a first assistant. We did everything between the three of us.

MUIR: The movie spawned a series of sequels. When did you know it was a hit, and do you still get feedback about these movies today?

KEVIN CONNOR: It was quite successful in England, rather like the Saturday morning pictures-type of kids' entertainment. I don't think it did so well in the U.S. but it seems to play interminably everywhere on the TV. Yes, I still get e-mails from fans who, like you, remember it from their childhood.

MUIR:What was your relationship like with producer John Dark? Subotsky and Rosenberg? Samuel Z. Arkoff?

KEVIN CONNOR: John Dark and I formed a company with Rosenberg after At The Earth's Core, when I think Max and Milton parted company. We made another three adventure-type movies using the ERB (Edgar Rice Burroughs) format. I had little to do with Sam Arkoff and never met him. He was more on the distribution side.

MUIR: When did you know you would be directing another Burroughs-based movie, and what were your thoughts on the script for At The Earth's Core (1976)?

KEVIN CONNOR: Milton wrote the script of At The Earth's Core and I had become part of the Amicus stable. They seemed pleased with what I was doing so they hired me again. The script wasn't the greatest but it had some fun sequences in it. Cushing and McClure were a delight as usual and enjoyed working with each other.

MUIR: Pellucidar is a different world from Caprona. Did you have discussions about making sure this was so, both visually and thematically?

KEVIN CONNOR: With the D.P. Alan Hume, we devised a colour scheme for Pellucidar which was a mauve-orange backdrop. Most of the film was on one huge stage at Pinewood, and therefore the colour was very controllable. I think the budgets had risen to $1.2 million.

MUIR: The creatures featured in this film are more fanciful, less realistic, you might say, than in Land. Was there a concerted attempt to get away from featuring the dinosaurs that you had just included in the last film?

KEVIN CONNOR: With the production designer, Maurice Carter, we decided to try and put humans into our monster suits. This worked well for some of them, and not so well for others.

MUIR: I understand that the bird-like God creatures, the Meyhas, were quite difficult to wrangle.

KEVIN CONNOR: The Meyhas were stuntmen in suits, suspended by wires, and we were limited as to their trajectory. I think these were the most successful creatures in the picture, especially with the soundtrack that was created by the brilliant Jim Atkinson.

MUIR: Any thoughts on working with Caroline Munro?

KEVIN CONNOR: Again, I get on very well with all my actors and Caroline was no exception. She rarely left the set, and sat knitting next to the camera, distracting all the boys in her revealing costume.

MUIR: This movie was another big attraction at the box office, wasn't it?

KEVIN CONNOR: It did well in the UK, but not so well in the States, but it does play on cable TV quite a bit. I don't think the making of the third film was predicated on the success of this one. It was a good franchise and these stories have a good long shelf life.

MUIR: The People That Time Forgot (1977)  seems like a return to the more straight-faced, less fanciful adventure of The Land That Time Forgot. Was that a conscious decision?

KEVIN CONNOR: This wasn't such a good script. The book was much better, but would have been very expensive to put on the screen, so consequently the movie fell between two stools. We had more ambitious locations in the Canary Islands. So economics really guided the story to a less fanciful adventure.

MUIR: There's a very impressive sequence involving a stegosaurus pulling the plane on a leash.

KEVIN CONNOR: We had a wonderful special effects crew under the aegis of George Gibbs and with a combination of tow ropes and a full-size plane and stegosaurus tail, we managed to pull this off on location

MUIR: McClure's character, Tyler, had a reduced importance here. Was that just the story, or did he have other obligations at that time.

KEVIN CONNOR: Tyler did have reduced importance in the book and consequently in the movie. I think Doug would like to have done more but it just wasn't feasible.

MUIR: This was your third time directing a prehistoric adventure, had it become a known-quantity at this time, or were there still things that were difficult to stage, hard to anticipate?

KEVIN CONNOR: We never had big bucks to make these movies so there was always an element of inventiveness. All the action sequences were worked out in detail and story-boarded in advance so there were few hiccups.

MUIR: This film competed against Star Wars at the box office in America. Were you aware of the Star Wars phenomenon at the time. Do you think ultimately that it had an effect on People That Time Forgot?

KEVIN CONNOR: George Lucas heralded a new arena of special effects that were developing at the time. Our distributors didn't want to spend any large amounts promoting the movie and neither did the backers want to go into huge budget pictures. They said that there was no money in kids' films! How wrong they were.

MUIR: What are your memories of creating Warlords of Atlantis, of creating yet another lost world?

KEVIN CONNOR: Warlords was the first film that was not an ERB book. We created a story using the concept of going into a strange land/world, saving somebody and getting the hell out This was great fun to make and we shot it in Malta and Gozo.

MUIR: Any favorites among these [fantasy] films?

CONNOR: My favourite is Land and then Warlords, People and then Earth's Core. However, I did have great fun making all of them. Land seems to be the most shown on TV.

MUIR: Around the same time, you directed two episodes of Space:1999, Year 2. What can you tell me about the experience?

KEVIN CONNOR: I can't recall exactly how this assignment came about but I knew Gerry Anderson quite well and we were both at Pinewood so I guess one thing led to another. It was between the Burroughs movies. I'd seen the series and they [the episodes] seemed very inventive and another genre for me. The great thing about directing this series is that I met the brilliant production designer, Keith Wilson, and we went on to do another ten TV shows over the years that followed.

MUIR: What are your recollections of working with producer Fred Freiberger?

KEVIN CONNOR: Fred was more a front office man so I had little contact with him, but he was a great listener and Gerry was a terrific ideas man with the effects and scripts.

MUIR: Your first episode "Brian the Brain" involved a malevolent robot. Was it difficult structuring/shooting so much of the story around this mobile device?

KEVIN CONNOR: The robot in fact had the wonderful Bernie Cribbins inside and he maneuvered the device himself so it wasn't so difficult to structure the shooting. It never broke down except when Bernie wanted a cup of tea!

MUIR: What were your thoughts on the teleplay?

KEVIN CONNOR: Both scripts were written by John Goldsmith, a very talented writer. The script [for "Brian the Brain"] was inventive, fun and unusual. It was a pleasure to work with such a good script. John and I have worked together on many more mini-series over the years.

MUIR: What were your thoughts when you first stepped onto the Space:1999 set and saw those wondrous sets and costumes?

KEVIN CONNOR For its day, the sets and concept were way ahead of its time and very striking. It was a very cleverly designed show by Keith and became a benchmark in studio set design.

MUIR: Your second episode is one of the best in Year Two. "Seed of Destruction" involves Commander Koenig going to an asteroid and being trapped inside a mirror, while a sinister duplicate nearly destroys Moonbase Alpha. Do you have any thoughts on this doppelganger-type story?

CONNOR: A very clever John Goldsmith script; very difficult not to get in a muddle with the reflections of the commander and his real self. You really had to concentrate on where you were and what you were doing so as not to confuse everybody, myself included. I think it turned out a fun piece.

MUIR:. Having worked on two episodes of Space:1999, what were your thoughts on working with the series cast?

KEVIN CONNOR: Martin, Barbara and the rest of the actors were all committed 100% to the series and a delight to work with."

MUIR: What do you think is the enduring appeal of the series?

KEVIN CONNOR: A couple of years ago I attended a Space 1999 convention in New York. The place was packed with fans. Just amazing. These guys knew all the dialogue, word for word, in both of my episodes. They could recall all the plot points, actors and gimmicks used in the series. So I really have no idea why there is such a following. I guess there is some magic in the images that captures their imagination.

MUIR: How and when did you first become involved with Motel Hell (1980)? What were your thoughts on the story upon reading the script?

KEVIN CONNOR: In March 1980. I'd been in Los Angeles for three months and was getting nowhere when I decided to collect some tapes from an agent, Bobby Litman. As I walked in to the agency, he came out of his office to refill his coffee mug and saw me. He asked me how I was getting on. “Not so good," I replied. "Come into the office and I'll get you a job," he said.

He called another agent who just happened to have had an enquiry for a young director to helm a horror movie. This was Motel Hell! I lugged a copy of From Beyond The Grave to United Artists and showed it to the Jaffe Brothers, Stephen and Robert. They loved the film and gave me the script to read. I read it back at my apartment and the opening scenes were EXT. MOTEL HELL. NIGHT, then INT. MOTEL HELL. BEDROOM. A fat woman is in bed with a pig and a dildo.

Despite this, I read on and finished the script. I told the Jaffe Brothers that I would love to direct the movie as long as it was a black comedy and removing all the unnecessary crudeness. They agreed and that is the movie that you see today.

MUIR: What were your thoughts on some of the more ghoulish (but wonderful...) aspects of the script, including the garden of human heads and the chainsaw battle at the end? I know you'd done horror before, but this was quite...intense.

KEVIN CONNOR: I thoroughly enjoyed it because it was tongue in cheek but you have to play these scenes, and if you notice you never see any gratuitous violence.

MUIR: Did you see the film in terms of social value? For instance, I read the film as being strongly critical of meat and also pro-vegetarian. Or was Motel Hell just good, honest satire?

KEVIN CONNOR: No message - just good honest satire.

MUIR: What about the film’s humor in particular appealed to you?  Did you see the film as a response to the slasher-movie trend that was dawning at the time (in response to films such as Halloween, etc.)?

KEVIN CONNOR: The black humor appealed to me and it wasn't in response to any other movie trend. However it might have influenced the writers, but we just wanted to make our own film.

MUIR: How would you describe the Motel Hell shoot? What was the most challenging thing about shooting the film? What was your greatest victory, do you think?

KEVIN CONNOR: Very pleasant shoot. Nancy Parsons and Rory Calhoun were a delight, as were the rest of the cast and crew. The most challenging thing was probably the dueling chainsaws, the idea for which came up at the last moment. This may have been the greatest victory too.

MUIR: What are your thoughts on Rory Calhoun? Nancy Parsons? They seemed so natural together in these roles, was it something they really had to work at?

KEVIN CONNOR: Rory and Nancy were naturals. They loved each other and they certainly didn't have to work at it

MUIR: That last scene where Calhoun reveals the dirty secret of his life is a hoot. Do you recall how that scene was rehearsed?

KEVIN CONNOR: Yes, the preservatives line is very funny, but we never had a table reading or rehearsed until getting on the set. Notice that Calhoun played the line straight.

MUIR: I think Motel Hell is funny and sharp because it asks us to consider if Vincent is any weirder or kinkier than anybody else in the film. Punk rockers who smoke weed? Swingers with whips? Weird is only a matter of degrees, I guess. Any comments on this idea?

KEVIN CONNOR: Only that all these weirdos get their comeuppance at the end of the day. It's a "Hollywood" cliche - good guys win, bad guys lose.

MUIR: On particular scenes: what do you recall of the creation/shooting of the famous hypno-wheel sequence?

KEVIN CONNOR: The prop guys came up with the mechanics of the wheel, but the idea was spelled out in the script. All I remember about shooting it was that it was night and it was freezing cold. The poor actors who were in the ground were terrified of snakes and spiders.

MUIR: How long did it take to stage the final battle? How difficult was it working with chainsaws on set?

KEVIN CONNOR: I think we did it in a day - big problem was that by now the carcasses of the pigs were somewhat ripe. The chainsaws had rubber blades and we used stuntmen when they wore the pig heads.

MUIR: Did you ever worry that people wouldn’t get the film?

KEVIN CONNOR: I never worried about whether people got it or not. You can't always worry about that when you make movies. You have to do your thing.

MUIR: Why do you think it has become a cult classic?

KEVIN CONNOR: I've no idea why it has become a cult classic. The major difference to the slasher films is as I said before, that you never see any violence or blood - it is all suggested. It's what you don't see and imagine that has the effect.

MUIR: How did you become involved with The House Where Evil Dwells (1982)? Had you been aware of the novel by James Hardiman?

KEVIN CONNOR: Doug McClure, who I befriended on the ERB [Edgar Rice Burroughs] movies, recommended me to the producer. I hadn't been aware of the novel but I met James Hardiman, a wonderful guy, and then read the book after the screenplay had been done.

MUIR: What do you recall about shooting in Japan? How long were you there, and were there any "lost in translation?" difficulties?

KEVIN CONNOR: Shooting in Japan was very easy. I had an excellent cameraman, Jacques Haitkin, and the ghost sequences were the trickiest, but once we'd got the system down, it was fairly straightforward. I personally didn't have any translation problems but I know that the male Japanese crew didn't like taking orders from a female translator.

MUIR: My favorite scene in the film is the harrowing one wherein Amy and her babysitter are suddenly and inexplicably overrun by a swarm of over-sized crabs. This is a tense, scary, sequence. Can you describe how it was created? 

KEVIN CONNOR: Well, I guess ghosts can conjure up whatever they like, and the crabs were in the script and available by the bucket load so we went with that. I think it took half a day. There's only so much you can do with non-union crabs and I think Amy was really scared.

MUIR: To me, this film belongs to sub-genre of horror film, sort of "Innocents Abroad" with a scary angle. Where an American is a stranger in a strange land, and doesn’t understand the customs and becomes vulnerable to ethnic spirits/demons. Was any of this in your mind as you made the film?

KEVIN CONNOR: Yes absolutely. This factor was well covered in the book since Jim Hardiman was married to a Japanese woman and had lived in the country and spoke the language. So this element was automatically in the script.

MUIR: This film involved at least one graphic sex scene. What do you recall about that?

KEVIN CONNOR: The interesting story about this is that the producers wanted a more graphic sex scene, which wasn't in the script. So Edward Albert and Susan George agreed to do it on their terms which was that Susan would wear her panties because of an experience she had had on Straw Dogs where somebody at the lab had copied some of the revealing out-takes from her nude scenes - so she certainly wasn't going to let that happen again. You can imagine how difficult it was to shoot a nude scene with both your leads wearing underwear, but it worked out very well.

MUIR: The theme of this film seems to be that we’re doomed to repeat the mistakes of our predecessors. That fate/destiny overrides free will. Was that idea on your mind?

KEVIN CONNOR: Yes, that idea was integral in the script and an accurate reading of the idea behind the film.

MUIR: It’s very interesting how the ghosts are depicted in this film. I’ve never seen another film do it exactly this way. With the spirits superimposed over the living, moving back and forth, into their bodies before our eyes. How did you settle on this technique? Do you think it worked well? Why was it important to show the ghosts in this fashion?

KEVIN CONNOR: Well in those days we didn't have the intricate CGI systems. This was an old German technique called Shauftausen, but basically you shoot the scene with one camera through a right-angled mirror. The ghost actors are on a black velvet background so you can control the density of their image as you shoot, ie you fade them in and fade them out and line them up easily with the "live" actors. It worked very well, and of course you could see the composite dailies next day. Eventually we got this technique down to a fine art. It was important to show the ghosts in this fashion because basically it was an economical and effective process.

MUIR: There's a great on-screen decapitation in this film. How difficult was this to shoot and how did you make it look so real?

KEVIN CONNOR: Yes it was very effective. The Japanese make-up people made a very good model of the mould taken from the actor's head. It took a while to shoot since it was high speed, but it just worked.

MUIR: What are your thoughts on this film today? It doesn't seem to have achieved the popularity of Motel Hell?

KEVIN CONNOR: It isn't my favourite film. The producers re-cut it after my version and lost much of the relationships and making it a rather empty film.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: ZPG: Zero Population Growth (1972)

In 1968, author Paul R. Erlich had an unexpected best seller with a book entitled The Population Bomb.  It sold over two million copies and yet was vociferously derided by the forces of the extreme right and the extreme left in America. 

In short, Erlich's book suggested that if birth-rate trends continued unabated, over-population would cause mass starvation and country-wide die-outs in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Since we survived those years and decades without any such famine or mass-deaths, it is tempting to gaze at The Population Bomb today as just another end-of-the-word scenario that didn't come to pass.   At the time of publication, critics widely termed The Population Bomb "alarmist" for what they termed the author's wild "predictions."

But jokes, political agendas, and critiques aside, The Population Bomb remains an initiative that contains at least some kernel of currency in our world today; the idea of Earth's "finite capacity to sustain human civilization," as the author himself put it in a defense entitled The Population Bomb Revisited, available in The Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development. 

In terms of film theory, if we recall the axiom that movies universally mirror their socio-political contexts, then The Population Bomb is certainly a major "bugaboo" and influencing factor in the late 1960s and early 1970s genre cinema.  This period -- pre-Star Wars (1977) --  was a highly inventive one for filmmakers, who veritably obsessed on dystopian futures and apocalyptic scenarios. 

Aside from the brilliant Planet of the Apes films (1968-1973), the social commentary of  John Boorman's Zardoz (1974), and the satirical Death Race 2000 (1975) there were several major films of this epoch that explicitly broached the topic of overpopulation and suggested (mostly horrible...) ways to "sustain human civilization" in the event of planetary disaster. 

Among these  notable efforts were George Lucas's visually-dynamic THX-1138 (1971), the macabre Soylent Green (1973), the colorful and action-packed Logan's Run (1976) and the subject of today's review, ZPG: Zero Population Growth (1972).

In some ways, ZPG was just as casually dismissed by critics of the day as had been The Population BombThe New York Times' Vincent Canby wrote disparagingly of the film that it was "a sometimes funny (unintentionally), untimely meditation on the earth's over-population problems, set in some future smog-bound England where the World Deliberation Council has decreed that for 30 years there shall be no babies born.  Women mad for motherhood who refuse to be content with mechanical dolls programmed to say "Mummy, I love you Mummy," take to giving birth in cellars and stealing each other's offspring."

Even in science fiction circles today, ZPG is rarely discussed or debated, despite the fact that it is an intriguing and rather forward-looking scie-fi film.  A grave atmosphere of despair hangs over the entire picture, and the film by director Michael Campus paints an unforgettable portrait of a totalitarian society that controls every aspect of the citizenry's day-to-day life. 

Most importantly, however, ZPG is worthwhile for the main questions it zeroes in on.  What sacrifice is too great to save the planet?  And secondly, should one generation be the one to carry that enormous burden?

"We conquered cancer and then heart disease...and for what?"

A hovering government craft announces the Zero Birth Edict; and forecasts Blade Runner's (1982) megapolis. 
Set in an unspecified future, ZPG begins as "The Society" and the "World Deliberation Council" announce over a smog-filled metropolis the inception of the "Zero Birth Edict."   For thirty years, no women will be allowed to bear children.  Women already pregnant are to be registered with "The Department of State Security."

If, during this thirty year ban on child bearing, a woman does become pregnant, she has two options.  She can report to an "Ab Lab" (an Abortion Lab), or have a home abortion courtesy of a new bathroom appliance apparently installed in all houses.

At home abortion appliance, in close-up.
In the latter case,  the pregnant woman need only press her swollen uterus against a kind of belt-like radiation device (glowing red) and hit the "abort" button.

If, however, a woman should choose to go to term and is discovered, she and her husband (and the child too...) are captured, then suffocated inside transparent, mobile tents, in full view of the disapproving community-at-large. 

Those citizens who report such "criminals" are rewarded with bonus food rations.  In the world of ZPG, child-bearing is "the gravest crime" imaginable.

Alas, the "Zero Birth Edict" is only the latest indignity that this unfortunate culture must suffer.  The surfeit of smog in the atmosphere has rendered the air largely unbreathable, and outside, all citizens must wear face masks, or make occasional stops at air stations strategically located throughout the city.

And overpopulation also means long lines to visit the local museum.  The wait to get in -- for an hour, no less -- is four years, according to the dialogue.  At the museum, you can also see extinct species like cats and dogs...stuffed, and featured in action-poses in dioramas

Another grim scene reveals a restaurant overflowing with patrons.  Diners-in-waiting stand everywhere, surrounding seated diners, looking forever over their shoulders as the lucky ones eat first.

Despite the difficulties of this future, many companies have discovered a way to make a profit in such dark times.  The "MetroMart" is a TV-based department store-- that forecasts the Internet and online stores -- and makes a killing selling artificial Christmas trees and other rarities.  And then there's "Babyland," a store where mechanical dolls are sold to men and women who long to be parents.  The store's motto: "You come to us as a man and a woman, you leave as a family."

One of the best and most horrifying scenes in the film involves Babyland, and the desperation of prospective parents as they meekly accept plastic automatons as their "children."   These child dolls -- who make whirring, mechanical sounds when they turn to look at you -- are the stuff of true Kinder Trauma (to name drop a great web site).  They walk, they talk, they demand attention, and their eyes are as dead as you can imagine.

The heart and soul of ZPG involves a young couple, Russ McNeil (Oliver Reed) and Carol McNeil (Geraldine Chaplin), who break the Zero Birth Edict and decide to conceive a child.  They do so, I hasten to add, without really thinking out the consequences for their baby.  Because of the Society's law on children, Carol must give birth in an old civil defense bunker.  And worse than that, the child can never -- in his entire lifetime -- leave the bunker, for fear of discovery.

Russ and Carol's world has gotten very, very small.
The birth scene in ZPG is crafted artistically, if also in grim fashion.  It is a natural birth, since no doctors can be present.  The director, Campus, charts the delivery entirely by focusing on the silhouettes moving over the bunker's stone wall.  It's like a weird cave birth from man's prehistory, a strange futuristic book-end to a long-forgotten and humble beginning. 

There's also a terrific shot in the film of Russ and Carol (pictured above) -- looking defeated -- inside that civil defense bunker.  Their world is now tiny; they are visually, metaphorically and literally trapped, even as they seek to escape The Society's Zero Birth Edict.

After the baby is born, the infant develops a fever, and Russ and Carol's neighbors, George (Don Gordon) and Edna (Diane Cilento) discover what the McNeil's are hiding. Now these also-desperate, would-be parents want to "share" the baby, and their demands on Russ and Carol just grow and grow.  This passage of ZPG is a truly horrifying look at human nature.  George and Edna resort to blackmail.  They let Russ and Carol know that they could report them to The Society at a moment's notice, if the parents don't cave to their demands.  This is ugly but also strangely believable behavior.

Refusing to give up or share their child, Russ and Carol make a last ditch effort to escape their neighbors and the rules of The Society...

"It is as it is..."
A bonafide Kinder Trauma: Bonnie is ready to greet her new parents at "Babyland." 
There's not a single action-sequence or consequential effects sequence in ZPG, save for establishing shots of the city and the overhead vehicles that patrol it and catch law-breakers.  Yet this 1972 film is fully engaging because of Carol, the character played by Geraldine Chaplin.  She is desperate to be a mother, but her society has determined that no woman in her generation will be permitted to play that role. 

There are no do-overs in life. We all get one shot on this mortal coil, and yet Carol -- for the sake of the planet -- is asked to give up her child-rearing years; her only shot.  She is in her late twenties, perhaps, so will be too old in thirty years, to become a mother.    The joy of being a parent is thus something forbidden; never for her to experience.  This situation raises all kinds of moral questions.

Does the good of "The Society" and the need for the human race to endure outweigh the personal dreams and aspiration of one woman, or one man, for that matter?  

And secondly, why is it so hard for Carol to share her joy -- her baby -- with one other couple, once she has staked out her position of defiance?  Make no mistake, the movie lands firmly on Carol's side: she is right to reject the inhuman State that dominates her life; but there's another side too, that the movie subtly hints at.

Carol (Chaplin) and Russ (Reed) conceive a child.
Perhaps what it all comes down to is that Carol and Russ are just regular married folks, even in this crazy, Orwellian future.  They want to live free, as they wish, and want to experience what we all do, particularly parenthood. They aren't fantasy heroes, or larger-than-life icons.  They're just regular folk. 

They make some big mistakes in the movie, but that fact only makes them all the more human, and therefore touching.  There are times during the film you will grow infuriated with Carol and Russ for their decisions -- and for their lack of planning -- but you also understand their deep desire to be a family.

I wrote above that ZPG is a forward-looking film, and in several ways, it predicts the future world of Blade Runner (1982).  For instance, the opening scenes of the film involve a slow, hovering craft that makes governmental announcements to the populace far below.  In Blade Runner, it was a blimp advertising "off world opportunity" but the image in ZPG is very much a primitive version of the one in Scott's (far superior and more accomplished) film.

"This is called a gas pump..."
In terms of our society today, well, we've already seen some of strange things come to pass in the last decade, and ZPG is very prophetic.

The idea of citizens turning in and spying on fellow citizens in ZPG is oddly reminiscent of the Bush Administration's proposal for "TIPS" the so-called "Terrorism Information and Prevention System" of 2002. It was designed to help "every American become active in the homeland security effort," much in the same way that the Society uses informants to report violators in the film.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, there are scenes in ZPG during which citizens are indoctrinated by movies that describe how poorly previous generations selected their diets and portion sizes.  In other words, "The Society" of the film tells people exactly what to eat and how much to eat.  And, of course, there are those on the right side of the political spectrum who feel that the current Obama Administration has taken the first steps down that same road.

So there's ample fodder here to read the film both as a critique of both right wing excess (particularly in the depiction of the companys' profiting off of the misery of Zero Birth Edict) and left wing excess, namely in the depiction of a Nanny State gone berserk.

But beyond questions of left and right, and of today and yesterday, ZPG is fascinating because of the questions it raises about community vs. the individual.  What would you give up to save the planet?  

Would you surrender your right to become a parent? 

Furthermore, what would you give up for the pursuit of your liberty in general?  And if you pursued that liberty, what if you risked the very future in the process?

I can't declare that ZPG is always smart or knowing about the answers to these questions, only that it raises them in a fascinating and frequently terrifying way.  Most of all, I'd describe the movie as haunting.  Late in the film, there is a montage of Carol, Russ, George and Edna playing with the "illegal" child.  The images are joyous: the realization of a dream, of an aspiration.  But the montage is scored with sinister, nay diabolical music that grows more and more unsettling as the sequence reaches its crescendo.

In microcosm, this scene gets at the problem of our human condition (and human contradictions).  We want our species to survive, but we also want the freedom to live life our way.  Carol and Russ want a baby, period; they don't think about the future.  There is no sense of balance, of weighing immediate gratification versus long-term stability.  I mean, what kind of life will that baby have in this world, especially if other parents make the same choice as Carol and Russ?

Then the world would end; the planet couldn't sustain everyone.  And yes, that would mean an end to the corrupt, Big Brother-esque Society, but also an end to love, and to all future generations of children.

I also appreciate how the film adopted the perspective of the future in several important, satirical scenes set at a museum.  On display in one such sequence is a 1971 gas tank and automobile, utilized as an object lesson for how the 20th century culture used up resources without any thought to the future.  A later scene terms industrial leaders "inept" and even "criminal" for fostering the destruction of our environment, and the wholesale extinction of so many species.   

If a future like this does come to pass, it will be us -- the Boomers, the X'ers, etc. -- who are under such a microscope; who are judged for the way we live today.  Right now, I'm not certain the future will judge us so kindly, but as always, I hope there's time to reverse that judgment.

Not an easy or simple movie to parse; but ZPG is an underrated science fiction gem, and one well worth seeking out.  Don't go in expecting action and special effects. 

Here, it's all about the concept and the characters, and a grim vision of the future that I hope is as erroneous as The Population Bomb's was in 1968.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Cult-TV Faces of: The City