Saturday, February 12, 2011

I Grew Up with These Film and TV Books...

Producer and writer Joseph Maddrey's blog is called Movies Made Me -- a great title and a great blog that gazes back at the movie productions influencing his life and persona.  Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to comment back and forth with author Gary Gerani, of Fantastic Television (1977) fame -- a writer who has been immensely influential to me over the years -- and my mind went to Joe's phraseology.

So in the spirit of Joe's blog title and that conversation with Mr. Gerani, I got to thinking about the film and TV reference books that  "made me."

Now, these are non-fiction reference guides and monographs that I have returned to over and over again across the years, and drawn immense inspiration from.  These are all books written pre-1990 (when I was 21), and ones that had an enormous impact on my writing career, and the manner in which I today express myself and my understanding of cinema and television.

So today, I wanted to share with you just a few of the film and TV reference books that I grew up with; that made me who I am. 

Again, I just want to be clear: there are innumerable fantastic film and TV reference books being written right now by the likes of Paul Meehan, Alec Worley, Carol J. Clover, David Skal, Matthew Bradley, Mark Phillips, Joe Maddrey, Paul Kane, Brad Duke, Stephen Tropiano, Ray Morton, Barry Monush and many, many others.  It's just that for today I'm focusing on my pre-1990 youth.

I'm featuring these texts (below) in the order I encountered them in my youth.

Fantastic Television (Harmony Books)

This 1977 book by Gary Gerani and Paul H. Schulman features episode guides, background information and cogent critical analyses of thirteen landmark genre TV series, from One Step Beyond through Space:1999. The second part of the book gazes at "American Telefantasy," "British Telefantasy," "Kid Stuff" and "Made for TV Movies."

I still utilize this valuable text for reference purposes, especially for the outstanding entry on Boris Karloff's Thriller, for example. I purchased this book in the late 1970s, when I wasn't ten yet, and here I found two authors treating science fiction -- and the medium of television -- seriously. It was something of a revelation to me. Written with intelligence and wit, Fantastic Television still impresses me (though I respectfully disagree with the authorial assessment of Space:1999).

Memorable quote: "As I as being pushed from behind into adulthood and, not incidentally, as space travel became a reality, the Captain Videos and Flash Gordons became camp.  But a younger generation was already waist deep into Batman, Lost in Space and Vulcan lore.  In time, of course, even the Star Ship Enterprise will become camp and another new crop of kids will become enthralled by new TV shows." (Fantastic Television, Introduction, Paul H. Schulman, page 9).

The World of Star Trek (Ballantine Books; 1973)

I must have owned five copies and at least two editions of The World of Star Trek (by David Gerrold) over the years.  Among other things, this fine book taught me that you can criticize something (even Star Trek) because you love it; and want it to be better.  And you can do it without being a jerk about it.  In The World of Star Trek, David Gerrold insightfully pinpointed Star Trek at its best, and at its worst, and meaningfully -- and with critical consistency -- discussed why certain episodes landed at either end of the spectrum.  The World of Star Trek is about TV production, about storytelling, and about wanting something you love to always be great, and not  suffer from  "hardening of the arteries" as Gerrold put it.

Memorable Quote: "This is the essential appeal of drama.  As mentioned earlier, we watch a story because we are really testing ourselves.  We are curious as to how we would react in an equivalent situation." (page 34)


Danse Macabre (Berkley Books; 1981)

It's strange to contemplate, but my all-time favorite Stephen King book isn't even a work of fiction.  Rather Danse Macabre is about the art of horror, and how one horror icon perceives and practices that art. 

I still admire (nay, worship...) King's incredible review of The Amityville Horror (1979), positioning it as a film not about a haunted house, but as a fear of the "money pit" of home ownership.  And while King's dismissal of Kolchak: The Night Stalker might rankle some enthusiasts, his critiques of The Outer Limits and Tales of the Unexpected among others still make for valuable reading.  On a side note, King also helped me develop a thicker skin in preparation for a writing career in an age in which everyone always thinks they know more than you, with these words from his introduction.

Memorable Quote: "You'll get as many things wrong as you do right. And none of those guys [fans] will pat you on the head for what you got right; they'll just drive you nuts with the stuff you got wrong." 

With those words, Stephen King forecast the Internet Age.  And he taught all of us how to be better writers, and better readers.

The Zombies that Ate Pittsburgh (P.M.A. Communications; 1987)

Paul R. Gagne's The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh must be one of the most thorough and detailed "films of" books I've ever  had the good fortune to read. Not only does The Zombies that Ate Pittsburgh feature great color photographs and in-depth interviews with Romero, it lets you know the "hows" and the "whys" behind the artist's works and creative process.   I attempted to model my books An Askew View, The Unseen Force, Best in Show, and Mercy in Her Eyes, on the excellent work  achieved by Gagne here.  Unfortunately, I've read my copy of this book so frequently that it is now falling apart.  And replacing it is prohibitively expensive...

Creature Features (Creatures at Large Press, 1987)

I've owned every one of John Stanley's Creature Features Guides over the years, and perpetually found them invaluable resources in terms of finding a film by an alternate title, or learning about a film's availability on video, laserdisc(!) or DVD.  These Stanley books cover thousands of titles, and I remember when I was  in college, my roommate and I endeavored to see every damn movie in the first book, starting with the letter "A."  I don't think we ever even got to "B,: but these Creature Feature Guides remain a great resource.  I have fond memories of reading these books at my grandfather's house in Tom's River, New Jersey, at the shore.   Again, I don't always agree with the capsule reviews, but Stanley's books are like a treasure trove.  How else would I have discovered titles like Three on a Meat Hook?

Indelible Images (University Press of America; 1987)

Last but not at all least is this monograph by my film professor at the University of Richmond, Bert Cardullo.  Trained by Stanley Kauffman and critic for The Hudson Review, Dr. Cardullo was and remains one of the most important influences in my life.  His 1987 book, Indelible Images delivers just what it promises -- "new perspectives on classic films." 

From this book, and from Dr. Cardullo I learned to question conventional wisdom about film, to always research a production's historical context, and perhaps most importantly, to ask "why" in regards to a film director's choices.  Cardullo's film classes and seminars at college were wonderful and illuminating, and this book takes me back to those days and lectures every time I open it to read a chapter.  I have a (prized) signed copy that, to this day, I treasure.  You can check out Bert Cardullo's Amazon store here, to familiarize yourself with his other film titles.  Cardullo most definitively isn't into genre film (and we used to have fun butting heads over that on the UR Campus...) but he is one of the finest film critics in the biz.

Memorable Quote: "Cinematic departures from traditional notions of character and empathy interest me precisely because this sort of experimentation has been going on wholesale in literature for some time, but seems to occur only sporadically in films.  The reason, clearly, is that, unlike literature, film embodies rather than evokes the human figure; and unlike theatre (where such experimentation has a long and continuing tradition), film most often photographs actual physical reality instead of attempting to re-create it or reorder it.  We see real people (be they actors or not) in real settings, and as a result we search for the common bond between ourselves and them; we seek to know them, in their allure and complexity (but ultimate knowability), tell us something about our own lives (page ix)."

This is by no means a complete list.  David Schow's Outer Limits Companion is an amazing book, as is Zicree's text on The Twilight Zone.  I also grew up reading anything and everything "splatter" by the great John McCarty.  Other beloved reference books from my youth include Ed Naha's spectacular The Making of Dune and John Brosnan's James Bond of the Cinema.

What film and TV books did you grow up on?    I may just have to start a meme here (if it already hasn't been done...) and ask a few of my blogging brethren to pass on their reference book love. 
I'd love to know what film and TV books "made you..."

Coming Soon: Famous Monsters Underground

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Spotlight on The Outer Limits: "The Guests" at We Are Controlling Transmission

Peter Enfantino and John Scoleri's We Are Controlling Transmission blog is running my spotlight on the Outer Limits episode "The Guests" this evening. 

I must confess, I seem to be in a small (but hopefully vocal...) minority in really finding great inspiration from --and tremendous artistic value in -- this episode of the series. 

Frankly, "The Guests" is one of my favorite installments of the Stefano series, and I watched it several times -- taking notes -- while preparing the third season of my web series, The House Between

In particular, I was fascinated by how "The Guests" marshals limited settings (the interior of a house) and relatively few characters to create this aura of spectacular creepiness and horror.   The Gothic influences are quite powerful, but the episode boasts other unique undercurrents too. 

For instance, the soundtrack, a kind of syncopated heartbeat at times, is enormously effective in conveying and generating terror.  Anyway,  I consider "The Guests" a major influence on my own creative work, and I've always believed it's a really underrated gem of this anthology.

Without further introduction, here's a snippet of my spotlight on The Outer Limits episode, "The Guests:"

In the gloom-laden and visually dazzling Outer Limits episode, “The Guests,” a leather-jacketed drifter named Wade (Geoffrey Horne) becomes trapped in the past both metaphorically and literally when he happens into an alien “brain” that has taken the form of an old Victorian mansion atop a hill.

This strange, imposing edifice — which seems to occupy a space entirely outside the Laws of Physics — serves as home to several strangers including a faded silent screen star, Florinda Patten (Gloria Graham), a Wall Street investment banker of questionable morality, Randall Latimer (Vaughn Taylor), and his gleefully diabolical and cruel wife, Ethel (Nellie Burt). All these souls have been denizens in the alien house since at least 1928 and evidence surprisingly little interest in leaving it.

The hidden master of this dark old house is an inquisitive monstrosity: a quivering, gelatinous, luminescent thing from another dimension who seeks the “missing vector” or “missing quantity” that would permit him to better comprehend the human race.

The emotionless, questing creature probes Wade’s mind several times and discovers at last the missing “one note in the symphony.”

It is, simply, “love.”

Specifically, Wade’s romantic, selfless attachment to another captive in the house, the beautiful Tess (Luana Anders), ultimately proves the factor that resolves the alien’s incomplete equation. And when Tess leaves the safe temporal “bubble” of the house, super-ages and dies in a matter of seconds to preserve Wade’s freedom, the house begins to shift back to the alien’s dimension.

After escaping, Wade watches the alien brain fade away slowly into nothingness, and continues down the road…

Strange, unsettling and dominated by extreme camera angles that suggest early German expressionist cinema, “The Guests” is a daring and occasionally surreal entry in The Outer Limits canon. Specifically, the Donald Sanford (Thriller) narrative is a deliberate and artful blending of literary movements, old and new. The episode has widely and appropriately been described as “Gothic,” for instance, for its familiar horror and romantic flourishes, settings, and characters.

At the same time, however, this episode of The Outer Limits also cannily mirrors the perspectives of the post-war, Beat Generation; particularly that movement’s dedicated opposition to modern warfare, military technology, and such middle class, bourgeoisie balms as leisure and material affluence.

Read the rest of my contribution here.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Spotlight on "Fun and Games" at We Are Controlling Transmission

I hope everyone has been checking in at and enjoying We Are Controlling Transmission, the Outer Limits-a-day blog now in progress.  It's been a great and engaging ride so far thanks to host authors Peter Enfantino and John Scoleri, and the blog is well into the first season of the classic anthology.

Today, the first of my two episode spotlights has been posted there.  My piece today is on the episode "Fun and Games," and looks back at the history of Fredric Brown's story, Arena and specifically at the ways it has been adapted for television.

Fredric Brown’s short story “Arena” was first published in June of 1944 in Astounding Magazine and the imaginative concept informing it has since become a staple of science fiction television, re-purposed often without attribution for series as diverse as The Outer Limits, Star Trek (1966-1969), Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977), Blake’s 7 (1978-1981) Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981), and later, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994).

Brown’s timeless and highly-influential tale concerns a violent space war between Earthman and “intelligent spider”-like aliens known as “Outsiders.” During a space combat engagement, a human pilot named Carson is spirited from the cockpit of his one-man fighter, called a “scouter,” and transported to the narrative’s titular arena: a world of blue-colored sand and strange, loquacious lizards.

Soon, an omnipotent alien informs Carlson that the galactic conflict will not be settled amongst the stars but in this ring, instead. The human will fight an Outsider — a round, tentacled organism — to the death.

If Carson should lose this brutal contest, mankind will be wiped out of existence as a consequence. Contrarily, if Carson prevails in the fight, the human race inherits control of the universe and the Outsiders shall be destroyed.

In the end, Carson destroys his alien opponent without any lingering reservations, a violent act that is a “moral imperative” according to the tale.

Penned at the height of the World War II era, Fredric Brown’s vignette suggested a unique alternative to the horrors of the times. What if a war could be settled by two individuals — trained warriors from each side — rather than by the huge technological and personnel mobilization of nation-states? Wouldn’t that a better, more reasonable and far less messy way to wage war?

Over the years, the “Arena” template was been modified considerably, and Brown’s Darwinian “survival of the fittest” message was frequently overturned in favor of 1960s anti-war philosophy.

For instance, in Star Trek’s famous “Arena,” adapted by Gene coon, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and a reptilian Gorn commander — like Carson and the Outsider — were transported to a neutral planetoid for one-on-one combat, while omnipotent aliens known as Metrons waited to declare a victor, and destroy the loser’s ship.

But in this case — unlike his literary antecedent — Kirk defied the God-like aliens and refused to kill his alien opponent. The focus of this optimistic TV story was on not fighting in the first place, rather than winning or losing in the person-to-person combat.

Later iterations of Brown’s outline, namely Space: 1999’s “Rules of Luton, Blake’s 7’s “Duel,” and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Last Outpost” similarly stressed the “more evolved” moral ideal of resisting an arranged fight; and of punishing or defying instead the God-like aliens who would seek “bread and circus”-styled entertainment from the warring and savagery of other intelligent beings.

Instead of Brown’s Darwinian tale of survival of the fittest, these later programs meditated on the Sun Tzu axiom: “He will triumph who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”

But “Fun and Games,” The Outer Limits’ memorable variation on the “Arena” template – and the first to appear on network television – remains determinedly different from such later retellings of the by-now familiar science fiction tale..."

Don't forget to visit We Are Controlling Transmission to read the rest of the piece!

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Green Slime (1968)

When I was five years old and living in New Jersey, a TV station out of New York, WABC, (Channel 7) aired The 4:30 PM Movie every week day. 

And via this 4:30 PM Movie platform, I was introduced to a multitude of cinematic treasures.  For instance, this was how I first encountered all the Planet of the Apes films, The Omega Man (1971), Soylent Green (1973), and, yes...The Green Slime (1968).

Alone among those titles The Green Slime has gained quite a reputation as something of an anti-classic.  Specifically, it has earned only a lowly score of 3.7 from user/reviewers on the Internet Movie Database.

In additions, books such as The Official Razzie Movie Guide and Son of Golden Turkey Awards have pretty well mocked and eviscerated the film too. 

The former resource calls the movie a "camp classic" while the latter describes The Green Slime in this fashion: "Some of the worst American actors meet some of the worst Japanese special effects in this multinational fiasco." 

So that's the conventional wisdom.

The New York Times was slightly more forgiving of The Green Slime, however.  Critic Howard Thompson opined that  the film "opens promisingly, keeps it up for about half-an-hour but then fades badly. There is a quiet, tingling efficiency about these early scenes and very little nonsense. The trick photography and stratospheric effects are neat and clean. And the plot itself isn't half bad for this kind of operation."

I had not watched The Green Slime since 1976 or thereabouts, but when a dear friend of mine named Robert offered to lend me his DVD of the movie (recently released thanks to the exquisite Warner Archive), I jumped at the opportunity to screen the film again and re-assess.

So, today... The Green Slime

Well, first off, I believe The New York Times' Howard Thompson was actually more accurate in assessing and describing the film's strengths and weaknesses than the professional and amateur mockers have been.

In 2011, the film's special effects have undeniably aged poorly, and the actual Green Slime monsters probably never looked particularly convincing, let alone scary, to adult eyes.  Not even back in '69.  It wasn't really until Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), perhaps, that space monsters were suitably scary on-screen, and The Green Slime looks almost prehistoric by comparison.

I might also add that the science as presented in the film seems ludicrous.  And that the acting is -- termed politely -- stiff.  Blow dried might be a better description.  

If we're keeping count, one might note that much of the dialogue is risible...and thus humorous.  The view of scientists is pretty cliched too, with one professor's irresponsibility walking hand-in-hand with his idiocy.  

And last but not least, the  overt swinging sixties vibe (down to the awesome theme song and scantily clad astronaut ladies drinking champagne...) readily encourages the prevalent "so bad that it's good" interpretation of the film.

So please, take all these negative points as absolute givens if you decide to watch The Green Slime.   Don't say I didn't warn you, okay?

But playing devil's advocate now, this Japanese production filmed at Toei is also -- to my surprise -- constructed on some pretty sturdy film craft.  The film's director, Kinji Fukasaku (1930 - 2003) is well-known as a favorite of Quentin Tarantino's and even in The Green Slime, one can detect the reason behind his admiration. 

No, this isn't The Yakuza Papers (1971) or Battle Royale (2000) -- not by a long shot -- yet Fukasaku is the same artist; one extraordinarily gifted with visuals, especially talented at selecting the very right shot at the right moment.  

The upshot is that a producer could actually mount a shot-for-shot remake of The Green Slime in Hollywood today --  featuring big-name actors and upgraded special effects -- and it would probably be pretty damned good.

"We found something strange up there, sir."

The Green Slime is the story of a planetary disaster in the making.  The multi-national UNSC (United Nations Space Command) learns that a rogue asteroid, named Flora, is on a collision course with Earth. 

In fact, it will strike in less-than ten hours.  Stalwart Commander Jack Rankin (Robert Horton) is assigned to destroy the asteroid before catastrophe occurs.  Unfortunately, Rankin's assignment will also involve relieving his old friend, Vince Elliott (Richard Jaeckel), from command of the international space station, Gamma 3...and seeing his old flame, Dr. Lisa Benson (Luciana Paluzzi), again.

But Jack is a non-nonsense kind of officer, and rushes in where angels fear to tread.  On a rocket mission to the rocky surface of Flora, Horton's team detonates several explosives in short order.  The threat to Earth is pulped, but a single glop of indigenous green slime lands on one astronaut's pants.

Upon return to Gamma 3, the crew celebrates the mission's success, unaware that the green slime has begun to grow in the decontamination chamber.  In fact, the Green Slime thrives on electricity, and soon becomes a walking, cyclopean, tentacled monstrosity capable of "feeding on energy and discharging energy."

The Green Slime can also regenerate at a "frightening" rate.  Even one drop of spilled Green Slime can regenerate a nursery full of these squeaking monsters.  In other words -- to quote Alien -- "you don't dare kill it!" 

Very soon, Jack realizes that there is no choice but to abandon and then destroy the overrun Gamma 3 station, lest the alien threat reach planet Earth...

"If he's right, those things are going to be all over the place!"

As I wrote at the start of this piece, it's easy, from a casual viewing, to detect what's bad and unintentionally funny about The Green Slime

I do not now and never shall deny any of those important elements. 

But solid film criticism isn't merely about plucking low-hanging fruit from the vine.  In some instances, it's about excavating those things that get buried in favor of the obvious.  And the fact of the matter is that The Green Slime is highly entertaining for a number of reasons, and it seems fair and judicious to enumerate those reasons in this review.

In particular, I recommend that viewers pay special attention to the visual compositions, and the ways Fukasaku uses the frame to create an escalating sense of tension.

For instance -- effortlessly and perfectly -- Fukasaku shifts to hand-held shots in the interior of a small spacecraft set just as the movie's protagonists undertake their important mission to Flora. The sudden shift from a more stately grounded camera to the hand-held shots supports the story's rising anxiety level.

I also admire how the director dramatically marshals whip pans and intense camera pushes during the big "reveal" moments and the sustained battle sequences.  

There's nothing wrong with any of these compositions, and in fact, many are actually quite gorgeous.  If you just try not to focus on the floppy-armed monsters, and look at the particular shots, there's a level of  real artistry apparent. 

And not all the special effects look terrible.  There are some inventive angles here of the Green Slime climbing up an Infirmary wall, edited in reverse, apparently.

That sense of artistry extends to the film's numerous space sets, which have sometimes been termed "cardboard."   I didn't see that much, frankly, except in a few short sequences where Gamma 3's doors appear momentarily light weight.   And on the contrary, the surface of the planet Flora as visualized here is quite dynamic and intriguing: a live-action studio set of considerable intricacy, color and depth.  In the days before CGI, everything had to be built -- including whole planets -- and The Green Slime's foreign Flora looks like fantastic on DVD. 

I could also comment on the effective choreography and early wire-work in some of the flying/battle sequences in space, a precursor to such EVA battles as we've since seen in Moonraker (1979), among other films. 

With all this good work, it is a mystery to me why a clearly capable director allows his poorly-designed, silly-looking monsters to get so much damned face time on camera.  This film could have been significantly improved by some shock cutting, by featuring dimmer light in a few moments, and by other techniques that could hide or mask the fakery.  If those steps had been taken, The Green Slime might be remembered very differently today.

In terms of atmosphere, The Green Slime is gloriously a product of its time and specific context, the late 1960s.  This was our world in the midst of the Apollo Program, with a moon landing on the horizon.  Accordingly, the film benefits from the same kind of 1960s retro-futurism and can-do attitude as TV series like Thunderbirds or Star Trek. 

That means the film is veritably filled with astronauts in red and blue jump suits, bustling about and moving quickly into action to face danger and save the world in the process.  Launch a space mission to save the Earth in under ten hours?  No problem! Just hit the accelerator!  The Green Slime goes into laborious detail showing space cruiser launches, futuristic cities and other examples of man's "high technology" in this possible future.  The breadth of imagination in terms of production design and miniature work on display here is not so easily dismissed, even if we have outgrown both miniatures and can-do futurism.

In terms of the world it presents, The Green Slime offers an irony-less view of can-do space adventuring, with serious men and women going about their business without tongues-in-cheek.  In today's hipster world, this is just something else to laugh about, no doubt, but The Green Slime is the product of a more optimistic age.  One in which we all believed -- without question -- that man would conquer space.  I find this facet of the film charming and innocent, I must admit.  The film's confidence in us, in mankind, is one of its finer qualities.  This faith is reinforced in the subplot that many critics find so deplorable, the Rankin-Elliot rivalry.

Specifically, Rankin is all about the job, damn the consequences.  We're all expendable! 

And Elliot is the opposite, willing to save his men at the expense of the mission. 

In the end, both men -- and both approaches -- are required to save the day.  This plot-point alone seems evidence of a more innocent, less polarized time in our world.  Today the answers to a lot of our national and international problems are both liberal ones and conservative ones, but no one wants to admit that fact.  It always has to be either/or; not a little bit of both. 

The Green Slime's dueling commanders -- fighting over the love of a woman and the path to success -- each must compromise a bit, and come to see the validity in opposing approaches.  Is this particularly deep?  Perhaps not, but it's another byproduct of The Green Slime's more optimistic epoch..

I've written a lot here about the things I admired in The Green Slime, in part because I enjoy highlighting positives more than I do writing a review focusing on some weak dialogue, or bad special effects. 

The Green Slime is not a great movie, but it is enjoyable and it boasts some visual distinction.  Snark about the movie can be found elsewhere.  Like, lots of elsewheres...

In the final analysis, whether or not you enjoy this film depends largely on your perspective of a common criticism.  Many reviewers have complained that the film features effects that make it look like "a Godzilla movie."

If you think that comparison is  a valid criticism and a sign of "bad" cinema, then don't waste your energy on The Green Slime.  You won't be that into it.

On the other hand, if you believe the comparison to Godzilla films is a positive, then by all means, sit back, relax, and have a good time with this silly movie played ever-so-straight. 

Monday, February 07, 2011