Saturday, March 19, 2011

Now Available for Pre-Order: Dexter and Philosophy (2011)

I'm proud to announce I have an essay entitled "The Killing Joke" featured in Open Court's upcoming Dexter and Philosophy book, due for publication on June 1st.  

This book on Dexter is the latest in the "Popular Culture and Philosophy" series, and is now available for pre-order at Amazon.com, here

This is actually my second occasion working with Open Court since I also had two essays featured in 2008's Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy

There, I had the pleasure of writing about both the original BSG and the recent remake, particularly their opposing moral approaches to storytelling.  I conducted an interview with the editors of that volume for the blog, here.

In my opinion, Dexter is one of the best TV series on the air right now (if not the best), so it was a great pleasure and a lot of fun to be involved with this new book.  

So if you like Dexter (and you like philosophy too, I guess...), go ahead and check this one out, you won't be disappointed.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Don't Forget: Space 2011 - American Culture and The Final Frontier, on March 21st

Just a quick reminder and heads-up to everyone: I'll be lecturing at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia from 4:30 pm to 6:00 pm this coming Monday, March 21st. 

The subject of the 90-minute talk is how space-adventure TV programs from Star Trek through SGU reflect their times, and mirror the national and international Zeitgeist.  

This talk is free and open to the public, as well as students and faculty.

For more about the program, check it out here

I'd love to meet some readers of the blog while I'm at this speaking engagement in Va., so if you are in the area and can make it to the talk, please stop by. 

I'll also  be selling copies of Exploring Space:1999, An Analytical Guide to Battlestar Galactica, A Critical History of Dr. Who and my other books starting at 6:00 pm, immediately after the show.

I hope I'll see some of you there.  If not, don't worr: I'll be taking my sci-fi and horror seminars on the road in months to come, and will be posting more about that schedule here soon.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

CULT TV-MOVIE REVIEW: Shadow on the Land (1968)

"These are the symbols of democracy.  A democracy we take as for granted as the water we drink.  But democracy is a living thing; its skeleton an ideal; its bloodstream dissent; its tissue comprised of all the people who inhabit it.  All the people.

But what happens if the life of democracy is paralyzed by fear, or greed, or simple laziness, and the country is yielded up, or co-erced, or persuaded into accepting a dictatorship, a leader whose word alone is all of law? 

The skeleton of democracy is destroyed, its bloodstream, dissent, is bound in the barbed wire of concentration camps.  And the leader's special police...terrorize the bulk of the people into acceptance.  And the flag of the Internal Security Forces -- the symbol of fear and darkness -- will fly over our land."

- A Voice of "God" narration, from the opening of the TV-movie, Shadow on the Land (1968).

The stirring words printed above are accompanied on screen in Shadow on the Land by impressive views of national landmarks that we Americans hold dear: the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument

Yet these words are also accompanied by images that terrify every American citizen, regardless of political stripe or political party:  a giant  black "X" marked through our country's Constitution; red arm-bands decorating the uniforms of  a gestapo-like police force.

This TV-movie created by Sidney Sheldon and written by Nedrick Young contemplates something that we all fervently hope is absolutely impossible: the rise of a fascist, totalitarian dystopia in America.  It's a 1960s TV variation on Sinclair Lewis's classic 1935 literary work, It Can't Happen Here.

In Shadow on the Land, The United States has been a dictatorship for some forty years, ever since the country's Leader exploited a national emergency ("riots in the ghetto" according to the screenplay) to seize total control of the nation and declare martial law.  The people, in essence, gave the Leader "a blank check."

Over the years since the takeover, "discipline" has replaced "freedom" in America as an ideal.  Dissenters -- part of an organized resistance group called "Society of Man" -- are sent to detention camps where they are they are beaten and tortured.  The police force, the ISF, is ubiquitous and well-armed.

As the drama commences, an ISF officer, Colonel Andrew Davis (Jackie Cooper) is arrested by authorities for stealing documents pertaining to the Leader's new top-secret initiative, "Operation Hammer."  

Davis is hauled off to Detention Camp 12, and tortured for information.  The resistance movement attacks the camp and rescues Davis in an extremely violent sequence with overturned cars, soldiers electrocuted on fences and bullet-ridden corpses.  This night-time action scene is impressive as such on its own, but there's one important moment of undeniable real power here as well.

In particular, two nameless Society of Man fighters attempt to bring down the ISF flag and fly our Stars and Stripes instead.  The first man is gunned down viciously (on-screen). 

Without thought, a second man jumps into the breach and raises the flag...and is also gunned down with extreme-prejudice, right before our eyes.  But the flag goes up; Old Glory reigns. 

This moment goes by quickly, and without comment, but it certainly makes a powerful statement.  These two men died to make a symbolic gesture that few people would ever see (in this context).  They didn't die freeing other men, or retreat to fight the good fight another day.  No, they gave up their very lives in service of a representation of liberty. 

As I was sitting on my comfortable sofa watching this scene -- my beautiful wife on one side of me, and my 91 year-old uncle on the other side of me -- I tried to imagine myself in those men's shoes.  Giving up my life -- everything I hold dear -- for the simple but powerful and universal idea of freedom.  We've seen people doing this very thing, or something quite like it, in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Fighting to the death for the cause of freedom.  But as Americans, we really haven't had to do that.  We're fighting two wars, but we haven't had to give up our sons or daughters to wage them.  We haven't even had to endure tax hikes, or conserve oil.

How many Americans of today, I wonder, would sacrifice their personal futures just to see the U.S. flag raised?  I'm no better or more noble than anyone else.  And when I realized that, while watching this old TV movie, I was a little shaken.  What would you and I do if you lived in the America portrayed in Shadow on the Land?

Shadow on the Land delvers further into this courageous concept.  A high-ranking Colonel in the ISF, Shep McCloud (Marc Stanger) is actually working for the Resistance, and he delivers a wounded Davis to Davis' brother, a priest at the local Midnight Mission, played by Gene Hackman. 

This priest believes that all of life is a trial, one leading to death, and doesn't want to help his own biological brother.  He says that he "renders unto Caesar that which is Caesar's" and that "God" should decide.   But Shep insists...and he's a tough man to refuse.

In fact, Shep needs a lot of help, from both the priest and from a lovely ISF psychologist, because Operation Hammer could mean an end to the Society of Man.  On this very night -- Christmas Eve -- the Leader plans to stage a "false flag" operation, one equated to the the Reichstag fire in the teleplay. 

Specifically, ISF soldiers will dress as resistance fighters and attack a power plant control room in California, plunging the state into darkness and cold.  This terrorist act, the Leader believes, will finally turn the nation against the Society, and pave the way for the enforcement of "new restrictions" and the doubling of the ISF force size.

Most of this 1968 TV movie involves McCloud's attempts to prevent Operation Hammer from succeeding, and finding unexpected allies along the way.  Even the hesitant priest comes to McCloud's aid, after Colonel Davis's death by torture.  The movie ends at the dawn of Christmas, with the reminder that "there's always another battle to fight."

One of the most interesting facets of Shadow on the Land is its alternate reality viewpoint.  It is still the year 1968, but fascism has reigned in America for forty years, since 1928 ostensibly.  Still, America in 1968 looks almost the same as we would remember it.  There are freeways, Christmas decorations, office meetings, restaurants, etc.  The only difference is that no one is free.  That concentration camps dot the landscape, and every park, every avenue, every building is is monitored by the ever-present ISF soldiers.

Perhaps the tele-movie's second most powerful moment occurs when Davis attempts to find sanctuary following an ISF raid on the mission.  He begs people for help in the park, in the streets, even in a diner.  He tells them he's an army officer. He's bleeding, and desperate.

And no one lefts a finger. 

No one even makes eye contact with him.  The point transmitted by this scene is plain and clear: a fascist state depends on two things: a militia to bully people, and an apathetic, uninvolved populace.    Again, this got me thinking. Who would I rather be?  The guy who dies raising the flag?  Or the guy staring down at his lunch plate as a free man is captured and tortured?

Shadow on the Land was apparently a backdoor pilot for a TV series.  The concept was never picked up for broadcast, but I was struck how timely it seems today.  For instance, the opening narration discusses America losing democracy in three ways. 

First by fear, and certainly, this country knew crippling fear after September 11, 2001, in the age of color-coded terror alerts and warnings about powerful politicians of "mushroom clouds over" American cities. 

The second way is by greed, and indeed we saw Wall Street's sickening greed bring this great country to her knees in the Economic Meltdown of 2008.  We bailed Wall Street out and now look where we are.  They've got bonuses, and there's no money left for our schools, our workers, or, apparently, a middle class.

And third, finally, by laziness.   Let's hope against hope that we don't see this shoe drop. Certainly both the passion in the Tea Party in the election of 2010 and the passion now raging against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin speak powerfully against the possibility of such mass laziness.  These are both wonderful American examples of dissent, or what Shadow on the Land terms "the life blood" of democracy. 

I'm particularly glad Shadow on the Land pointed out the importance of dissent in a democracy such as ours.  I remember last decade, not too long ago when people spoke out of conscience about their objection to the War in Iraq that they were labeled un-American or treasonous for not going along.  On the contrary, it was the most American and patriotic thing people could do then (and do now): question authority

Ask why.

In terms of action, Shadow on the Land is pretty-fast paced and brutal.  And John Forsythe gives a nice, icy performance as high-ranking ISF officer, General Bruce.  But again, I just kept thinking that something like this TV-movie could be done very effectively today, when we've moved into a more technological age, when both political parties have apparently accepted surveillance of U.S. citizens without oversight and the right of American interests to torture. 

A new weekly series on this subject -- America under totalitarian rule -- would be a perfect Zeitgeist program at this juncture, and I would nominate Chris Carter to create, produce and write it.  He's an artist who has obsessed over these very ideas for twenty years, and, more than anyone else, I think, could write movingly about the human decisions, bravery and capitulations inherent in a scenario like Shadow on the Land's.

If this concept had gone to weekly series in 1968 (when the optimistic Star Trek was still on the air), I wonder how it would have been welcomed. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Omega Man (1971)

"One creature, caught. Caught in a place he cannot stir from in the dark. Alone, outnumbered hundreds to one, nothing to live for but his memories, nothing to live with but his gadgets, his cars, his guns, gimmicks... and yet the whole family can't bring him down..."

-Matthias (Anthony Zerbe) contemplates Neville (Charlton Heston) in The Omega Man (1971).

As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1970s (2002), Charlton Heston is legend. 

To the kids who grew up in the 1970s, the great actor is not the larger-than-life religious messiah of The Ten Commandments, nor the 1990s-era NRA Hawk of "from my cold, dead hands" infamy.  Rather, Heston remains the ultimate science-fiction anti-hero and bad ass.

In a relatively short-span (from 1968 to 1973), Heston fronted four remarkable dystopic and post-apocalyptic science-fiction visions: Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man and Soylent Green. 

He did so with cocksure arrogance and larger-than-life charisma, prompting Pauline Kael to note on one occasion that Heston was a "god-like hero, built for strength...an archetype of what makes Americans win."

Call it the Heston Mystique.

It's a truly unusual and specific alchemy at work in these particular films.  Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man and Soylent Green are all authentic leftist nightmare visions of unpleasant futures; pointing to the folly of nuclear or germ warfare, and railing against environmental apocalypse, militarism, and entrenched corporate, political and even religious interests. 

And yet in all these instances we have this grinning, caustic  icon of the right-wing countenancing such concerns...the last man standing, the last man advocating for our way of life.

Even if our way of life -- in some sense -- is directly to blame for the apocalypse at hand. 

Only Nixon could go to China, and only Charlton Heston could take on such terrifying, dystopian worlds, perhaps.  But the frisson generated as a right-wing icon takes on traditionally left-wing concerns about the end of the world grants each of the aforementioned films a special kind of enduring power and resonance, that's for certain.

Although The Omega Man arrived smack in the middle of this cycle of Heston sci-fi films (after Apes and before Soylent), it really makes the most of this his unique persona.  The film opens with Heston -- decked out in cool sun-glasses -- patrolling the lonely streets of a post-apocalypse 20th century city in his red convertible.  He races down the garbage-strewn boulevards, listening to Max Steiner's Theme from "A Summer Place." 

Then, he sees a shadowy figure move in a nearby edifice's upstairs window.  And he whips out a machine gun...

It's one of those wonderful movie moments: first trading on well-articulated feelings of loneliness and isolation (enhanced by the epic, long-distance aerial shots), and then reaching for terror...and a just little bit of humor as Heston -- singular defender of the human race -- cuts loose on an enemy quite abruptly. 

Later in the same scene, Heston dons a stylish tan jacket that makes it look as though he's out on safari.  He carries a red gas tank in one hand and his machine gun in the other, and thus is perfectly accessorized to stave off the End of Life As We Know It. Coupled with Ron Granier's heroic, rousing score, this moment in The Omega Man really...kicks. 

If you ever want to dissect the unusual Heston Mystique, this moment is probably the place to start.

Another suitable place would be the scene in The Omega Man in which Heston informs the leader of the Family -- a group of albino mutants -- that he's "full of crap."

"Is this the conclusion of all our yesterdays?  Is this the end of technological mankind?"

The Omega Man is the second silver screen adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 landmark novel, I am Legend.

The first version starred Vincent Price and was called The Last Man on Earth (1964).  The third, I am Legend (2007), headlined Will Smith.  The Omega Man has often been termed the least faithful of the cinematic bunch, yet in many ways it's also the best film of the three, neither ultra-low budget nor saddled with dated and ridiculous CGI effects.

In The Omega Man,  Colonel Robert Neville (Heston) has survived a biological plague that, in March of 1975, wiped out the vast majority of mankind.  As the story opens, it is the year 1977, and Neville -- living a life of unending isolation -- devotes his days to discovering the location of  "the Hive;" the hideout for The Family, a menacing gang of neo-Luddite, photophobic mutants.  If Neville owns daylight in this metropolis, the Family owns the night.  And every midnight, the Family surrounds his urban dwelling and calls Neville out, hoping to destroy this last remnant of technological man. 

The Family's leader, the loquacious Matthias (Zerbe) believes that the plague was God's punishment of man; judgment on his dependence and belief in science and technology.  Now, he and his "Family" devote their lives to burning books and works of art, and destroying all evidence of 20th century technology. 

"In the beginning, we tried to help one another, those that were left," he tells Neville.  "We tried to clean things up, set things straight. We buried things and burned. Then it came to me that we were chosen. Chosen for just this work: To bury what was dead. To burn what was evil. To destroy what was dangerous." 

In short, Matthias gives new meaning to the term eliminationalist rhetoric.  He wants nothing less than to erase Neville -- and twenty centuries of human development -- from the history books.
While out in the city one day, Neville unexpectedly encounters a fellow survivor named Lisa (Rosalind Cash).  She is allied with a brilliant med-student, Dutch (Paul Koslo) and several small children.  All of them are currently unaffected by the still-rampant plague, but could "turn" at any moment. 

When Neville realizes that mankind could have a future again in this small group, he re-doubles his effort to produce a vaccine for the germ that destroyed almost all life on Earth.  He realizes that the key to destroying the plague involves his own untainted blood...

"Your art, your science...it was all a nightmare, and now it's finished."

In some respects, the first portion of The Omega Man -- with Heston's Neville alone in a vast urban jungle of glass, cement and metal -- remains the strongest and most memorable portion of the film.

Neville continually drops one-liners, to an audience of one: himself. 

"Another day, another dollar."  "There's never a cop around when you need one."  And -- during a viewing of Woodstock (1970) -- "They sure don't make pictures like that anymore."

All these jokes are determinedly cliched, and yet these familiar turns-of-phrase from before the apocalypse also seem poignant because they no longer carry their original meanings. Rather, they call attention to Neville's plight. 

Another day another dollar?  Money is worthless

There's never a cop around when you need one?  There's nobody aroundPeriod.

They sure don't make pictures like that?  In fact, no new movies are being made. 

Neville's sarcastic running commentary reveals just how pointless and empty his life has become; and how impossible it is to forget the past, and the dead. 

Another exemplary scene early in the film finds Neville hunting down the Family in the empty Hotel Premiere.  He passes through a fancy hall with a grand chandelier, and then moves into a dining room where a long dinner table is still set with the finest china and linens.  Again, table settings, fancy dishes, frilly gold curtains, and ornate light fixtures seem damned unimportant in the face of extinction.  The visuals in this scene get at that idea; at the notion of man as having gone the way of the dodo or the dinosaur; with only these empty forms and shapes left behind.

Many such moments early in the film practically tingle with this electric idea of a fully-decorated but unpopulated world, as well as Neville's seething, caustic anger about his fate.  For instance, there's a moment when he spies a pin-up calendar on a car dealership wall, and has to take it down.  He can't bear to look at it; to be reminded of the fairer sex.  It's just too much to bear..

And the scene in the movie theater, with Neville lip-synching the words to hippie dialogue in Woodstock (1970) is some kind of twisted genius.  It gets to the tension inherent in casting right-wing Heston in a role such as this (or in the role of Taylor in Planet of the Apes).  Heston's Neville doesn't give a flying hoot for the hippies or their counter-culture belief system.  But here he is, alone at the end of the world, and, well, he'll settle even for a hippie's faux profundity as company. 

By having Neville accept and repeat the words of Woodstock, the movie knowingly puts this guy in the role of humanity's defender.  Messy humanity's defender, I should say, longing for all the species' stupid conflicts, nonsense, and silliness.  Neville is there...celebrating it; mourning it.  It's the equivalent of George Clooney playing Neville after the apocalypse, lip-synching to a Rush Limbaugh recording, or a Bill O'Reilly show.  There's a tension to it; an irony.  And a poignancy too.

The Omega Man also thrives as a good old fashioned action film.  There's an exhilarating motorcycle escape in a football-stadium, scored heroically -- again -- by Granier, and culminating in a slow-motion jump.  It's sort of refreshing and eye-opening how basic and well-staged it is, with no digital effects or CGI backgrounds or herky-jerky camera work and editing.  To quote Neville, "they don't make pictures like this anymore."

I suppose most of the ire and brickbats directed at The Omega Man over the years involve the film's ending.  In case you've forgotten, the climax finds Neville speared to a modern art fountain outside his apartment.  As he dies in a pool of his own life-saving blood, Neville slips into a Christ pose; of Jesus Christ on the cross.   I know this ending really upset critic Howard Thompson at The New York Times, who called it "phony" and "florid."

I agree that this ending is bracing, but would nonetheless argue that the way for it is is paved early on.  A young girl gazes at Neville admiringly and asks, "Are you God?"  If that's not a clear set-up for the quasi-religious denouement, I don't know what would be. 

But on more basic terms, what's intrinsically wrong or wrong-headed with the comparison of Neville to Christ?  Both men die for the sins of the world; and both die giving humanity a second chance.  In John 1:7, it is writtenand the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.”   In the case of Neville, his blood will also cleanse humanity of the plague; the sin of germ warfare made manifest in flesh. 

Secondly, a critical part of Matheson's original novel is the mythologizing of Neville as a kind of bedtime story for the vampires, a bogeyman.  Though The Omega Man de-mythologizes and de-romanticizes the tale to a considerable degree, this ending brings it all back in.  This movie's events serve, in a sense, as an origin story of how mankind got a second chance. 

That line of Scripture quoted above actually begins with the words "If ye walk in the light, as he is in the light.."  And consider too that throughout the film, Neville is dramatically associated with the light; just as the Family is associated with the dark.  Neville only operates in the day time, and he preserves also the light of knowledge: of literature, art, medicine and science.  In the case of the latter two, those are the very things which enable Neville to share his life-giving blood.

So the Crucifixion pose, if you will, not only works thematically; but it works in terms of the literal story and what these characters witness and will come to remember.  This is especially true of the children, particularly that little girl who asked if Neville is God.  She will grow up and tell her children about the man whose blood saved the human race. 

To some -- especially as generations pass -- Neville will indeed seem as a God, or at least a Savior.

I don't find the ending of The Omega Man  sacreligious or profane, or even overly florid.  I think it's the perfect and valid ending to Neville's particular story. After having spent years in the "wilderness" of Los Angeles alone, he  returns to humanity and finds redemption both for himself and his people.  He has gone from being "hostile" and "not belonging" to saving the human race.  Furthermore, the casting of Heston, whom many associate with religious imagery because of Ten Commandments, lends further validity to a religious or mythological interpetation of Neville's life.

Finally, I've been writing about dystopias a lot lately.  There gets to be, at some point, common ground with the post-apocalyptic film.  They aren't always one in the same, but in the case of The Omega Man, I would argue that they are.  The film depicts not just life after the fall of man, but a new and terrifying order, a "Family" (in the style of Charles Manson's) that wants to burn and destroy everything of value, from art to literature to sculpture.  This Family would leave the Earth in a new Dark Age without beauty, without imagination, without past, and therefore without potential.

That's the "Hell," so-to-speak, that Neville delivers the world from.  And that's why he earns his valedictory crucifixion.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 130: The Name of the Game: "L.A. 2017"

Thanks to the generosity and kindness of a good friend and reader of this blog, I have now been able to screen and enjoy "L.A. 2017," a uniquely dystopian episode of the wheel TV series The Name of the Game (1968-1971). 

To top it off, "L.A. 2017" is directed by none other than movie legend Steven Spielberg.

Networks don't generally present so-called wheel series these days, but The Name of the Game filled a ninety-minute slot each week of its 76-episode run on NBC, with three rotating lead actors (Gene Barry, Tony Franciosa and Robert Stack) vetting story lines. 

In this case, all the adventures portrayed on The Name of the Game centered around Howard Publishing.  Franciosa played an investigative reporter, Stack a crime magazine editor, and Gene Barry was Glenn Howard, the publisher-and-chief.

Created near the end of The Name of the Game's three year run, on the then-considerable budget of $375,000 dollars, "L.A. 2017" features Gene Barry's character, and sends him off in an unexpected and frightening science fiction adventure.

As "L.A. 2017" (written by Philip Wylie) commences, Glenn Howard is on his way back to Los Angeles from the Sierra Pines Conference on Ecology. 

As he drives on a windy mountain road, Glenn dictates a private memo to the President of the United States about what he has seen and heard at the conference.  He suggests that "the destruction of the environment" is imminent unless someone begins to demonstrate real leadership on the issue.

While steering and dictating the memo, Glenn suddenly falls unconscious and drives his car off the road.  When he awakes, he is being tended to by two emergency workers in red jumpsuits and protective gas masks. 

These men escort him through the "Los Angeles Portal" to the city.  But it's not the same city it once was, as Glenn quickly learns.  The year is now 2017, and the surface of the planet Earth is uninhabitable.  Mankind has moved underground to a series of overcrowded subterranean complexes.

While Glenn tries to figure out how he traveled into his own future, the authorities of L.A.in 2017 interrogate him.  Cameron (Severn Darden) is a psychiatrist and chief-of-police, and is suspicious of the stranger.  Cameron fears Glenn might be part of a violent underground movement seeking to destroy the cities.  "I can get anything I want out of you, electronically," he confides in his ward.   Soon, Cameron diagnoses Glenn as either "schizoid" or telling the truth about his time travels.

In short order, Glenn is introduced to the amiable Vice-President of Los Angeles, Dane Bigelow (Barry Sullivan).  Dane further explains the nature of this terrifying future.  He describes how mankind has been underground since 1989, when the atmosphere grew "toxic" after the growth of poisonous algae in the Indian Ocean.   Because "science and government stood by while everything died," the business community of the United States took over control of the country, drafting a "Corporate Constitution" that gave all surviving citizens shares in America, Inc.  Supposedly, this is a more "efficient" system of government, than before.  At least according to Bigelow and the Chairman of America Inc.

A beautiful young woman, Sandrette (Sharon Farrell) gives Glenn a tour of the underground city, home to 11,000 survivors.  She introduces herself by informing Glenn is she is "thirty, sterile and a sex education major."  Sandrette then takes Glenn to church where computers have taken the place of priests.  You can type your spiritual question on a keyboard, and the computer will answer it.  Example: Q: "How do I find the truth?"  A: "It will find you." 

The more Glenn learns of life in LA in 2017, the less he likes it.  America is at war with England over a jurisdictional matter, and many of the poor citizens are assigned to public housing, five or six people to a single room.  Worse, these homes often show seepage from the surface, and the air is becoming unbreathable.  Other people are exploited as workers on the poisonous surface, an occupation with a 20 percent death rate. 

Milk is the drink of the rich, because there's only one cow, and it is "privately owned."

The state also constantly monitors all citizens, making privacy a thing of the past. 

"If there's no privacy, there can't be any invasion of privacy," Sandrette cheerily informs the visitor from the 20th century.  When Glenn asks her if there is any freedom in the city at all, Sandrette's response is similarly vacant: "Freedom is always relative to the needs of the community."

In the final moments of "L.A. 2017," Glenn escapes the city, where the Vice-President has plans to install him as the head of a state-sponsored press/propaganda outfit, and tries to make it back to his car, and hopefully, back to his time...

Although "L.A. 2017" features the dreaded "it was all a dream," dramatic cheat at the end, it nonetheless makes for a remarkably powerful program in 2011, forecasting ably the growing power and influence of corporations in America.  The movie boasts many great, almost throwaway moments involving the city's official announcements over loudspeakers, for instance.  One such advertisement encourages citizens to "borrow against their shares at an interest rate of just 35 percent,"  a concept that is not at all foreign to our contemporary country, post Great Recession. 

This episode of The Name of the Game is veritably filled with brilliant little asides like that, such as the surprise announcement in a control room that "there are unconfirmed reports of a Negro(!) in Cleveland," meaning, apparently that most African-Americans did not live to survive the new Corporate America.  Another interesting touch: parenthood is "no longer for amateurs."  On the contrary, the State has "professionals" do it now; professionals who have removed the words "mother" and "father" from society all together.

I also enjoyed the way the episode blends two psychiatrists with law-enforcers; these fearsome men are -- quite literally -- thought police (and armed with weapon cylinders which fire injections of "counter-productive" drugs.)

But the episode's finest and most telling moment arises in the last act.  Glenn visits Vice-President Bigelow and upbraids him for maintaining and nourishing a "totalitarian state." 

At first, Bigelow responds that "survival justifies anything" in 2017, but then he changes his tact. 

He turns Glenn's self-righteousness around on the man from the 20th century.  If Glenn hates this "future" so much, why didn't he do something about the environment when he had money, fame and power, back in 1971?  Who is he to judge the future if he didn't take responsibility for building it in the first place? 

This is a really clever narrative angle, because it asks the audience, rather bluntly, to take just such responsibility for our shared tomorrows.   Why aren't we complaining more loudly that some people -- in the thrall of big business -- want to gut rules and regulations that keep our water clean, our food safe, and our air breathable? 

Director Steven Spielberg does a solid, highly-effective job creating and charting this dystopian future of the year 2017.  He sometimes sets his camera high--up (pointed down) to catch an angled-perspective of the various rooms; presenting the appearance of being a surveillance camera view.   On other occasions, he uses extreme low angles looking up to present us multiple levels of surveillance, a visual cue that the upper class is always looking down on the rest of the populace.

Otherwise, Spielberg gets the absolute most out of the tunnels and corridors of the city, fostering memorable visions of a claustrophobic world.  In the episode's final road chase -- an ambulance versus a police car with a hood-mounted machine gun -- he deploys many of the same expressive angles he used in Duel (1971). 

Finally, Spielberg's last shot -- a shift in focus from a "rescued" Glenn in 1971 to a dead bird on a bare tree branch in the foreground -- proves a nice way of undercutting the facile "it was all a dream" ending.  Instead, Spielberg puts the valedictory focus of this piece on the environment, leaving us no choice but to consider its importance.

As you know, I've been fascinated of late with the idea of dystopias in popular entertainment, and "L.A. 2017" certainly presents a real nightmare world of the future.   What surprised me a great deal about this production was -- to take a page from Glenn's dialogue -- "how it's all remarkably consistent." 

The episode is filled with odd touches (like a rock-and-roll club for senior citizen), affecting touches (a painted skyline is all that's left of surface life...), and moments of authentic pathos (the death of one of the four last fish in the world...).   There's not one moment of empty air in this TV show from forty years ago; not one wasted breath.  Instead, Spielberg and writer Wylie fill in every inch of the movie with terrifying and memorable detail.

We're only a few years away from 2017 right now, and no, we don't live in a subterranean totalitarian state.  But that fact doesn't change the relevance of this forty year old movie.  After all, we're all watching with our breaths held as Japan deals with an environmental and technological catastrophe of enormous magnitude. 

Unfortunately, none of us has the luxury of believing this is "all a dream."

Sci Fi Wisdom of the Week


"You know the old song? If you were the only girl in the world, and I was the only boy, well, okay, but until then, don't bother me? Well, I guess I'm the only boy..."

- Neville (Charlton Heston) in The Omega Man (1971

Sunday, March 13, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Trial (1962)


"It's a film inspired by the book, in which my collaborator and partner is Kafka. That may sound like a pompous thing to say, but I'm afraid that it does remain a Welles film and although I have tried to be faithful to what I take to be the spirit of Kafka, the novel was written in the early twenties, and this is now 1962, and we've made the film in 1962, and I've tried to make it my film because I think that it will have more validity if it's mine."

- Director Orson Welles, on the subject of The Trial (1962), from an interview posted at Wellesnet.


Both impenetrable and surreal, Orson Welles film adaptation of Franz Kafka's (1883-1925) novel The Trial is a challenge to comprehend, at least in traditional movie-going terms. 
 
This is especially so if one is hung-up on following a conventional, logical narrative from point A to point B, all the way to Point Z. 
 
Like the celebrated literary source material, the Welles film is maddeningly vague about details that we -- as conditioned film-goers -- expect.  
 
What crime has Josef K  (Anthony Perkins)  been charged with? Or on an even more basic level: where is the court room where he is scheduled to be arraigned for this crime?  What city is this story occurring in?  And in what year does this tale happen? 
 
If you walk through this one particular doorway in the clerk's office, how do you get...somewhere else?
 
Should a viewer step inside Welles' The Trial seeking such clarity of detail and traditional narrative developments, that viewer is missing the point, and will be truly disappointed, and possibly even a little angry.  Welles' film uniformly rejects all attempts to make the narrative accessible in the fashion that audiences have come to expect and even demand. 
 
In The Films of Orson Welles (University of California Press, 1970, page 162), Welles scholar Charles Higham famously wrote that "For me, The Trial is a dead thing, like some tablet found among the dust of forgotten men, speaking a language that has much to say to us, but whose words have largely been rubbed away."
 
Yet if one  views The Trial as a two-hour visual expression of one man's subconscious terror and frustration at being devoured "by the System" (or by "The Law"), Welles' work emerges as something not moribund, but something vibrantly and eminently alive: a breathtaking formalist masterpiece that harnesses form, literally, as content. 
 
The task upon us here is not to "understand" intellectually the experience of Josef K. through the (occasionally banal) dialogue or repetitive episodic interludes, but rather to read and interpret the powerful images as they arrive, and thus feel what it means to be in Josef K's shoes; lost in a bureaucratic system -- a maze -- of impenetrable shape and dimension.   Welles' production design, his selection of angles, his choices in casting even, all enhance these feelings of entrapment and bewilderment.
 
Or to put it another way, The Trial is a film that you fully experience; that immerses you.  Shot in stark black-and-white, and loaded with expressive angles, Welles imagines a world totally lacking in reason...even the reason assured by the laws of Physics.  For in this world, you can be arrested without reason, feel guilt without reason, and step from one interior chamber into an entirely different landscape, equally without reason. 
 
Everything is connected to everything else, and yet nothing makes sense.  Circular logic holds sway.  And every stepping to stone to reason is instead uncovered to reveal corruption.
 
One might successfully make the argument that Welles has taken a crucial step away from the literary Kafka in forging this particular cinematic universe.  For one thing, the director fashions a more absurdist, less serious ending for the book's hero, Josef K. 
 
For another-- and this is perhaps of primary importance -- Welles supplants the book's small, almost quaint locales with more cavernous, industrial ones.  He has modernized the book's settings to take into account 20th century technology and automation, among other things.  One of the most powerful visuals in the film remains a jaw-dropping tracking shot of Josef K. traversing his office, a colossal, seemingly endless hall where 850 anonymous workers dutifully pound out bureaucratic work around the clock on their typewriters.
  
Still, as author Chris Barsanti suggested in Filmology (Adams Media, 2011, page 90), "the alienated spirit of the film remains resolutely true to that of the book, an awesome achievement given the prickly and untranslatable nature of Kafka's work."   He's right, except in the instance of finale, where Orson Welles lets in a glimmer of  hope, and Kafka left none.  The literary Josef K. died like "a dog" and the movie Josef K, at least in some fashion, dies on his own rebellious terms.
 
"I am sane.  I am innocent.  I've committed no crime."
 
One morning at 6:15 am, Josef K (Anthony Perkins) is awakened from a sound slumber in his lodging house by the unexpected presence of a police man in his bedroom. 
 
In a low angle shot of the doorway and door frame, order is promptly over-turned as a man-in-black invades the immaculate white-on-white bedroom.
 
Josef is promptly informed by this interloper that he is under arrest, but that he doesn't have to report to the station.  Rather, he is expected to show up at "the Interrogation Commission" at an undisclosed time and place.
 
Josef is unaware of what crime he has been charged with, but his every move and word is dutifully recorded by a triumvirate of policemen, who want to take his belongings, since he won't be needing them.  
 
Soon, Josef's Uncle Max comes to visit, and helps the accused Josef retain the services of an imperious old Advocate (Orson Welles), a man who enjoys his powerful position and lords it over his clients, one of whom he apparently keeps imprisoned in a small cell inside his home.  
 
Josef further descends into the strange world of "The Law," and on that journey he readily admits "there are so many passageways and lobbies I'd never find my way."  After a time, he encounters a painter and expert in the legal system who tries to describe for Josef the precise, technical differences between "ostensible" acquittal and "indefinite" acquittal.  Neither one sounds like exoneration.
 
The problem is that, after any such a brand of acquittal, Josef K. could be arrested and charged for the same non-descript crime all over again.  In which case, he'd have to begin the laborious process of acquittal again too. It's a never-ending loop of arrest and acquittal, with guilt always assumed but never proven.
 
Finally, the State attempts to execute Josef K.  First, two executioners toss him into a crater on a blighted, industrial landscape, and  hand him a knife to do the job, but he refuses to do their dirty work for him.  Then, from a distance, the executioners throw a bundle of dynamite at Josef, ending his "trial" once and for all.  A small mushroom cloud rises from the rubble in the crater...
 
"What are you Insinuating?
 
Orson Welles' The Trial opens with a "pin-screen" depiction of a parable found in Kafka's book, entitled "Before the Law." 
 
After the parable concludes, Welles' voice-over narration notes that "the logic of this story is the logic of a dream...or a nightmare." 
 
In the very next instant, we see Anthony Perkins' Josef K coming to consciousness, in a visual transition that affirms the dream-like, surreal nature of the narrative.  He may not be waking up at all.
 
Understanding The Trial's story as one of "dream" logic provides the key to making sense of The Trial's anarchic narrative and visual structure.   In dreams, the idea of geography is often sacrificed.  In a nightmare, you can walk from your bedroom straight into a grave-yard; or find yourself rolling out of bed into your old high school English class.  The mind's imagination while dreaming is not limited to concrete reality, and so, in The Trial, every door opens into a new reality, and no door ever leads to the same destination twice.  This is part and parcel of the film's absurd or surreal tapestry.   
 
There is simply no way to navigate this bureaucratic maze, and the rule that held sway a minute ago is not the rule that holds sway in this moment, or in the next one, either. 
 
In Cinema 2: The Time Image, author Gilles Deleuze made specific notation of Welles' provocative use of space in the film.  "It is the topography of The Trial...which calls on a depth of field; places that are very far apart or even opposed in the foreground are next to each other in the background," he writes.  "To the extent that, space, as Michel Clement puts it, is constantly disappearing.  The view, as the film develops, loses all sense of space and the painter's house, the courthouse and the church are from then on in contact with each other."  (Continuum Intl. Publishing, 1989, page 290).
 
What happens to Josef K., over the course of the film, then, involves the visual contraction of his personal  "freedom."  As the above-passage notes, his space in the world grows smaller, and smaller, until there is no distance between any locations in his life.  This is the invisible vise of "The Law" tightening the noose around his neck.  The Law eats up his space, taking over his life.   It's almost imperceptible at first, but soon the contraction of space around Josef K. becomes undeniable.
 
What remains so amazing and pioneering about this visual approach is that "The Law" or "State" is not represented by any particular voice, person, or locale in the film.  Instead, the idea of "The Law" is presented as this crushing, amorphous, intangible thing.  And no matter how hard you try, you can't fight (let alone defeat) something that is intangible.  The law, as the film gets at, is an "abstract."
 
Amy Taubin, critic for The Village Voice, brilliantly observed Welles' success in creating this dream logic dynamic and amorphous, crushing threat in The Trial:  "It's the nightmare aspect of the novel that Welles captures with great ingenuity, she writes. "He turns the vast, crumbling lobbies, arcades, and tunnels of the Gare d'Orsay into a dreamscape, constructed according to Freud's definition of the primary processes of the unconscious: condensation and displacement. One minute the law court seems adjacent to K's office; the next it opens into the apartment of K's lawyer. K is forever opening doors and finding himself where he never expected to be: a corridor jammed with abject petitioners, a closet hidden away in his own office where the accused are tortured. Framed almost entirely from an extremely low angle, the film plays with the danger inherent in even the most familiar spaces. K's paranoia has a kinetic dimension. Perpetually disoriented, he oscillates between claustrophobia and agoraphobia. The cluttered interiors and vast, bombed-out exteriors both have the potential to bury him alive."
 
Yet if Josef K is the "dreamer" in this dangerous realm, then the over sized law that threatens to bury him alive is also, undeniably, a result of some persecution complex, or some deep, firmly-entrenched sense of guilt.  He confesses this ever-present, nagging feeling of guilt to a fellow lodger, the cabaret dancer Miss Burstner (Jeanne Moreau).  He notes that he has always, for some reason, felt guilty about...something.  So his dream world takes that shape.  It  is apparently expressing -- and punishing him for -- that pervasive sense of guilt.
 
What might the film's version of Josef K. feel guilty about?  That's best left to personal interpretation, no doubt, but certainly there's an undercurrent in the film involving homosexuality, as Roger Ebert notes in his excellent review of the film.   The Trial, Ebert writes, "could be interpreted as a nightmare in which women make demands Joseph K is uninterested in meeting, while bureaucrats in black coats follow him everywhere with obscure threats of legal disaster."
 
The presence of Perkins in the role is of paramount importance.  As he discusses with police "subversive literature and pornography" and verbally slips on the word phonograph, saying it as "porno-graph,"  we get the idea that there is more to this bureaucrat than meets the eye.   Welles himself famously said that in his film, Josef K is not innocent, but absolutely guilty.
 
Guilty of what?  Not conforming? Harboring an alternative sexual persuasion?  It isn't exactly clear, but like so much in the film, the question of sexual identity roils just beneath the surface, between the images.  For instance, Josef K. continues to be put into situations where he crosses some undiagrammed sexual line.  The Advocate's mistress (who bears the "physical defect" of webbed fingers) attempts to have sex with Josef K., and that act threatens his case.  Josef's boss on the job sees Josef's fifteen-year-old niece and assumes that Josef has been acting improperly with her. 
 
Again and again, Josef is involved in sexual indiscretions that he is forced to refute his involvement with.  Did his attempted kiss of Miss Burstner in her lodgings initiate her desire to move?  Josef isn't certain, but by the end of one particular scene, he is literally carrying her "baggage" around with him, from place to place, trying to find somewhere to put it down. 
 
In another sequence, Josef K is even threatened by a mob of adolescent girls, who peer at him through splits in a wooden wall -- symbolically splits in his public face or armor.  These screaming girls then chase him through an almost Gothic landscape and tunnel which look like something out James Whale's Frankenstein.  Josef is the monster, and the girls are the villagers determined to kill the apparent abomination in their midst.
 
 
I agree with that assertion.  It's entirely possible to read The Trial in another, non-sexual fashion, but in some ways this cinematic tale seems to really be about a man who feels very guilty about his sexual relationships.  He fears that the State will literally strangle the life out of him for his failure to conform.
 
Another way to interpret The Trial is as a critique of the mid-20th century, post-World War II industrial, totalitarian state (Hitler's Germany, or Stalin's Russia).  As Josef travels further and further up the food-chain of authority in this world's regime, he uncovers depravity and corruption.  The cops who arrest him want to take his belongings, and are willing to take bribes.  In the magistrate's "case book," Josef finds a pornographic picture stashed between the pages.  The Advocate keeps a mistress, not to mention a prisoner.  One woman -- the wife of a legal official -- gives herself bodily to "the accused" and others. 
 
The idea that "power corrupts" is certainly a platitude, but what's important here is the film's sense of irony about such corruption.  The likable, not-bothering-anybody Josef K is accused of a crime by an entirely corrupt and criminal upper class.  Who are they to be pointing fingers?
 
In contextualizing the story in this fashion, one can see how Josef K. ekes out his final victory.  Two representatives of the state attempt to kill him...but they don't want to stab him themselves.  Again, Josef refuses to conform, and doesn't go happily and willingly to his deathbed.  If the State desires him dead, they will have to do it.  They will have to get messy.
 
Importantly, the representatives of the State recoil, and can't kill Josef with a knife.  Instead, they retreat and use a bomb to kill Josef...from a safe distance.  Surely this is Welles' caustic commentary on technological totalitarian states, mid-20th century;  perhaps that real heroism isn't required to serve and propagate them... only cowardice.  Easier to drop a bomb (and rely on technology) from some point distant.  That way, the murderers don't have to see or feel the effects of their terrible actions.  They can then deny responsibility for them.
 
Gazing back at The Trial today, one can see how Welles and Kafka had two very different approaches to telling the same story.  Kafka's writing is almost matter-of-fact in tenor, whereas Welles uses every expressionistic tool in his film maker's quiver to suggest the absurd nature of the story.  Where Kafka went for a sense of reality, Welles reaches for a theatrical, dream reality that portrays the State as something akin to a suffocating cloud; an amorphous, intangible monstrosity that can nonetheless oppress, obfuscate, and kill.
 
Would you like The Trial
 
Well, "like is a feeble word," to quote the film.
 
You may not enjoy Orson Welles' The Trial in any conventional sense, but you're likely to find yourself carried away -- and blown away -- by the director's skill in visualizing this nightmarish, surreal tale.  In The Trial, dreams are reality, the medium is the message; and form is content.  And in a world where so many movies are the cookie-cutter results of groupthink and corporate-messaging, The Trial fiercely reveals how a director can make the form entirely his own playground.