Friday, October 07, 2011

A Cinema of Misfits and Outsiders: The Burton Brief

Our summer-time survey of director James Cameron here on the blog proved so much fun that I decided we shouldn't have to wait a whole year to embark on our next director's study. 

Thus, I have the great pleasure of today announcing that starting next week, and for the remainder of 2012 (right up till Christmas...), I'll be devoting Fridays to the films of Tim Burton.

A dazzling visualist, Burton's films by-and-large concern characters who -- reportedly like the director himself -- are outcasts in their world. 

The colorful, misfit protagonists of Burton films, however, often learn to shape their reality either through art (moviemaking in Ed Wood), science (Sleepy Hollow), tall tales (Big Fish), gadgetry (Batman) or even overt violence (Mars Attacks!).  This is an important quality of the director's work.  How do you navigate a world in which you do not feel welcome, or a part of?  As we will see, the answer involves, to some extent, "crafting" a personal world inside that larger, harsher one.

An artist of many distinctive stripes (painter, animator and director among them), Burton has professed inspiration from influences as diverse as Vincent Price, Hammer Films, Godzilla and Edgar Allen Poe. 

Accordingly, his colorful, imaginative films represent an intriguing blend of cinema past and present.  Many of Burton's works feature visions of exceptional artificiality (consider the settings of Sleepy Hollow) and thereby buck the culture-wide trend towards realism and "grittiness."  And yet the fantasy lands of Burton are also unbelievably rich and lush, and suffused with a sense of magic and wonder.

Burton has often noted that his films involve "father issues," which is one of the big facets we'll keep in mind upon gazing more closely at his work.  And Interview Magazine captures the Burton aesthetic well with its description of a "delicate balance of sadness, humor, and horror that matches his eye for gothic beauty and mythical surrealism."

Burton's fantasy lands -- so rich in autumnal colors and almost baroque technology -- often feel like old fashioned children's storybooks brought to vivid, three-dimensional life.  And like the best of such storybooks, they are filled with both dread and hope; darkness and sunshine. 

So I hope you'll tune in here during the coming weeks and add your thoughts and insights to this retrospective of Burton's film career.  We won't be covering every film, alas...but certainly most of them.   For instance, I've already posted a review of my least favorite Burton film, 2001's "re-imagination" of Planet of the Apes, and I see no reason to double-dip.

We'll thus commence the "Burton Brief" with my all-time favorite Burton film next week, Ed Wood, and proceed from there.

Burton Brief Schedule:

October 14: Ed Wood (1994)

October 21st: Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1985)

October 28th: Beetlejuice (1988)

November 4th: Edward Scissorhands (1990)

November 11th:  Mars Attacks! (1996)

November 18th: Sleepy Hollow (1999)

November 25th: Big Fish (2003)

December 2nd: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

December 9th:  Alice and Wonderland (2010)

December 16:  Batman (1989)

December 23: Batman Returns (1991)

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

From the Archive: The New People (1969)

In the autumn of 1969, the ABC Network premiered a unique youth-centric prime time TV program called The New People. Developed for television by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling and producers Aaron Spelling and Larry Gordon, this singular genre series -- aimed straight at the under-thirty demographic -- was a direct response to the dramatic social turbulence and strife of 1968.

Consider for example a few events from that watershed year. In early 1968, the tide turned in Vietnam, and America seemed to be losing the war. Specifically, the Tet Offensive, the attack on the U.S. Embassy, and the Battle of Saigon all occurred in '68.

In the same year, a new generation of peace and equality-seeking leaders -- Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy -- were assassinated..

Civil Rights issues were also boiling over, and there were protests held in South Carolina (over a whites-only bowling alley), and all across the country. College students demonstrated for peace at Columbia University, and at the Democratic National Convention that summer.

1968 was also the year France test detonated its first H-Bomb, and the year of the My Lai Massacre.

As tumult swirled across the globe, a disenchanted, young generation was finding its voice regarding many of these hot-button issues (racial equality, an unjust war, etc.). Yet the radicalism of that "flower power" generation also frightened Nixon's so-called "silent majority." It was undeniably a season of change, and the Generation Gap grew wider.

Capitalizing on this gulf was Serling and Spelling's The New People, which concerns several dozen young adults who, after a harrowing plane crash in the Pacific, become stranded on a tropical island one thousand miles from the nearest airline or steam ship route.

With no hope of rescue -- "we just got dropped out of the world," acknowledges one character -- it is up to these forty American youngsters to build an entirely new civilization on that mysterious island.

For the marooned, it is now essentially "Year One," and thus an opportunity to make a clean break with the failed policies, bigotries, and inequalities of the past and previous generations of mankind.

As one young woman (Susan) states, "In fifty years, they couldn't do it, but we could have instant peace."

At least that's the hope...

But it isn't that simple, as the idealistic youngsters soon learn. And one of the great facets of The New People was that the series didn't often take the easy way out. It did not just mindlessly advocate for the youth position (or any position, for that matter). Rather, The New People forced these youngsters to reckon with many, many difficult questions, including ones of law and order and crime and punishment.

How they solved these problems was always true to who they were as a group, but it wasn't exactly a love-in either. Primary among the barriers to peace was the socially encoded heritage of "the old world" that these youngsters carried with them to the island; their preconceived notions, biases, and hurts.

You could see all this trouble brewing in the primary characters who populated the island (and the series). There was idealistic and issue-oriented Susan (Tiffany Bolling), daughter of a U.S. Senator. There was Robert E. Lee (Zooey Hall), an angry Southerner. As the script described him: "Bobby -- he's from the South, he's got his own Civil War going on."

Another character was the dynamic Eugene "Bones" Washington (David Moses), "the house Afro-American" as he called himself with a sense of self-deprecation.  Bones -- like Bobby Lee -- was angry too, "the end result of 5,000 lynchings" as the screenplay points out.

And then there was arrogant, entitled Bull (Lee J. Lambert), an "All-American" jock (in a letter-man sweater no less...) who believed simply that "the enemy always wears different colored jerseys."

Another resident on the island was more noble, more contemplative: taciturn George Potter (Peter Ratray), a Vietnam veteran and ex-marine; one who had spent the previous Christmas Eve in Vietnam and had been forced to deal (aggressively) with a sixteen-year old, female bomber.

These characters, according to the pilot episode "are a collection of everything you guys [meaning the Establishment] made us....Down the line, you find all the imperfect images of the Mamas and the Papas."

In other words, even the flower power generation -- so hopeful and "new" in so many ways -- carried on the hates and hurts of the past. "It's a hell of a legacy," admits the only adult trapped on the island, Mr. Hannachek (Richard Kiley).

The pilot episode of The New People commences in South East Asia, as Mr. Hannachek (Kiley), a low level bureaucrat for the American Consulate in Manila, is assigned to retrieve and take home the forty American youngsters. The kids have made something of a stir with their public, political displays. Yep, they were supposed to be good publicity for America (clean, healthy and happy youngsters!), but they went to foreign countries and instead decried American imperialism, and petitioned for international human rights.

Hannachek and the kids board a Manila Inter-Island Charter plane during a pounding rain storm and once in flight, the plane is promptly lost, remaining in the air an hour over the estimated time of arrival. Eventually, the violent storm forces the plane to lose altitude, and it crashes on a remote Pacific island.

In a scene that eerily forecasts J.J. Abrams' Lost, we see a high-angle shot of the plane wreckage on a desolate beach, as the survivors of the wreck mill around, shell-shocked and confused.

Nine people die in the crash, and Hannachek himself is badly injured. He suggests that the youngsters should immediately set about the business of survival, exploring the island.

What the youngsters discover on the mysterious, isolated island is immensely creepy. On a nearby hillside, abandoned (but fully-clothed) mannequins stand watch like unmoving sentinels; like warning sentries. We approach these unmoving statues with a shaky, hand-held camera, and the moment generates shivers and a feeling of "you are there" authenticity. Something strange occurred here, and the mannequins (and an abandoned playground) are macabre, unsettling images.

Beyond the mannequins, in a deep valley, stands an abandoned, town; one overgrown with vegetation but replete with a saloon, shops, buildings and even supplies (including the apple in this garden of Eden: guns).

Hannachek suddenly realizes where they are: the remote island of Bonamo. It was here that the American A.E.C. (Atomic Energy Commission) planned to test detonate a new H-Bomb. Fortunately, the plan was dropped and the island was left abandoned permanently. The good news is that the town offers shelter and food. The bad news is that there is virtually no hope of rescue. Bonamo is far from the beaten path.

But then, a miracle! A plane flies overhead, a rescue team, perhaps. At Hannachek and George Potter's urging, the youth set up a signal bonfire on the beach. But before the rescue plane can spot the signal, racist jock "Bull" -- who has had a falling out with Bones over issues of race -- squelches it. The plane goes on, forever unaware of the marooned people on land below. They will report back that the island is "clean."

Furious at Bull, the remaining youngsters take-up torches, and form a mob. We see this disturbing sight through a fish-eye lens, as though the world itself has become distorted. We see it also from Bull's perspective (P.O.V. subjective shot), so that we -- as viewers -- also "feel" surrounded, and can fully understand the horror of what is happening.

The youngsters -- now a murderous, unthinking pack -- chase Bull across the island with the intent to kill. The wronged Bones leads the way, until finally stopped by Hannachek - the adult.

"You're the ones who are going to inherit the Earth?," Hannachek asks at one point.

Ultimately, Hannachek convinces Bones that killing Bull ("an All-American yo-yo") is morally wrong, the equivalent of a racial lynching. Understanding -- and sick to death of violence and anger -- Bones relents. Bull escapes punishment.
Hannachek soon dies from the injuries he sustained in the plane crash, but not before wondering, finally "what kind of world" these youngsters will make on the island. Our last memorable view of Hannachek finds the old Man seated next to two old, cob-webbed mannequins. Again, a telling, resonant image. Together, the mannequins and the Old Man represent relics of a distant, now-meaningless social order and civilization.

For these New People, "time has just begun," according to a narrator, and the pilot episode then culminates with sneak previews of upcoming episodes. Ultimately, the show aired from just September 22, 1969 to January 12, 1970. But the seventeen episodes of The New People examined many aspects of a new -- and young -- civilization.

The pilot episode, by Serling, Gordon and Spelling, is sharply written and certainly incendiary in theme, vocabulary and characterization. The pilot leaves no issue untouched. The diversity of the youngsters makes for plenty of fraternal disagreements, and the episode focuses not only on the Vietnam conflict (through the character of Potter), but especially matters of race. Race hatred was always a grave concern for Serling (see: The Twilight Zone), and Eugene "Bones" Washington is one of the most-developed characters in this pilot. He describes his journey as a "hell of a freedom march: from no place to no place." He also describes Bull as "the kind [of person] I had to stand up and give my seat to."

Despite the focus on social commentary, I'd hate to give the impression that The New People is only some dry polemic. There's adventure and action here too, and even a bit of humor. One funny moment early on has Hannachek referring to Moses and a female singer as "Sonny and Cher over there." Kiley does well with that caustic moment, and is a standout amongst the cast.

So today, let's remember that while major TV networks were trying to gloss over the injustices and concerns of a turbulent time with empty-headed programming like Green Acres or I Dream of Jeannie, The New People -- in the noble tradition of Serling's Twilight Zone -- dedicated itself to facing the issues of the time head on.

And, as I indicated above, it proved pretty even-handed in approach. For example, The New People's pilot characterizes the marooned youngsters as relatively callow and superficial. In the first episode, they party in a saloon (drinking booze and playing the blues...) rather than burying the dead. They also form a mob and nearly kill a man. Here, the Old Guard (represented by Hannachek) reminds the youngsters of what it means to be human; what it means to have civilization and be civilized. The episode ends with Hannachek's death (so that there is no one on the island over the age of thirty...), but at the very least, he has been able to make the so-called "peace" generation feel shame for its mob-mentality.

Visually, The New People is quite dynamic and inventive. As the so-called "new people" build a new world, they are surrounded by the structures and empty symbols (the mannequins) of the world they have left behind.

In other words, their efforts to craft a new culture are balanced constantly with visual reminders and objects of the world that failed.

In fact, their very "paradise," their would-be utopia, is built upon on the worst and most destructive impulses of the society they left (a bomb testing site).

One can detect, watching this pilot episode, how Serling and his fellow writers had created an ideal set-up for a multi-layered continuing adventure: one that could concern both survival and the social issues of the day. The island itself was a microcosm for 1969 America. The inhabitants were racially, politically and geographically diverse. Would the denizens of the island be united and succeed? Or fall, divided?

The New People theme song is written by Earle Hagen and sung by The First Edition, and it sounds just like a people-powered anthem of 1969 ought to. I wish you could all listen to that song, and watch this pilot episode for yourselves -- it's an incredible time capsule, But as of yet, there is no official DVD release planned for The New People.

The series is...for the moment...beyond obscure. Yet to steal (and wildly paraphrase) a line from Star Trek's "Space Seed," it would indeed prove fascinating to return to that island of "the New People" in the year 2011...and see what kind of world our best and brightest, our most optimistic and idealistic had created.

Do you think they repeated the pitfalls of recent human history? Or finally -- at last -- overcame them?

CULT TV FLASHBACK #143: Lost: "Pilot" (2004)

From a certain perspective, it's fair to state that Lost (2004 - 2010), created by J.J. Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber and Damon Lindelof, helped to rescue dramatic, scripted television for the next generation. 

If you remember the context of early last decade, the big four TV networks weren't doing very well as the 20th century became the twenty-first.  Cable television was siphoning off viewership by the droves, and networks were seeking to cut costs.  Reality programs such as Survivor, Big Brother, Boot Camp and Temptation Island were thus taking over the airwaves like a virus, as were gimmicky game shows such as ABC's four night-a-week broadcast lobotomy, Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?. 

But in 2004, Lost -- to a very large extent -- re-ignited interest in the prime time drama with the high concept tale of diverse plane crash survivors contending with life on mysterious Pacific island, one where magic and science seemed to intersect.  At first, the series was sexy, provocative, and unpredictable.  It was an immediate critical and popular hit.

By the 2005-2006 season -- just a year later -- all the big networks were seeking to imitate and emulate Lost with other high concept series, ones that blended sci-fi, seralized storytelling, flashbacks, and large ensemble casts. 

These programs boasted titles such as Prison Break, Reunion, Surface, Invasion and Threshold.    More recent programs such as The Nine, FlashForward and The Event appear to operate from the same outline.

Yet from another perspective entirely, Lost may also be a textbook example of the egregious and perhaps unavoidable pitfall of serialized storytelling on television.  As it wore on across the long years, this Emmy-nominated series kept slathering on new mysteries (what's below the hatch? Who are the Others? What does a repeated sequence of numbers really mean?) and kept promising answers, but never really delivered in a substantive or coherent way. 

Then, the series culminated with a whimper rather than a bang after featuring flashes-forwards and, weirdly, flashes "sideways."  By the end of its network run, Lost had became a veritable cluster fuck of narrative cheating and revisionist series history.  The final episode cracked open a pretty big schism in Lost fandom (as the final episode of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica also did, likewise, in that particular franchise). 

The overwhelming feeling was: it was all leading to this?  Are you serious?

In fairness, so much anticipation was built up for the final episode of Lost that there was very little way, realistically, that the writers could successfully meet it.  But the problem was largely exacerbated because the writers also mostly seemed to be making things up as they went along, and constantly changing conceits, or discarding established mysteries that didn't fit into the new overall arc.

In 2011, the widespread, mainstream response to Lost may best be expressed by my wife, a good, patient soul who watches every science fiction series in existence with me, and yet is not a "sci-fi" fan herself.  When she heard I was planning to re-screen Lost's pilot for a cult-TV flashback on the blog this week, she actually turned visibly grumpy, and opted to go read something on her Kindle instead.  I asked her what the problem was, and she said that just the thought of watching Lost again -- even a single episode -- reminds her that the series constantly "jerked her around."  The mere mention of Lost made her mad.

And it takes a lot to get my wife mad.  Seriously. 

So was Lost the messiah for network television during the last decade, or just a long, meandering road to viewer frustration?   Was it a science fiction masterpiece, or a half-baked mess? 

I'd like to see the whole series again (and that isn't likely, considering my wife's viewpoint on the series...) to make an intelligent determination on that point.  But nonetheless, I still admire the promise and potential of the series pilot, which I yet rank as one of the finest made in the history of the TV form (eclipsed, possibly, only by the sterling pilot of Chris Carter's Millennium, which could play theatrically, even today).

As you may well remember, the first episode of Lost commences with utter and total chaos.  After a close-up shot of a distressed-looking eyeball, we pull-up-and-back at extreme velocity to find a man laying prone in the jungle, surrounded by tall reeds and plants. 

After checking to make certain he is actually alive, this visibly-shaken man runs onto a nearby beach and finds utter, complete pandemonium.  A jet turbine grinds away, undeterred, as huge sections of the downed plane are seen on the shore line.  Survivors of the crash move about, dazed and confused, bloodied and bruised.

And before you know it, our hero -- Matthew Fox's Jack -- goes into full doctor mode, tending to the catastrophically injured.  For ten minutes or so, during one crisis after another, this pilot episode maintains a breathless, urgent quality that absolutely rivets the attention.  In one famous, surprising and harrowing moment, a plane survivor is sucked into the whirring turbine...and it explodes into flame.  This moment actually best characterizes the pilot episode's dazzling nature: All bets are off.   Buckle yourself in for chaos and anarchy because it's going to be a damned bumpy ride.

By the pilot's twenty minute point, the survivors of the plane crash, including Kate (Evangeline Lilly), Sawyer (Josh Holloway), Charlie (Dominic Monaghan), Locke (Terry O'Quinn), Sayid (Naveen Andrews) and Hugo (Jorge Garcia) are facing a new challenge: some kind of roaring monster, obscured in the distance, shaking the tops of high trees in the nearby jungle. 

Out of the frying pan and into the fire...

When Jack, Kate and Charlie bravely explore the jungle in hopes of locating the downed plane's shattered cockpit, they meet their wounded pilot (Greg Grunberg). 

He promptly informs them that authorities are looking in "the wrong place," and that the plane was "a thousand miles off course."  In other words, the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 are really on their own, and can't count on a rescue.

Before Jack and the others have time to really let these facts sink in, the unseen creature returns and yanks the pilot from his seat  in a terrifying instant. Kate, Jack and Charlie run for their lives through the pouring rain, fearing that the "monster" is hot on their trail...

And that's the first hour of Lost.  Survivors of one horrible disaster find themselves facing another terror, almost immediately.  Set amidst beautiful natural settings, the pilot generates an aura of spine-tingling uncertainty and fear.

And the potential here for good science fiction storytelling was nothing short of amazing.  What was the monster?  Who was on the island along with the survivors?  Would the survivors ever be rescued?  Or were the survivors actually already dead...dwelling in some kind of strange, paradisaical Purgatory?

This first episode of Lost makes limited use of the flashback, which is a blessing given its overuse in the following series, and these character-building moments ground the proceedings in matters of real human import.

In general, the characters are well-drawn and sympathetic and the writing is sharp and lean too.  The dynamic visual presentation, of course, is the thing that matters most, and Abrams directs the episode well.  The pace never flags and we feel, by and large, that we've been dropped into a blender; only half-understanding what has happened, and to whom it has happened.

From this stirring opening episodes, there were a million possibilities and stories to explore on that remote, isolated island. In fact, this may have simply been too big, too ambitious a canvas to paint upon successfully. 

By the second year, stories such as "Adrift" featured characters stuck on a raft at sea, literally treading water for forty-five minutes instead of countenancing the island's many enigmas.   At this point, the show became about purposefully denying the viewer answers rather than explaining what the hell was going on.   And in this fashion, Lost pretty much tread water for its first few seasons itself, the producers and writers apparently never certain if they were making a science fiction epic, or a drama that happened to be set on a weird island.

So...if you haven't sampled Lost....should you find it? 
I wish I had a better and more decisive answer for you.  The storytelling is pretty variable overall, and the final destination may not be worth the six year journey.  And yet Lost is historically important in terms of the sci-fi genre and television.   The pilot episode suggests a level of promise never quite delivered upon.
In other words, if Lost were a novel, I'd recommend you read the fantastic first chapter, and then put it down.  That way, you can imagine what a terrific story might follow, and -- in all likelihood -- come up with something more consistently intriguing.
Later today, I'll be posting  a "from the archive" post about another sci-fi series that commenced with a plane crash on a mysterious island: The New People. 

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Collectible of the Week: Agent Zero M Radio Rifle (Mattel; 1964)

Back at the height of the James Bond/spy craze of the mid-sixties -- the same era that brought the world The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart and Mission: Impossible --  intrepid toymaker Mattel introduced a great and now-legendary line of espionage-centered toys: the Agent Zero M line.

Several incredibly neat toys were marketing for Zero M, including the item headlining this post, the portable "radio rifle." 

It's a (non-working) transistor radio that you can unfold and transform into a cap-firing rifle.  What's still so cool about this old toy is that the radio actually looks very real, so it's a surprise (especially to your enemies in SPECTRE, THRUSH or KAOS...) when you unfold the radio and the muzzle pops out with significant force to form a deadly weapon.

Along with the radio rifle, kids of the 1960s could also buy a "jet coder" device: a pen that shoots water and writes in code only visible with a special set of spy glasses.

Fans of the Zero M line may also remember the notorious (and ultra-cool) bazooka-like toy called the "sonic blaster."   It was a "most unusual weapon" designed for "counter-espionage" and which would shoot a "massive blast of compressed air."    Great for knocking your annoying sister off her feet, or some such thing, I guess.

Also sold by Mattel for Agent Zero M was a movie camera and camera case "undercover set."  The movie camera turns into a sub-machine gun with, once more, a dramatic pop-out muzzle.

The Zero-M toys were advertised with the ad line "for spies only" and with admonishments to "remember the password...Zero M.

And the young star of the Zero M commercials (for the sonic blast and radio rifle, anyway) was none other than Snake Plissken himself, Kurt Russell, which adds an extra element of nostalgia to this collectible.  I wasn't even born yet when these toys were first sold, but I'm still thrilled to have a Zero M radio rifle in my collection.

Check out the Mattel Zero M commercials (some starring Mr. Russell) embedded below:

Monday, October 03, 2011

The Blackboard Boogeymen: Your Horror Film High School Curriculum

I get asked all the time -- particularly when I discuss my admiration for Wes Craven's The Last House on The Left (1972) -- how I can "defend" such gruesome, explicit and upsetting horror movies.

In particular, people comment that I seem like such a "nice guy" to watch that sort of stuff, the inference being that because I like and enjoy horror movies, I'm somehow unbalanced, or that my public persona hides a darker, more sinister facet.

My by-now-rote answer to this interrogative goes to the very core of the genre: horror movies are socially valuable, socially responsible and yes, socially necessary because -- at their very finest -- they examine aspects of our culture that mainstream dramas do not.  A really good horror movie can go to places where non-genre movies fear to tread.  

Horror movies are not afraid to transgress, break decorum, and shatter taboos so as to really get at new, provocative and meaningful truths about violence, war, race relations and other forbidden topics.  In other words, the great horror films contextualize our world, our culture, our leadership, our politics, and our national fears in an illuminating, imaginative and wholly entertaining fashion. 

Over the years, a number of memorable horror films have showcased their socially valuable credentials, actually, by literally "schooling" audiences. 

In particular, the horror film has frequently gone back to high school itself, and there -- in the rubric of the American classroom -- laid out the film maker's artistic case for audience examination and edification.  It's a didactic but worthwhile approach that often expressly compares horror to great literature, or even to American history.

In John Carpenter and Debra Hill's classic, Halloween (1978), for instance, student Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) -- in high school English class -- listens to an off-screen teacher discuss the concepts of fate and destiny. 

Laurie is then asked to compare and contrast aloud two authorial points-of-view on the subject.  In particular, she is asked about the works of Samuels and Costain.  Costain wrote about fate only in terms of "religion," says Laurie, whereas Samuels "personified fate" and believed that fate was a "natural element."

Naturally, this discussion reflects the story of Halloween itself.  In this film, Laurie encounters Michael Myers/terror personified, or her fate

In fact, the story for Halloween could be described in broad terms very similar to the teacher's lecture on Samuels: "...fate caught up with several lives here."  Annie and Lynda would agree, no doubt.

The English class and the work of the fictional writer Samuels (not based on a real author, so far as I can tell...) therefore establish the thematic terrain of Laurie's life-and-death battle.  Her life is about to intersect with fate, with her destiny, and will therefore never be the same.  Michael Myers -- the Bogeyman -- is also like a natural element, unstoppable.  He too is "destiny personified."  The classroom scene establishes this fact rather elegantly.  In fact, while Laurie is discussing fate in class, just outside the English classroom Michael Myers waits, parked in his stolen car...

In 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street,  the professorial director Wes Craven  presents a philosophical response to Carpenter's and Hill's 1970s meditation on fate.  In a different high school English classroom, another female student (and final girl) -- Heather Langenkamp's Nancy Thompson -- listens to another teacher lecture. 

This time the subject of the lecture is Shakespeare, particularly the tragedy of Hamlet.  The teacher notes, importantly, that Hamlet "stamps out the lies of his mother," and that is the very task that Nancy will undertake in the film to learn the secrets of serial murderer Freddy Krueger.  Just as Hamlet probes and digs beneath the surface of things, seeking the truth, so does Nancy investigate the truth of Freddy Krueger's history.  She must stamp out the lies of her (alcoholic) mother, and face the truth.  That's her gift, her mother asserts, Nancy's ability to "see" things and not turn away.  And again, that idea recalls the melancholy prince of Shakespearean literature.

Where Halloween's high school lecture involves the intersection of fate and predestination, Elm Street's lecture pointedly suggests that a person can actively shape destiny by digging and seeking the truth.  The two films -- in combination -- thus debate how much control we actually have over our lives.

In 1998's H20: Halloween Twenty Years Later, interestingly, the high school setting is revived as a crucible for character learning.  Now an English teacher, Laurie Strode discusses the Mary Shelley novel Frankenstein and the idea that Victor waited too long to confront the monster, at the cost of all those he loved (his younger brother and his wife-to-be, specifically). 

This didactic high school "lesson" provides valuable and significant character information.  Now in middle-age, Laurie realizes she has allowed the specter of Michael Myers to rob her of a healthy life for far too long.  If she wishes to survive, and to see her son  John (Josh Hartnett) survive, she realizes she must finally confront the monster.  She doesn't want to wait too long, like Victor did, and thereby see all that she loves destroyed.  Once more, a horror film draws an explicit comparison to literature, using that literature as the foundation for its theme. 

The high school English class lesson recurs in other horror films too.  In 1998's The Faculty, written by Kevin Williamson and directed by Robert Rodriguez, an English class discusses Daniel Dafoe's Robinson Crusoe.  As you may recall, that novel concerns a castaway trapped on a desert island, one isolated from society at-large  For the teenage protagonists of The Faculty, this is an important example.  Many such teens feel isolated in the "island" of high school, afraid they will never escape.  When aliens invade the high school in the film, isolation intersects with paranoia, and teens must seek friendship from those they have withdrawn from (namely unpopular kids, jocks, etc.)

In 2011, Kevin Smith's dazzling Red State -- the best horror film of the year -- revives the classroom as a specific setting for philosophical debate. 

Here, however, the film's lead characters attend a high school civics or history class and there debate the nature of the First Amendment, of the freedom of speech. 

When does speech cross the line from being "free" to being "hateful?"  When does hateful language turn dangerous and inspire violence? 

Such important questions are brought up in regards specifically to a charismatic, fundamentalist preacher named Abin Cooper, loosely-based on Westboro's Fred Phelps.  Cooper pickets funerals, including those of gay soldiers, and warns that Christians should "fear God" because God is very, very angry.

Like Laurie in her high school English class thirty years earlier, the teens of Red State learn the hard way that the academic principle they discuss in high school isn't just some high-minded ideal, but rather boasts real life repercussions and consequences for them. 

Ironically, the high school class on the First Amendment segues into an impromptu joke about the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms), and in one of the film's many shocking but droll developments, the movie's philosopical debate also shifts in the same manner.  The last half of Red State, in fact, involves a Waco-like stand-off with blazing gunfire, not philosophical ideas, holding sway.  We are thus left to infer how incendiary free speech might lead to all-out warfare,

One idea underlining all of these memorable horror films is that the horror genre boasts a socially-valuable link to the important ideas in our lives, ideas that we debate and learn about, even, in high school. 

The crucible of high school "thinking" thus permits intrepid filmmakers such as Carpenter, Craven, Rodriguez, Miner and Smith to debate our history, or stories, and even our belief systems. 

So as Halloween nears this year, we can reflect on how these directors not only scare us...but teach us.  And we ignore their cinematic lessons at our own peril...

Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Cult-TV Faces of: Earth

Identified by Brian: Star Trek: "Tomorrow is Yesterday."

Identified by Brian: Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's UFO (end credits)

Identified by Brian: Planet of the Apes (1974); opening credits.

Identified by Brian: Space:1999 "Another Time, Another Place."


Identified by Brian: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Awakening."

Identified by Brian: V: The Series  - "Liberation Day."

Identified by Brian: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Conspiracy."

Identified by Brian: The X-Files: "Space."



Identified by Brian: Farscape: "Premiere."