Saturday, August 18, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "Orkus" (December 18, 1976)

Our retrospective of Ark II comes to an end with this fifteenth and final episode, “Orkus.” 

Interestingly, “Orkus” is an episode that feels more like an installment of Logan’s Run: The Series (1977) or The Fantastic Journey (1977) than one from the Filmation series’ own catalog. It’s very much in the nature of a 1970s, prime-time “civilization of the week” tale.

Here, the Ark II team stops for repairs and investigates reports of pollution.  Unfortunately, Ruth and Adam fall prey to that pollution, and deadly toxins super-age them in a matter of moments.  Unless an antidote can be developed, Ruth and Adam will die of old age in mere hours.

Then, out of the blue, an imperious man named Orkus (Geoffrey Lewis) utilizes his high-tech powers to hijack the Ark and seize control of it.  Jonah matches wits with this duplicitous leader of a Utopian community ensconced behind a protective force field, and tries to free the Ark and save his friends. 

Orkus is virtually immortal, Jonah learns, and made so by his society’s super-computer, called “The Provider.”  Furthermore, Orkus requires Ark II’s power source to continue protecting his own people and city from the atmospheric pollution.  “We can only save ourselves,” he insists.  Also, as Jonah learns, Orkus and his people are actually responsible for the pollution in the first place.

Now Jonah must not only apply a cure for Ruth and Adam, but destroy the source of pollution, and transform Orkus’s society to one of more human dimensions.  Fortunately, he gets help from some of Orkus’s more independent-minded followers…

“Orkus” is a more hard-edged Ark II segment than some, albeit one with many familiar ingredients from 1960s and 1970s cult television.  There’s the super computer that governs a stagnant society (“Return of the Archons,” “Guardian of Piri,” Logan’s Run, “Turnabout”) and a disease that causes extreme, instantaneous old age (“The Deadly Years.”) 

In the end, order and “normal development” are restored, as immortality is destroyed (“The Apple,” “Guardian of Piri”), and something more “human” replaces it.   It’s not a particularly original episode, but it is fascinating to see the Ark II crew pitted against a dyed-in-the-wool liar and “black hat” like Orkus, for a change; especially with crewmembers imperiled and on the verge of death.

With this episode, our retrospective of Ark II is complete.  The series’ strongest points remain the technology and production design, in my opinion.  The vehicles, sets, props and uniforms are all genuinely impressive, even today. 

Less impressive is the kind of loose-minded, indistinct “background” detail underlying the post-apocalyptic world of Ark II’s future.  In Star Trek, episode wrap-ups would frequently see Captain Kirk noting in a log that Federation advisors, teachers or helpers were on the way to help a planet changed by the Enterprise’s visit.  Ark II could have used some of that specificity, particularly since Jonah and his people are trying to rebuild a world, and that agenda requires more than a cursory one-off visit to troubled villages and towns.

Yet the missions undertaken by Jonah and his crew are generally pretty loosely-structured, and there’s very little sense of follow-up or persistence.  Many episodes involve the idea that bad actors and evil-doers, once confronted with their anti-social behavior, will see the error of their ways and do right.  That is not a strong enough basis upon which to re-build a ruined world in my opinion.  

The series should have featured, at some point, back-up personnel helping to smooth transitions and usher in the positive changes first initiated by Jonah and his team.  Also, I would have found it fascinating to feature a story in which Jonah and the others run across a villain who won’t back down, but only doubles-down, thus forcing them to confront their “non-aggressive” mission strategy and actively fight.  In other words, I would have liked to have seen a stronger test of the protagonists’ values.  I must confess: this is the very thing that bothers me the most about Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s easy to preach noble values when you live in paradise; when you have a full stomach and the time to “enrich” yourself educationally and otherwise.  But what happens when you don’t live in paradise?  Then what?

Because of the series format, the Ark II team often overmatches the bad guys.  The vehicle’s crew has science, technology, knowledge and force fields on their side.  Accordingly, many episodes do not feature an adequate or deep sense of menace.  Thus the episodes that I remember best are those, like “Orkus,” which present a real challenge.  Other examples are episodes such as “Omega” (about a mind-controlling computer), “The Cryogenic Man” (about an entitled 20th century businessman) and “The Lottery,” which features a kind of “phantom zone” pocket universe where a tyrant banishes enemies.

Another highlight of the series is the episode “The Robot,” which features Robby the Robot as a learning machine, and includes an abundance of colorful character interaction.

Every Ark II episode carries a message about morality, and some adults may find this aspect of the series tiresome.  But if you remember the program’s original context – as a Saturday morning show for children – the didacticism is easily understandable.  I don’t have any problem with the moral framework of the series, and feel it’s an excellent program for kids to watch since it meditates on ideas about how best to “build” a better tomorrow.

I know we’ve had a big discussion about remakes here on the blog recently, but I can’t help but feel that an adult-oriented Ark II would be a great subject for remaking today.  This is a “sci fi” world that could certainly stand some deepening and maturity, but which is already interesting and unique enough to merit interest from audiences. 

The problem, of course, is that probably not enough people remember the series in the first place.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Savage Friday: Irreversible (2002)

It used to be, in some circles, anyway, that if you announced you were a lover of French films, people would assume you were some kind of “elite” with a "snobby" superiority complex.  

But “The New French Extremity” movement in that nation's cinema has, perhaps, altered this perception to some degree.  Grotesque, visceral films such as High Tension (2003), Them (2006), Martyrs (2008) and Irreversible (2002) are all decorum-shattering, convention-busting, transgressive works-of-art and legitimate heirs to the Savage American Cinema of the 1970s. 

So when people ask me about the future of the horror film, I tell them: look to France.

Today’s “Savage Friday” film is Irreversible, an absolutely uncompromising, ultra-violent French film from director Gasper Noe that, like the best of the Savage Cinema, depicts disturbing imagery for a pro-social reason, in this case to forge an argument about human nature, about violence, and about the way that we view our world. 

In a sense, Irreversible is a rape-and-revenge film in the spirit of I Spit on Your Grave (1978). But the tenets of the genre are deconstructed so thoroughly that -- by our sense of the viewing experience -- cause no longer precedes effect; and therefore, importantly, rape no longer precedes revenge.  Specifically, Irreversible crafts its disturbing tale in a manner that we would term “backwards,” starting off with the fall-out of bloody, murderous revenge and working back, chronologically-speaking, to the brutal rape, and, at film’s end, to the peaceful days before that violent assault.

On first blush, this “backwards” approach to storytelling seems like a stylish gimmick. But Irreversible is anything but gimmicky. Instead, the film’s oddball approach to structure distills the narrative down to basic human truths about the nature of existence. The movie reveals, specifically, how our actions are all universes unto themselves, separated, in essence, from the complicated chain of motivations and reactions we rely upon for "interpretation" because we experience time in a linear fashion.

Because cause and effect become thoroughly untethered here, Irreversible’s structure reveals to the audience who the people involved really are, rather than the characters’ self-images, or their visions of who they are.  Actions become paramount; motivations for those actions become secondary.

In a way, then, Irreversible represents a God’s eye view of human life here on Earth.  Each and every act is a moral universe unto itself.  We are judged not by "why" we do something, but the fact that we do it at all.

As a responsible reviewer, I must note for the record that the on-screen violence in Irreversible treads far beyond what most viewers would consider mainstream or acceptable.  One scene early in the film (though  late, chronologically-speaking…) finds a man literally pulping another man’s face with a fire extinguisher.  This horrific on-screen bludgeoning goes on and on and on, beyond reason, beyond mercy, and beyond the parameters of good taste or typical cinematic standards.  We watch  for what seems like a horribly long time as the victim’s bruised facial structure shatters and crumbles before our very eyes.  The term "unflinching" doesn't begin to accurately get at the blunt brutality of this moment.

The film’s central rape is similarly disturbing because it goes on for merciless duration, for a span approaching ten minutes. The actual rape scene in The Last House on the Left (1972) went on for scarcely a minute by comparison.  In Irreversible, the extended rape sequence is followed by yet another brutal beating, one every bit as monstrous and upsetting as the fire extinguisher murder.

And yet, despite these absolutely uncompromising moments of extreme violence, there’s something oddly and unexpectedly cathartic -- and perhaps even transcendent -- about Irreversible. This apotheosis is expressed, in part, by the prominent placement for a poster of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in the background of one composition.  That poster features a vision of 2001's “Star Child,” and a tag-line that describes the Kubrick landmark as the “The Ultimate Trip.” 

In some counter-intuitive fashion, Irreversible lives up to Kubrick's tag-line descriptor, and the horror film's final, strobe-like montage serve as our trip through the “star gate” of human existence...and time.  The film’s opening and closing thought is that “Time Destroys Everything,” a declaration which can easily be counted as a negative or pessimistic conclusion, but I suggest an alternate interpretation. 

If you gaze deeply into Irreversible’s unique chemistry, the point instead seems to be that it is actually our (linear) perception of time that destroys everything, and that if we attempt to countenance reality in another, non-chronological fashion, all moments will exist simultaneously.  Thus there should be no fear or dread about life and death, creation and destruction.  All such things exist side-by-side, instant to instant, if only we register them.   And if we can boast this awareness outside the moment-to-moment continuity of our lives -- if we can simultaneously see our endings and our beginnings -- wouldn't we  also choose, consciously, to be better to one another?

“Blood calls for revenge.  Vengeance is a human right.”

Told in chronological order, Irreversible’s story goes something like this:  A young man, Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and his girlfriend, Alex (Monica Bellucci) are deeply in love, and enjoy an afternoon together in bed.  That night, they are going with Alex’s former boyfriend, Pierre (Albert Dupontel) to a party.  Alex reveals she may be pregnant, and after Marcus leaves the apartment for a time, she confirms this fact with a pregnancy test.  She is happy.

Because Pierre’s car is broken, the trio takes the subway to the party.  On the way, Alex reveals she has been reading a book called An Experiment with Time by John Dunne, one that discusses non-linear time. 

The triumvirate also discuss sex, and in particular, Pierre’s inability to help Alex achieve climax during lovemaking. She doesn’t experience this problem with the more macho, less sensitive Marcus, and Alex suggests that it is because Pierre is too much the cerebral intellectual.  He’s worried about making her climax, when he should just be thinking instead about seeking his own pleasure. He can’t do, she says, only think.

At the party, however, Marcus thinks about his own pleasure too much, and indulges in drug use and other bad boy behaviors, angering and alienating Alex.  She leaves the party alone, and decides to take an underpass to escape the traffic of a busy avenue.  In the dark red under-pass, however, Alex is viciously assaulted, raped, and beaten by a thug called Le Tenia (Jo Prestia). 

Pierre and Marcus see a bloodied, bruised Alex being taken to the hospital, and Marcus swears revenge.  They go together in search of a gay club called Rectum that Le Tenia is known to frequent.  Marcus enters the club, spoiling for a fight, but is nearly raped himself.  

Acting, not thinking, Pierre defends Marcus, but bludgeons the wrong man to death with a fire extinguisher.  Pierre and Marcus are arrested, and , finally, we listen in on a conversation between two strangers in an apartment above the club.  They declare that time destroys all.

“I’ve been reading the most amazing book…It says that the future is already written.   It’s all there.  And the proof lies in premonitory dreams.”

The key to a deep understanding and appreciation of Irreversible rests with the book that Alex describes in one scene, An Experiment with Time by J.W. Dunne (1875 – 1949). 

Published in 1927 originally, this book deals with the concept of non-linear time.  Specifically, Dunne believed that all moments are occurring simultaneously, side-by-side. Alas, humans are not capable of seeing or detecting non-linear time, and therefore only experience flashes of insight -- deja-vu or precognition -- and only through the auspices of dream analysis.   To describe this idea another way, the world of dreams allows us to detect, outside of waking consciousness, the future and the past, or the beginning and the end of everything.  It's all there, for us to see, but most of the time, we simply can't see it.

Your first key to Irreversible.
In the film, we learn that Alex is reading Dunne’s text, and we actually see her reading the book in the film’s final (earliest, chronologically-speaking…) sequence.  Alex also reports that she has experienced a premonitory dream, one in which she is trapped inside a “red room” and that something is torn asunder there.  That red room is pretty clearly the red underpass where she is raped, and what is torn asunder (or in two) could be Alex’s very life, her new baby, or maybe even Alex’s sense of blissful happiness.  Perhaps what is torn asunder is actually all-of-the-above.  She and Marcus will be torn asunder, for instance, by her wounds (if she dies), and by his presumed incarceration if he is sent to prison.

What Irreversible asks us to understand, finally, is that, since every moment exists simultaneously, side-by-side, all of time is pre-ordained, in some sense, from the Big Bang to the End of the Universe itself. Given this fact -- the birth and death of everything, side by side -- why would we as creatures with detectable and definable ends (mortality) intentionally inflict hurt and pain on one another? 

If our very births and our deaths, our sadness and our happiness, co-exist right now, and we can detect these moments through precognition, why should we choose to be bad to one another?  Why do we, in the words of Pierre behave “like an animal.”  “Even animals,” he insists, “don’t seek revenge.”  And yet, Pierre, finally, is the one who succumbs to violence and bludgeons the wrong man to death.  This brutality and like of analysis seems to run counter to his character as he understands it (a man who can’t stop thinking long enough to act on impulse), and reveals his true nature as, indeed, impulsive and savage.  Can Pierre blame his bloody behavior on Alex's rape?  Or is it a crucial part of his gestalt, of his very soul?

Another scene in Irreversible features two men sitting together in a squalid apartment (over the Rectum...*ahem*), discussing the vicissitudes of life and the things they have done “wrong.”  One man confesses a grotesque crime, and the other man soothes him by establishing that there are “no bad deeds…just deeds.”  This fact is true only if all moments exist simultaneously, and are not bound by time’s arrow, or time’s direction; if cause does not precede effect.  Instead, each act – bad deed or good deed – becomes an expression of a kind of eternal, essential “self,” independent of causality and motivation.  Violence is not a response to action, but an acting out of an essential quality of the soul itself.

Late in Irreversible, one character also states “you want to explain everything, but you can’t.”  This comment is an admission, I submit, that people don't always know why they act poorly, or violently, against other people.  Instead, if the universe is pre-ordained and unalterable -- or irreversible – then there is no easily understandable reason why horrible things occur, except that it’s the way of life itself.  Some people have viewed the film as anti-gay, for instance, because the brutal rapist, Le Tenia, frequents a very rough gay club.  Why would an ostensibly gay man rape a woman?  Why does his act make any sense at all?  Well, to quote the film, you want to explain everything, but you can’t.  The act was pre-ordained. It was destiny that Le Tenia and Alex would end up in that red tunnel together, and that he would rape her.  It was meant, for some reason, to occur.  Perhaps the essence of Le Tenia’s moral character -- outside of the confines of time and cause and effect -- is one of brutality and sadism.  Besides, rape is about power, not about an expression of sexual desire.

Irreversible attempts to embody Dunne's ideas about non-linear time through several unique applications of film grammar.  First, there’s the reversed flow of time, told in long, sustained passages (with few or no cuts). Each passage feels like a distinct and separate moment of time, connected tenuously to what comes next, and what comes before.

And secondly, the camera seems untethered from gravity itself, especially as the film opens and “revenge” is meted.  The camera literally sways and swoops, turns and rolls, never able to steady or anchor itself in a single place or angle.  For the first several moments, this technique is extremely upsetting, disorienting and perhaps, for some viewers, even deal-breaking.  But if you stick with the film (as I recommend you should), you begin to get the feeling that the untethered camera is expressing this idea of spinning through space, without the natural laws we take for granted.  In other words, gravity fails us, visually-speaking, because our concepts of time, are, similarly, failures in terms of understanding the movie.  The world's nature is not as we perceive it.

The film’s music also plays a significant role in fashioning the overall tapestry of Irreversible.  Beethoven’s (1770 – 1872) 7th Symphony is played at crucial points, and it is a composition notorious for its sense of spontaneity.  Some, in fact, call the 7th Symphony an embodiment of madness.  Spontaneity and madness exist, again, only if man exists in linear time; if the past, present and future don’t co-exist simultaneously.  

In other words, there can be no spontaneity (or rage, impulse, or madness, vis-à-vis Pierre and his brutal behavior...), if the shape and dimension of time is already diagrammed.  The 7th Symphony supports our (wrong-headed) idea that time is linear, and that we are spontaneous characters, susceptible to the whims of cause and effect.

Near Irreversible’s end, the film lingers on that poster of 2001: A Space Odyssey, asking us to consider “the trip” of this film, and also, deliberately, the meaning of the Star Child.  The film then ends with a strobing effect, a bizarre montage of indistinct images, and a final fade-to-black.  If time has destroyed everything, as the two strangers suggest, has it also, actually, destroyed the film itself?  

Or is the strobe sequence/montage revealing something else entirely.  Is the reverse momentum of the film actually taking us backwards all the way to the Big Bang and the moment of creation -- and therefore time -- itself?  It’s a fascinating idea to ponder.  When the Big Bang occurred, were all possibilities, all presents and futures, written in that very instant? Right down to Alex's rape and Pierre's act of murder?

Just as the Star Child represented the next step in man’s evolution and understanding of the universe in 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Gasper Noe’s Irreversible tries to push us to the next (possible) level of human consciousness.  What are we, if untethered from time and space?  Are we actually eternal souls, capable of seeing all beginnings and all endings?  Time may destroy everything, but if the future co-exists with us right now, right here, then it doesn’t matter.  In a sense we would all be immortal, because all moments exist forever, side-by-side.

Your second key to understanding Irreversible.
And if that’s the case, shouldn't we really be good and decent to each other?  Isn’t that the irrevocable, unalterable, irreversible fact of human life?   If we can’t blame spontaneous “bad deeds” or cause and effect for our actions, then what excuse do we have when we behave violently?

Savage Movie Trailer: Irreversible (2002)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #24: What kind of movie would I direct?

A reader, Trent, writes:

“You have undoubtedly seen thousands of horror and sci-fi films, you understand the genre, you love the genre. Do you think you could direct a genre film? If so, horror or sci-fi?

And if horror, what sub-genre of horror, slasher, haunted house, found-footage, etc? Or considering your love of both sci-fi and horror, possibly a hybrid of the both such as 'Alien’?

Thank you for that excellent question, Trent.  

I know from my experience directing episodes of my zero-budget sci-fi/horror web series, The House Between (2007 – 2009), just how difficult directing in those genres can be. 

Also, I have interviewed folks in the movie industry who compared directing movies to being stung by a thousand mosquitoes simultaneously, or, alternatively going to war as an infantryman. 

It’s not a cake walk. Thus, I have the utmost respect for directors, because in the filmmaking process -- as I’ve witnessed first-hand -- there are approximately one million-and-one ways that something can go wrong.  Having experienced the process myself, I’m constantly amazed and impressed that movies so often do turn out brilliant.

Those facts established, I really loved the directing process, and miss it very much, since it’s been about three years since I undertook the challenge.  If I were a rich man, I’d be making more seasons of The House Between right now, but it’s an expensive proposition.

Still, I have written several scripts for low-budget films, including one called The Dead Side of the Street, which is a kind of 1980s rubber reality horror film…along the lines of Hellraiser or A Nightmare on Elm Street

But if I had the opportunity to direct any kind of movie at all, I strongly suspect I would gravitate towards your last option there: the horror/sci-fi hybrid.  I feel that this was very much what The House Between was (or wanted to be): a production that kind of skirted the limits of each genre, and could go either way (into pure sci-fi, or deep into horror).

I truly love sci-fi/horror hybrid films such as Alien (1979), Event Horizon (1997), Pandorum (2009) and Prometheus (2012), as well as TV shows that walk the same line, like Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977) and Sapphire and Steel (1978 – 1981). 

For some reason, I just really groove on the combination of high-tech environs and terrifying mystery/horror.  I also really love the found-footage genre, but, honestly, I haven’t found an inventive found-footage genre hook yet.  In that sub-genre, you must have a really great and original “hook,” and then kind of re-invent the form each time up at bat. 

I recently began writing a horror web series called The Eclipse that presents my “unified theory” regarding all the supernatural events/sightings in the world.  I have spoken with my composer and producer on The House Between, as well as a few others, about crafting a four-episode first season, but right now it just depends on timing, expense and a few other issues.  For one, I’m still in a Masters program (until next July…), and for another, I am still trying to produce the DVD edition of The House Between, which requires the total re-editing of all twenty-one episodes.

But I have no doubt that one day I’ll try my hand at directing again, and a horror/sci-fi combo would indeed be my preference.

Cult Movie Review: The Fields (2011)

Well, this low-budget horror film isn’t exactly a field of dreams.

I’ve had the tremendous pleasure of watching several legitimately great low-budget horror films recently, including Dawning (2009), Absentia (2011), and Intruders (2012).  But, alas, the 2011, award-winning effort The Fields doesn’t measure up. 

Although this horror film directed by Tom Mattera and David Mazzoni is occasionally discomforting and even sometimes beautiful in terms of its exterior visuals, the meandering narrative never comes together in a meaningful or credible way.  The amorphous, all-encompassing atmosphere of dread that is present in the films I mentioned above is entirely absent here.  In its place The Fields lunges from one red herring villain to another, until finally culminating in ambiguous fashion without settling on what exactly -- if anything -- actually happened, and who might have committed the pseudo/maybe not-crimes.  Since these pressing details are rendered so incoherently, it’s difficult to draw significant meaning from the film.

Based on actual events,” The Fields is set in rural Pennsylvania in the year 1973, as a young boy, Steven (Joshua Ormand) goes to stay with his elderly grandparents in the country.  At home, his Mom (Tara Reid) and Dad (Faust Checho) are experiencing relationship difficulties, and it’s clear that Steven feels isolated and alone.  On the radio, he listens to stories of Charles Manson and his murderous cult, and Steven’s grandma, Gladys (Cloris Leachman) lives on a steady diet of late night horror movies.

Then, over Gladys’ objections, Steven wanders out into the cornfield beyond the family farm one day and discovers the body of a dead woman.  He returns to the corn field over the next several days, and emerges at Bushkill Park, a weird amusement park where hippies from California have taken up residence.

By night, a mysterious shadowy figure grows nearer to Steven -- even calling his name -- and, finally, one fateful night, the farm comes under siege from unknown invaders…

Joshua Ormand, the boy who plays Steven in The Fields does a really fine job here, and that’s significant, because The Fields very much wants to play as a child’s-eye view of the world.  Separated from his parents and feeling alone, Steven starts to detect horror and fear around every corner.  

In fact, the film makes a case that it is Steven’s loneliness and over-exposure to the news and to the late night horror films (like Romero’s Night of the Living Dead) that forges his world of uncertainty, ambiguity and terror.  Supporting this theme, there’s a good composition late in the film of Steven and his grandparents huddled together, their images reflected in the television set, thus suggesting that the horror is generated there…essentially boxing them in.   They are depicted as victims of the media.

I can’t legitimately argue that the film shouldn’t make any particular argument about horror films it desires to make, even if I disagree with it.  Yet The Fields tries so hard to be a scary movie itself that its apparent disdain for the genre and its central argument about the horror genre’s impact on the family plays a little like biting the hand that feeds it.  In other words, you can't complain that horror films are creating an atmosphere of hysteria while you are making a horror film and trying to exploit an atmosphere of hysteria.

Even the film’s ending -- a dreadfully unconvincing  digital shot that sets up a sequel and suggests that the horror could return -- is also right out of the horror lexicon playbook, but not in a good way. 

While the film seeks to blame the family’s media influences for the hysteria and terror it experiences, The Fields simultaneously tries to stoke audience fear by focusing on another scapegoat: evil hippies from California. 

The hippies in the film are menacing and over-the-top, and indeed are meant to be harbingers of terror.  The portrayal of these characters is not only cartoonish, but ridiculous.  Manson and his hippie family were nut-cases, to be certain, but mostly the hippie culture was concerned with love and peace.  To depict hippies -- as a group -- as craven, insane murderers is to delve wholly into stereotypes, essentially blaming an entire cultural movement for the actions of a few psychotics.  It’s not particularly pretty, and every time the film’s characters stop to talk about “those goddamned hippies,” (direct quote), you think at first that you’re lapsing into a South Park or King of the Hill-type satire.  Only the movie apparently means it.  Those “goddamned hippies”… “the whole country is going to hell.”  A variation of that line is spoken twice in the film, and not offered in any kind of ironic sense.

The Fields also seems to ascribe the malevolent hippies with near miraculous supernatural powers, since they can move about with impunity (and near-invisibility) on the family farm.  They even slip into Steven’s bedroom, and then, later, imperil the family dogs. 

Beyond these issues -- which stretch the film’s  already tenuous credibility -- The Fields boasts other problems.  For one, claims that the story is based on “actual events” represent near or total hucksterism.  The claim is not designed ironically (as in the case of Return of the Living Dead [1985] for instance).  Nor does it genuflect to a truly dramatic case from history, like, for example, the crime spree of Ed Gein (the source inspiration for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). 

If you sift through the film’s special features – a use of time I wouldn’t recommend -- you come to realize that the actual events depicted by The Fields were, simply, this: Some guy in a truck drove through a family’s front yard in the middle of the night with his lights on, making a ruckus and waking everyone up.   Everything is spun from that very, very modest occurrence. 

Listen, I don’t enjoy writing negative reviews, and, in fact, I rarely highlight movies that I don’t like here on the blog. 

But I do think it’s important to write about less-than-successful film occasionally, just as a reminder of how difficult it is to make a low-budget film as good, as accomplished as Dawning, Absentia or Intruders.   

In terms of The Fields, I do understand that the filmmakers were attempting to convey the idea of what a frightening grown-up world might look like to a young child with an over-active imagination.  An alternative film featuring that idea -- and one of breathtaking power -- is The Reflecting Skin (1990) written and directed by Philip Ridley. 

That film contends with the mysteries and horrors of life, and especially the pain and alienation associated with the imminent end of childhood.  The Reflecting Skin finds a way to consistently craft visuals that reflect the child-like world-view of its lead character, and it does so in a way that is absolutely heart-breaking.

The Fields is an over-long, meandering journey set in a similar heartland, but lacking that great sense of heart.

Movie Trailer: The Fields (2011)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Memory Bank: Atari Video Computer System

For Christmas 1978, my parents gave my sister and me an Atari VCS (Video Computer System), today more commonly-known as the Atari 2600. 

I didn’t know it at the time, but I had entered the video game age. 

I still remember the initial unveiling of this early game system.  For some reason, we had Christmas upstairs in our den (my dad's office) at 7 Clinton Road that year instead of down in the basement family room as we usually did.  And after I opened several Mattel Battlestar Galactica toys and a stash of Mego Planet of the Apes toys that my parents found at Englishtown flea market, they pointed me to our beige sofa. 

They told me to look behind it, and there, tucked against the wall was a very large rectangular box.

My sister and I pulled out the over-sized box and I still remember our bafflement at the graphics.  What the heck was this thing

My parents quickly explained patiently that it was a game you could play “on the television.”  Then we all went downstairs together, still in our pajamas, and my Dad hooked it up. 

The games I remember having initially were COMBAT (which came with the system), SPACE INVADERS, and MISSILE COMMAND.  While my Mom went up to the kitchen to fix us homemade pancakes, my sister and dad and I played Space Invaders…and I was hooked.

Atari was still a big thing the next Christmas, in 1980, and I remember getting the ASTEROIDS game, which featured a craft that like a Buck Rogers star-fighter on the game cartridge art.   I also have very fond memories of school afternoons when my Dad would come home from work and meet me in the basement for a round or two of COMBAT.  He was good with the tanks (and pong...) but I was good with the planes.

If memory serves, I was among the first in my neighborhood to own a video game system, and so our basement family room saw a lot of Atari action for the first two years or thereabouts.  Before long, my friends bought competing video game systems like Intellivision and Colecovision, and the luster of the Atari wore off a bit.  Our family updated at some point to the Atari 5200, and then quickly to an Atari 400 computer.  Then we got an Atari 800.  So between the time that I was ten to the time I left for college, we had an Atari system of some type in the house.

When I did go away to school in fall of 1988, we probably still had sixty or so games (some from Activision) for the Atari 2600, but I rarely played it anymore.   Then, about seven years ago, in 2005, my parents found one for me at a yard sale here in Charlotte --- still in its box and un-played with -- for five dollars.  Boy was that a great discovery.

 The Atari Video Computer System box reads:

“Atari brings a powerful computer to your home television.  This system allows you to build a Game Library with additional Game Programs and controllers.

The Atari Video Computer System Includes:

Video Computer System Console

2 Sets of Controllers

COMBAT Game Program including 27 action-packed game variations.

TV/Game Switch Box

AC Power Supply.”

Today our culture has moved far past Atari in terms of home game systems, to be certain, but occasionally Joel still asks me to bring out the old “Atari,” and give some of those primitive games a whirl. 

He has asked me a bit less of late, in part because Roku offers some of the same games -- like PAC-MAN and Galaga -- and the controllers for that system are much easier for him to manipulate.  Also, he’s begun to get into Playstation 2 games including Madagascar and Ben 10. 

That said, Atari is still the only platform we own that allows Joel to play MISSILE COMMAND.  He loves that game because he loves to see the world get wiped out in a (strobing) nuclear explosion when he loses.  Crazy kid…

Below are some commercials from the 1970s for the Atari Video Computer System.  This is one great toy from the 1970s that lived up to the advertising: “More Games – More Fun.”

Collectible of the Week: Verbot (Tomy Corp; 1984)

I recently featured “Dingbot” -- a Tomy Robot from the year 1984 -- as my collectible of the week here on the blog.  Today, I want to highlight one of his (two) counterparts, namely Verbot: “The programmable robot!” 

Verbot was also manufactured by Tomy Corp. in 1984, and he “performs eight functions by remote control.  Your VOICE is his command.”

The instructions on this robot’s box note that a child can: “program Verbot to respond to your own secret commands through his remote control microphone.  He will move forward and back, turn left or right, pick up and deliver objects, blink and smile, all at the sound of your voice.”

A further tally of Verbot’s abilities includes:

“8 command memory. Program each command with your own secret code word.”

“Dazzling personality. He’ll blink and smile at your request.”

“Forward and reverse! Direct his movement.”

“Turn right and turn left.  Verbot goes in any direction.

“Pick up and deliver objects!  Train Verbot to be your mechanical messenger.”

“Wireless remote control unit! Control him from a distance!”

While Tomy suggested “The future is here – Home entertainment robots!,” I’m not certain how much these robots actually caught on with kids or the public, but I still enjoy the (admittedly) antiquated design of the Verbot.  He’s half R2-D2, half Robby, I suppose you might say.  The only one of these Tomy toys I don’t currently have in my collection is the gigantic mega-bot, Omnibot…

Game Board of the Week: Star Wars Interactive Board Game (Parker Bros.; 1996)

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #23: About Writing Reference Books?

A reader named Jose writes:

“For those aspiring writers out there, like myself, would you be able to give a run-down as to what the process is, from pitching to publication, for a reference book such as the ones you've written?

“Be as brief or extensive as you wish. As a side-question, what do you consider to be important things for aspiring writers to keep in mind about this type of expenditure? 

Jose, that’s a great and important question, and one I’m very happy to answer.  I should hasten to add that the information I share here is a product of my specific and unique experience. 

Other writers may feel differently, based on their experiences, and that’s perfectly okay. 

Starting Out:

In terms of the process you inquire about, it all begins with your passion. 

Find a topic you wish to cover fully in terms of your reference book (a TV series, a director, a grouping of films, and so forth), and then think seriously about how your book should be organized, and what kind of materials you wish to include.

When you start to strategize your book, think seriously about your niche.  What makes you the right person to write this particular book??  In other words, what’s your approach and how does it distinguish you

For example, I see myself as a cultural theorist with a fluency in film grammar, and as a critic who has a specific view about what represents quality in film (my frequent “form must reflect content” edict).   At this point, I also know myself and my proclivities: I prefer writing laudatory reviews than witty cut-downs, or negative reviews.

The point is, find the approach that works for you. There are Marxist critics, feminist critics, snarky critics, you name it.  So pinpoint an approach that is brand-able for you and leverage that approach to the fullest.  Make certain that approach is one that fully and uniquely illuminates your subject matter.

As far as expenditures, you will want to consider including photographs and perhaps other materials too. This is trickier than it sounds. Purchasing photographs from professional sellers can be prohibitively expensive, and you must also consider trademark and copyright issues. 

For my early books with McFarland – a wonderful publisher, I should add -- I commissioned an artist to draw original illustrations. I also purchased the rights from The New York Times to re-publish Isaac Asimov’s review of Space: 1999 in my book on that particular series.  So have a vision for what you want your book to look like, and also for what you can afford, and what the publisher will accept.

Pitching and writing:

After determining what you wish to include in your book, write a sample chapter, a table of contents, and a kind of “brief” or “overview” about what the book concerns. 

You may want to include a page on how to market the book as well, noting specifically what kind of competition exists.  Be sure to name other successful books on related (but not identical) topics.

I am lucky enough to have a great literary agent to help me get a foot in the door with publishers, and this is the approach we always use for pitching. It has served us well for probably ten-to-twelve projects now.

But if you do not have an agent, don’t fret.  Conduct some extensive research yourself and select (from a guide to book publishers) five publishing houses that accept non-agented material and which you believe might want to release your book. Choose wisely and judiciously, and send those houses a very concise query letter, along with your sample chapter and proposal.

In these times, releasing your own e-book is also a real possibility, and a good avenue to see your work published. But it’s not one I unhesitatingly recommend for first-time writers because e-books don’t generally have editors looking over a writer’s shoulder. And honestly, it’s helpful for someone to back-stop you. 

Writers are human beings, and like all human beings, are imperfect.  I know that I get bleary-eyed when I’ve gone over a book one too many times in an evening.  In that wonked-out state, it is so easy to miss a typo or a grammatical error.

So editing can sometimes be a painful task. But in the long run, I’ve always been grateful to have another set of eyes looking over my books.   If you do go the e-publishing route, find someone you trust to proofread the text for you. 

When you find a publisher who is interested in your book, the house will usually provide you a word limit, a photo limit, a deadline, and perhaps even a format guide.  Then the publisher will send you a contract with either an advance, or an agreement/schedule for royalties once sales commence.

Sign the contract, then, just have a good time.  Write the best, most creative book you can within the time you have allotted.

I still find that particular experience…thrilling.

A note of caution: If you hope to work with the publishing house again, however, don’t miss the deadline, no matter the circumstances.  Some writers believe that no deadline is ever truly dead, but I don’t subscribe to that theory.  Above all, a writer must learn discipline.  And that includes the discipline to know when a work of art is complete, or should be complete.  Obsessive tendencies are not necessarily the friend of a professional writer.

So, if you get to choose your own deadline, I recommend following Mr. Scott’s lead.  You don’t need to multiply your deadline estimates by a factor of four, but if you have the option, build-in an added two months just for safety.  Perhaps that will give you the time to nab one final interviewee, or polish your work one more time.

Contrarily, if you don’t need the extra time, turn your book in early…and the publisher will think you’re the most amazing and committed writer on the planet.  Seriously.


During this entire process, I hasten to add, it’s important to keep your expectations in check. 

Advances, especially post-Recession tend to be lower than they used to be, and in terms of royalties, the general rule is that you get 10% of the net.  Notice I said net, not gross, meaning that many publishers subtract almost a third from that ten percent in case there are significant book returns.   

Again, I’m writing specifically about non-fiction reference books here. If you were to write a tie-in novel for a franchise, for instance, they are generally work-for-hire assignments.  You are paid a set fee, and that’s that.

So, in other words, your book isn’t going to get you rich fast, or perhaps, ever, unless you are very, very lucky. 

But if you love writing and you love your subject matter, the name of the game isn’t necessarily to get rich.  Each book is a building block in a larger professional career, and that’s how I suggest people view it.  .

After writing:

About six months after you turn in your manuscript to the publisher, you will get page proofs which you need to pore over with meticulous detail.  Nowadays, this is largely done with a PDF file instead of an actual  manuscript and galleys.  Turnaround is usually quick, and there is no opportunity here to really re-write your work.  So be satisfied, up front, that you’ve said what you want to say in the way you want to say it.

While proofing, you also compile an index and make certain you have written short, punchy captions for your photographs.  Some publishers give you two bites at the apple here, so-to-speak, providing preliminary proofs and final proofs.  Some don’t.

Also, be aware that you don’t set the price of your book, or, usually, have a word in selecting cover images.  I always find it amusing when a reviewer complains about the prices of my books…as if I personally have something to do with setting them. 

No writer that I know of gets that particular perk.


Once you’ve finished proofing and the book is at the printers, one of your most important jobs begins: marketing. 

Some publishers boast really great sales and marketing people -- ones who are really on the ball, and work with you to create videos, blogs, podcasts, and so forth.  This is the case, definitely, with Hal Leonard, publisher of my Purple Rain, Kevin Smith, and Spinal Tap books. 

Other publishers aren’t so good with this aspect of the business. 

The bottom line is that if you want your book to make a successful debut, you should work hand-in-glove with the publisher, and also, where possible, spearhead your own initiatives (tweeting, blogging, Facebook, etc.).

When I began my writing career in 1997, I had no idea how to do any of this. None. Zip.

The Internet was still a relatively new thing back then, at least to me.  In 2011, I enrolled in a graduate program in communications, in part to help me better understand social media, mass communication channels and the like.  I don’t consider this a necessity, obviously, for all writers…but it helps.  I got to the point where I felt like I was making a lot of mistakes in the so-called “branding” process -- and embarrassing ones at that -- so I felt it necessary to formalize my education.  

Your mileage will vary, obviously.  Marketing comes naturally to some writers, and not to others.  It's not my favorite part of the process.

Reception: Once you have become a published author…

In terms of aspiring writers, I will reiterate how important it is to manage expectations. Writing reference books isn’t necessarily the short-cut to fame and glory.  If you want to write these books, do it because you believe you have something important or interesting to add to the conversation, and because you love the act of writing.

Finally, in terms of reception, be prepared for the dreaded “gatekeeper factor.”  In some cases, the folks who will be reviewing your book are the very ones who secretly -- or not so secretly -- think they could have done a better job than you, and should have been given the assignment in your place.  They want to keep you down and out -- far away from success -- so they can “sneak in."

To wit, I remember one guy trashing my Blake’s 7 book on a web site a few years back.  He noted that he had been trying to get a book published for years and couldn’t understand why my book had been published, not his. That inadvertent admission revealed his hand, and the bias behind his assessment.  Watch out for these gatekeepers, but also expect that they are going to be there, waiting to take you down, lest you – gasp! – eclipse them. 

In terms of your book’s reception, learn to distinguish between genuine and detailed (and thus helpful) criticism, and a hit-piece.  You’ll sleep a lot better at night once you can separate the gatekeeper reviews from the ones that really engage with your books, and draw critical responses based on your arguments or writing

What I’m saying, finally is this: Write the book you want to read, learn from the editing process, don’t expect to get rich quick, and then be prepared to have a thick skin when the book comes out.