Saturday, October 13, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost: "The Longest Day" (October 18, 1975)

This week’s episode of Land of the Lost is titled “The Longest Day,” and in many ways, it seems like a cobbling together of many familiar series ingredients.  

The plot line involves a malfunctioning pylon that has unsettled the environmental status-quo of the Land of the Lost.  And, once more, the Marshalls must re-balance Altrusia, and thus “nature” itself.

In some sense, this very story has served as the basis of “Skylons” and “One of Our Pylons is Missing” too.  

Soon, it repeats in “Blackout.” 

Here, the broken pylon causes the sun to remain frozen in the sky, motionless  

It’s like time is standing still,” observes Rick Marshall (Spencer Milligan).  

The endless day soon begins to make the dinosaurs cranky and confused as “the day shift” runs into “the night shift,” and chaos reigns.

Soon, the Sleestak consult the Library of Skulls, and see a vision of Rick Marshall toying with the Pylons.  They thus capture the human and blame him for the sorry state of affairs, which could result in Sleestak eggs hatching dead, since the Sleestak can’t hunt the Altrusian moths at night, the very moths which fertilize their eggs.

But Rick cleverly suggests that the Library of Skulls has revealed a vision of how he can fix the problem, not one showing that he caused the problem, and the Sleestaks allow him to fulfill the vision and repair the malfunctioning matrix table.  This is an original touch, to be certain, as are the scenes of Rick hallucinating when exposed to the mind-altering mist of the Library.

In fact, this episode gets downright trippy as Rick suddenly sees Will as a football player being tackled (by Sleestak) and then stumbles upon a cave scene wherein he, Will and Holly are all primitive cave people.

Then, Rick imagines Holly as a young girl of pioneer days, and Will as a World War I soldier.  These hallucinations seems somewhat off-point in a story about a Land of the Lost mechanism in need of repair.  We don't understand why Rick sees these particular visions, or what they mean to him.  They're weird and trippy but not really organic to Marshall's character.

After Rick fixes the matrix table, he refers to the affected pylon as “the clock of the Land of the Lost,” which is an interesting addition to series mythology, even if, this story in almost rote fashion re-asserts the familiar environmental underpinnings of the series.  

Once more, the environment is out of balance, and only by cooperation among diverse populations (this time human and Sleestak) can the world be healed.  

I like the message a lot, I just wish it weren't repeated so frequently.  It seems like there should be another way to discover the internal mechanisms of the Land of the Lost without a malfunction or crisis as the starting point.

I find the most intriguing aspect of "The Longest Day" the Library of Skulls.  Here, we see a fascinating vision of Altrusia as it was before the devolution of the Sleestak people.  There's a great metropolis (the Lost City in the distant past...), and one ancient skull talks in picturesque terms of a time when the Sleestak were "7,000" strong and ruled the land.  

Some very interesting mythology and history to build on here...

Next week, one of my favorite season two episodes: “The Pylon Express.”

Friday, October 12, 2012

Late Night Blogging: Hanna-Barbera, 1970s Edition

The Films of 1983: Twilight Zone: The Movie

Submitted for your approval… a genre movie from the year 1983 which confirms the old adage, “you can’t go home again.” 

Case in point: Twilight Zone: The Movie, a big-budget anthology directed by the best of the Brat Generation Hollywood directors: John Landis (An American Werewolf in London [1981]), Steven Spielberg (E.T. [1982]), Joe Dante (The Howling [1981]) and George Miller (The Road Warrior [1982]). 

All these talented directors grew up with tremendous affection for Rod Serling’s landmark fantasy/horror anthology, which aired on CBS TV from 1959-1964.  That these directors were well-intentioned is unquestioned.  But the cinematic results are perhaps not quite what audiences hoped for. 
n part, of course, the film’s reputation has been sullied by a terrible accident.

During filming of the movie’s first segment, directed by John Landis, lead actor Vic Morrow and two child actors were killed in a tragic helicopter accident.  The filmmakers were then tried for negligence and eventually exonerated in a very well-publicized trial.  But the bottom line is that Twilight Zone: The Movie -- and especially that first tale -- are simply not enterprises worth dying over.  That two of the deaths involved children makes the matter even more gruesome and sickening.

Outside of the unforeseen circumstances of the notorious and fatal accident, Twilight Zone: The Movie suffers from a crucial strategic mistake.  It remakes three very strong episodes from the television series, and in doing so fails to improve on them.  Now, some people might insist that a movie and television series are surely apples and oranges, so why compare?  The answer is that one quality of good criticism is, indeed, the ability to meaningfully compare and contrast works of art.  In this case, the movie rewrites of the three original TV teleplays are simply inferior to the originals.  This is the case in terms of writing, characterization, and heart, if not in terms of monetary resources.

This is not to state that all the remakes are utter failures. “Kick the Can” is a dramatic failure along with the first story, “Time Out,” but “It’s a Good Life” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” are entertaining and intriguing efforts…just not up to the (admittedly-high) standard set by the TV series.

The underlying question here is this: Why would three inventive directors remake (and not faithfully, either) three stories already told and so well-known, veritably inviting such invidious comparisons?  

Why didn’t these directors at least attempt to offer something new and fresh?  In 1983, Twilight Zone fans had already seen more than enough reruns, after all.  And it’s hard to see the appeal of reruns that -- though boasting bigger budgets -- don’t tell the stories as ably.

Featuring two very weak stories, and two decent ones -- with an excellent wraparound narrative device, featuring Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd also thrown into the equation) -- Twilight Zone: The Movie is a mixed bag indeed, and one that demonstrate, if nothing else, just how remarkable Rod Serling’s original series truly was.  The movie never feels like much more than a Cliffnotes version of the Twilight Zone, read aloud, as it were, by some very ingenious directors.

“Wanna see something really scary?”

In the realm called the Twilight Zone -- a land of shadow and substance, of things and ideas -- four fantastic stories unfold.

In the first, Bill (Vic Morrow) is a bigot who gets a taste of his own hateful medicine when he becomes a Jew in Nazi Germany, an African American at a KKK rally in the South of the 1950s, and a “gook” under attack by American armed forces during the Vietnam War.   In the end, he is carted off to a concentration camp, with no hope for reprieve…

In the second story, kindly old Mr. Bloom (Scatman Crothers) brings vitality and joy to the residents of Sunnyvale Retirement home with a magical game of Kick the Can.  The old folks are transformed into children, but then Mr. Bloom cajoles them into returning to their older bodies.

During the third story, “It’s a Good Life,” teacher Helen Foley (Kathleen Quinlan) meets an unusual child named Anthony (Jeremy Licht), who can re-shape reality to his will.  But all he wants is a family that really loves him.  Helen, realizing that Anthony needs a loving but strong influence in his life, takes him under wing.

And finally, a nervous flyer named John Valentine (John Lithgow) spots a terrifying creature – a hideous gremlin-- on the wing of the airliner while in flight (and during a storm to boot).

“Time Out”

First and foremost, Twilight Zone: The Movie may serve as a reminder that a big budget and big name directors don’t necessarily ensure superior quality.  The fact of the matter is that the three remakes feared here, while of variable quality, are universally less-successful than the episodes on which they are based. 

But the original story, “Time Out” is an unmitigated disaster.  I write that, by the way, as an affirmed admirer of John Landis’s great An American Werewolf in London.

But “Time Out” is a mindless runaround filled with explosions, chases and battles, but little humanity and little understanding of humanity.  Worse, it boasts no sense of proportion and no sense of the Twilight Zone’s essentially just nature. 

Here, William Connor is a man with “a chip the size of the national debt” on his shoulder, a man who seems to possess a blind hatred for all non-whites.  In the story, he goes to a bar, meets some friends, and immediately rails (loudly…) against Jews, Arabs, and African-Americans.  There’s no doubt he’s a big mouth, and an unlikeable fellow.  As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1980s, once you meet William Connor, you want to shut him up with a punch to the mouth.

But had this story been vetted by someone like Rod Serling, however, Connor might have faced a different excursion to the Zone.  Perhaps he would have awakened one morning to find himself in the body of an African-American. Throughout his day, he would have then been confronted head-on with racist behavior of all forms, both overt and subtle.  By experiencing the reality of racism -- by living in the shoes of another human being -- Connor would have learn something about human nature, and perhaps have come to see the error of his ways.  

But none of that happens here.  Instead, Connor gets carted off to Nazi Germany, where he is chased.  Then he ends up in 1950s Alabama, at a rally for the Klan…and is chased.  And then he ends up in the swamps of Vietnam…and is chased again, until an explosion somehow blows him back to Nazi Germany and he is captured. 

Then, he ends up in a death train, bound for a concentration camp.  The story ends with no hope, no rescue, and, importantly, no learning on his part about what he did wrong.

Not only is the accent on action and explosions absolutely wrong for The Twilight Zone, but the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.  Connor talks a big show, but he never sets out to physically harm anyone in the story.  He’s a bully and a loud mouth, certainly, but does he deserve to die in the concentration camps because he is a big-mouth bigot? 

Death camps were wrong on any and every level imaginable -- a testament to our cruelty as a species -- and the people who died in them didn’t deserve such a fate, either. But as thinking and moral human beings, we can recognize that nobody, not even a bigot, should die in one simply because he used ugly words.

It’s a very severe punishment for diarrhea of the mouth.  I submit Bill could have been better taught a lesson about his racist views in a more pro-human, social way.  As it stands, what’s the moral upshot of the climax? 

Well, that’s one less bigot in the world!  Woo-hoo!

Basically, everything that could be wrong with this particular story is wrong.  Connor goes to his death over speaking (loathsome) racial slurs, and is thus denied the opportunity to learn why he was wrong to use them.  On TV, The Twilight Zone rarely seemed this draconian.  There, the punishment would largely fit the crime, which is something you can’t say of this empty action tale. 

If you look back at Twilight Zone stories such as “The Encounter,” you can see how Serling took on racism in a less two-dimensional style.  In that particular tale, a young Japanese man (George Takei) and an American World War II veteran viewed each other with distrust and dislike because of the war experience, for instance.  “I am the Night, Color Me Black,” also looked at institutionalized racism in the South, and how it is an affront not just to the law, but to God. 

Both of those stories reveal more depth and heart than “Time Out.” 

“Kick in the Can”

Alas, Steven Spielberg’s sentimental “Kick the Can” is not much better than “Time Out.” 

Here, a group of cuddly old people -- virtually all of them Jewish stereotypes -- are magically granted the opportunity to be children again when a kindly stranger brings a night of magic to their dreary nursing home.   

In the original episode that aired on television, one of the old folks at the home came up with the idea himself that he had grown old because he had stopped playing.  To play, he insisted, was to be young.

Thus in the TV version, the magic arose from within the residents of the home themselves as they re-
connected with their inner children.  It was a beautiful and heart-wrenching tale about how growing old isn’t just a quality of the body, a physical thing, but a mental thing too.  And it’s never too late to recapture that youth; to play.  You just have to find the child within.  You just have to remember what it is to be young.

Such noble and affirming ideas are lost in Twilight Zone: The Movie because Scatman Crothers plays a wandering magician who generously bestows youth on others, whether they ask for it or not.   Suddenly, the quality of youth is not an internal one, a quality that can be “activated” by one and all.  Instead, it is the magic pixie dust of a wandering Peter Pan, doled out like candy, and then taken back.

Indeed, Mr. Bloom’s whole modus operandi is extremely bizarre.  He urges the old folks to play kick the can and experience youth, and then, once they are transformed into children again, urges them to go back to their old bodies.  In other words, he’s forces them to dance to his tune, to learn what he wants them to, and, then, even draw the same conclusion he has drawn.    

These poor old folk really get jerked around, but the important thing is that the discovery process of “being young at heart” is lost.  These old folks are denied the learning they were afforded in the TV program, and so the message gets lost, or at least muddled.

Frankly, it’s a mystery why the original TV script wasn’t deployed here, instead of an inferior knock-off that misses the point.  In terms of visualization, the story looks muddy, a mélange of browns and gold -- no doubt to suggest the autumn of life.  And the camera work features an unfortunate, claustrophobic quality that is never relieved, even when the senior citizens are made young again. 

“It’s a Good Life”

Joe Dante’s installment, “It’s a Good Life” is a huge step-up in terms of quality, yet it also can’t quite stand-up to the powerful memory of the TV episode, which featured Bill Mumy as an over-indulged, super-powerful kid who could wish people “into the cornfield.” 

There, in that TV version, the horror dwelt in the suggestion of what horrible things Anthony might do.  A man who dared to challenge the boy was turned into a springing jack-in-the-box, for instance, but it was seen only in creepy, imagination-provoking silhouette. 

Here, director Joe Dante goes full-throttle into cartoon mayhem, creating Looney Tunes-styled nightmares to threaten teacher Helen Foley (Kathleen Quinlan) and Anthony’s family.  But where the TV story concerned an indulged child who thrived because people refused to draw limits, the movie version is a special effects freak show about a lonely kid who creates monsters – wait for it -- to be loved. 

Two problems with this approach: First, Anthony’s family is depicted as being bad…as though it is somehow at fault for being afraid of him and his monstrous creations. And secondly, Anthony does horrible things (like disintegrating one sister’s mouth, and consigning another to cartoon hell…) and we are supposed to forgive him -- feel sorry for him -- because he is so lonely and unloved. 

He may indeed be lonely and unloved and therefore deserving of sympathy, but that doesn’t excuse the way he tortures his family.

And the story’s ending is pure sentimentality and fantasy land: Anthony and his new “Mom,” Helen, drive off into the metaphorical sunset as sweet, fantasy flowers suddenly bloom, dotting the landscape. 

Just wait until that kid is a teenager, Helen, and then let’s see how you do with little Anthony…

Like “Kick the Can,” “It’s a Good Life” loses the emotional and narrative meat of the televised story, and replaces that meat with lesser…confections.  The special effects are great, for instance, and the cartoon world absolutely unnerving, not to mention original.  As a fan of Heckyl and Jeckyl, I love how Dante uses that old series’ episode “The Power of Thought” to reflect Anthony’s ability to recreate the world, as if it too is a cartoon.

There’s good stuff here, absolutely, and the visuals are dazzling enough to gloss over the narrative and character deficits.  But those deficits do exist, and occasionally come through. 

For instance, we are never quite sure what Helen is thinking when she agrees to take over parental responsibilities for Anthony.  Does she see his powers as a tool she can wield?  Or is she pure of heart, and wishing only to help a lonely child?  Helen remains such an undeveloped character that her motives stay opaque
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”

“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” ends the movie on fine horror footing. Here, a twitchy, over-the-top John Lithgow battles a fierce gremlin on the wing of a plane in flight. 

Director George Miller adopts claustrophobic framing and cockeyed-angles so as to make us feel the breadth of Lithgow’s panic.  He succeeds well in making the jet feel more like a flying coffin than you average-every day conveyance.  In presentation and form, this episode is truly scary, even a tour de force in terms of style.   A perfect ending story, it is dominated by electric jolts and a strong sense of menace.

But again, the original version’s subtlety is missed.  The episode, directed by Richard Donner, involved a man, played by William Shatner, recovering from a nervous breakdown.  Because of the man’s history, there was a tension in the episode between what people expected of him, and how he reported what he saw. 

In other words, he was a man desperately trying to hold onto his dignity at the same time that he battled an impossible creature from the Twilight Zone. 

In the movie, that tension is gone, because Valentine just happens to be a very nervous flyer.  Nobody knows him, and he has no history of crying wolf, so-to-speak.

Clearly, this is the best segment in the film, and it gets by largely on directorial legerdemain.  And that gremlin is scary as hell, a notable improvement on the fluffy gremlin of the TV series.

A crucial part of my 1983 summer of fan discontent – along with Return of the Jedi and Superman III -- Twilight Zone: The Movie is slicker and more manipulative than any tale Rod Serling ever imagined, yet also less clever, less soulful, and less terrifying too.  

This Twilight Zone movie is more “shadow” and less “substance” than the TV series provided on a weekly basis for five years.

Movie Trailer: The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

 "The day we stop playing is the day we start getting old." 

- Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #39: Torchwood - Children of Earth and Miracle Day?

Well, I’m having a bad go of things today. 

I managed to lose the “Ask JKM a Question” e-mail where a reader asked me for my thoughts on the recent Torchwood seasons, Children of Earth and Miracle Day

I want to apologize to that reader for this mistake, but I’ll try to answer the question anyway!

First, I not long ago completed catching up on Russell Davies’ Torchwood in its entirety.  I found that the series was wildly variable in terms of quality, bouncing from highs to lows and back to highs again.  There were some really great episodes (like “Countrycide,” which I reviewed here) and some really terrible episodes too.  The series it hits peak, I believe with the stunning third season.

That third season consisted of five episodes and those episodes depicted one overall story spanning five days.  It is titled Children of Earth, and, yes, it is an absolutely chilling tale.

For those of you haven’t seen it, Children of Earth sees aliens arriving on our world and demanding a percentage of our children for their own secret purpose.  Only late in the drama does Torchwood -- an organization dedicated to defending the Earth from extra-terrestrial threats -- learn precisely how our children are to be used.  That discovery, let me say, proves really sickening.

I can’t write this plainly enough: Children of Earth is one of the best-written, best-performed and most caustic things I’ve seen on television in a long time.  The story succeeds because it is really about us, not evil aliens, and about the ways our society picks winners and losers based on issues of class, race, and in some cases, bigotry.  That the story involves the exploitation of children – the innocent -- makes it all the more pointed, and devastating.

In short, when it becomes plain to the government of Britain in the series that the children are indeed to be sacrificed, there is a political discussion of “whose” children should go with the aliens.  Certainly not the children of the rich and powerful!

Instead, how about those poor kids struggling in bad schools who are determined to be dead-enders and a drain on society?   Let’s kill two birds with one stone and send them!

The government’s plan is to pack the less-fortunate children up in buses and without even consulting their parents, send them away to permanent alien enslavement. 

So often in this country we hear about class warfare.  It’s suspicious that the folks always complaining about it are those of the richer class...the very ones who want to protect their superior status.  This story is about how those “rich” folk further their own interests at the expense of innocence, at the expense of children who just want the same opportunities out of life that the wealthy received.  But, of course, when you try to help those who are less fortunate, you are accused of trying to re-distribute wealth…

The best science fiction on television, in my opinion is the brand that tells us something about ourselves, some truth that may be unpleasant…but necessary to hear.  Torchwood is a series set in the UK, so it’s not about partisan politics, I should add.  It’s about something much more basic: about how those without access to the levers of power are scapegoated and sacrificed by those who command it.  

I can’t say enough positive about Children of Earth.  It’s stunningly well-written and executed, and I give it my highest recommendation.  I found it…shattering, and thought about it for days after my viewing.

Miracle Day -- which is an American/British co-production -- is not nearly so strong a tale.  The story here involves the idea that suddenly man becomes immortal and nobody on Earth can die, thus creating a whole raft of new problems for the human race. 

That idea sounds like a great story and an important one too, but the season tends to meander, and the infusion of American action-sensibilities (and new, American cast-members…) works against Torchwood’s greatest strengths.    

The focus here over ten episodes (instead of five…) is more diffuse than in Children of Earth, and some episodes wander off on narrative and thematic dead-ends.  I can watch Eva Myles in anything, because she’s a great screen presence, but Miracle Day lacks Children of Earth’s drive, and in some sense, its brutal honesty.

So again, I must return to the idea of just how very hit-or-miss Torchwood often seems.  Children of Earth is undeniably a cult-television masterpiece. Miracle Day is okay, but not much more than that. 

That established I certainly wouldn’t mind further Torchwood seasons that, like Children of Earth are short, cut-throat and relentlessly on-point.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Late Night Blogging: Real Ghostbusters Toys

Memory Bank: Rubik's Cube and Friends

In 1980 and 1981, I began my time in Glen Ridge Middle School, and it’s a span I still remember rather vividly today, in part because of the weird pop-culture fads of that era, from Pac Man and the Smurfs to the unforgettable Rubik’s Cube. 

In the fact, those early years in the Reagan Era brought a whole variety of complex “combination” puzzles to the marketplace, and to this day, I recall my classmates and friends bringing them to school and, between classes, fiddling incessantly with them.

The most famous of these puzzles remains, of course, Rubik’s Cube, a puzzle which was created by a gentleman named Eno Rubik in 1977, but was released widely in America by Ideal Toys in 1980. 

I’ll be honest: it took me a painfully long time to learn to solve the Rubik’s Cube at age 10, but I had at least two close friends who could do it lickety-split.  In fact, watching my friends Scott and Bob solve the damn thing, I probably had my earliest realization in life that there were other children who, well, were a lot smarter than me; or at the very least possessed a different skill set.  This isn't actually a bad thing to learn at a young age.  We all have different gifts.

Anyway the success of the Rubik’s Cube inspired a spell of absolute pop culture madness in America, and it quickly became the world’s top-selling puzzle, and by some accounts even the world’s best-selling toy.  

Soon, Ideal released a variation called “Rubik’s Snake” and then followed that up with a fearsome puzzle (which I never learned to solve…) called “Rubik’s Revenge.”

In 1983, Rubik’s Cube even became the star of a short-lived Saturday Morning TV series on ABC called Rubik the Amazing Cube.  The series followed the adventures of a character named Rubik who landed mysteriously on Earth had magical powers that would activate when all of his sides were correctly aligned.  The then-pop sensation Menudo provided the theme song.

In toy stores, Rubik’s Cube knock-offs proliferated.  There was the Pyraminx, a pyramid or tetrahedral-shaped puzzle from Tomy Toys, which I owned and kept for some years.  

And then there was another puzzle called “Missing Link,” an invention of Steven P. Hanson and Jeffrey D. Breslow. 

Finally, the easiest of the bunch was called “Whip It” (from LJN) and I owned one of those on a key-chain.  I comforted myself with the knowledge that I could solve Whip It and Missing Link easily, while Rubik’s Cube took me the better part of an hour. 

Looking back, it's amazing and very cool to think that a brain-teaser -- a toy that depended on intelligence and curiosity -- became so popular an item at the same time that cable television and video games were taking off.

These days, I’ve been thinking seriously about getting Joel a Rubik’s Cube, and I’m sure he’ll do a better job solving it at age six than his old man did thirty years ago.  Below are some videos and commercials from the great era of Rubik's Cube.

Pop Art: Aurora Prehistoric Edition

Collectible of the Week: The Real Ghostbusters Fire Station Headquarters (Kenner; 1987)

Over the last several months, my son Joel and I  have become hooked on The Real Ghostbusters (1986 – 1991), the long-lived Saturday morning cartoon adapted from the popular 1984 movie starring Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd.   

These episodes, which pit the intrepid Ghostbusters against the Bogeyman, Samhain (The Spirit of Halloween), the Sandman and other ghouls are a lot of fun, and clearly written with affection for the horror genre.  We’ve probably watched the first season together three times by now…

Anyway, this adventure continues for Joel and me with The Real Ghostbusters Fire Station Headquarters (1987) from Kenner, a really great multi-story play-set from the mid-1980s.

The over-sized set features a containment unit for the ghosts and a three level spinning elevator pole so the Ghostbusters can race to their car and get to any emergency.  

The bottom story of the firehouse is large enough to house the Ecto 1, though we have only the Kenner Haunted Highway vehicle, which is a yellow Volkswagen that transforms into a giant praying mantis.

Originally, the Real Ghostbusters Fire Station Headquarters also came with some “Ecto-Plazm” slime, but since these toys are twenty-five years old, we’re missing that particular accessory.

To my delight, Joel has ceded the firehouse play set largely to me and the heroic Ghostbusters, while he has set up a haunted castle for the ghosts from the series, which include “Haunted Humans” like “X-Cop,” “Granny Gross,” “Tombstone Tackle,” “Hard Hat” and “Terror Trash.”

These beasts are currently in league with his other ghouls, which include a haunted toilet called “Fearsome Flush” (!) and several creepy-looking ghost “mini-traps.”   There's also a skeleton monster called "Bad to the Bone."

All spoken for, Joel has probably about twenty ghosts from the Kenner series, and he loves to make them launch an attack on the fire station, which the Ghostbusters (played by me…) must then defend.  And by the way,  I do a mean Peter Venkman impersonation (half-way between Bill Murray and Garfield…).

If only we had a Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man…

Add caption

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Late Night Blogging: The Worlds of Hanna-Barbera (1960s Edition)

Cult-TV Blogging: Brimstone: "Encore" (November 6, 1998)

The fourth episode of Brimstone (1998 – 1999), “Encore” continues the pattern set down by the third episode, “Heat.”  

In specific terms, that means the Hell-escapee of the week isn’t merely a diabolical fugitive to be apprehended and sent back to Hell, but a deliberate reflection of Detective Ezekiel Stone’s (Peter Horton) personality and situation.

In this case, the villain of the week is Gilbert Jax (William McNamara), the man who raped Stone’s wife, Rosalyn (Stacy Haiduk) in 1983 and by doing so destroyed the Stone marriage.  Stone murdered Jax, and that’s the reason Stone was consigned to Hell.  Now, Jax is back on Earth, and living with his mother, Evelyn McNabb (Louise Fletcher).  She believes her son has been in Heaven with the angels and is getting a second chance at life on Earth.

While Stone hunts Jax down, he relives the day of Rosalyn’s rape (via flashback), and compares his own feelings of powerlessness and rage to those of another rape victim’s husband.  That man gets “angrier and angrier” every day, and Stone counsels him to calm down, lest he take the same path that Stone took; the path that led the detective to Hell.

In the end, Stone dispatches Jax with some difficulty (arranged by the Devil [John Glover]) and there’s a terrific final scene that helps to explain succinctly why Brimstone is such a great series.  Jax disappears, and his mother, Evelyn, sits down heavily, realizing that her son is gone…for good this time.  Then, she asks if Stone is an angel and if Gilbert has been “sent back to Heaven” where she feels he “belongs.” 

Instead of arguing with Evelyn about the merits of her (terrible...) boy, Stone is quiet…and lets her keep her delusion.  He doesn’t tell her the truth that Gilbert is back in Hell, and Damnation is where he actually belongs.  

This small moment reveals that even in a situation where Stone has been grievously wronged and feels absolute rage, he realizes he can still be decent to someone else who is hurting.  There is nothing to gain by shattering Evelyn’s image of her wayward child. So instead of laying more hurt at her feet, Stone holds his words, and it’s a powerful and moral act.  It’s a great moment for the episode, and for the series.

“Encore” also looks long and hard at Stone’s behavior in other ways: his murder of Gilbert back in 1983, for example.  The Devil accuses him of “denial, pride, and self-righteousness,” and those are feelings all of us might have in a similar situation.  Stone lost everything because of what Jax did, but also because of how he, personally, responded to what Jax did.

Stone knows too well that to indulge those feelings of denial, pride and self-righteousness with action (and murderous action to boot) is to indulge his dark side, especially since he abuses his position as a police officer.

Again and again, Brimstone charts this fascinating trajectory. Stone is a man stuck in a universe of absolutes: Heaven/Hell, God/Devil, Good/Bad.  Yet everything he experiences on his journey is a reminder that life isn’t that simple or black-and-white.  

He keeps finding shades of gray in the human experience, and trying to countenance what they mean.  The show thus asks questions about the differences between vengeance and justice, and suggests that even “monsters” like Jax are loved by their mothers, and that such love can be respected.

It’s a very, very challenging dynamic, and it’s absolutely part of what made Brimstone must-see TV.  I loved that on Friday nights in 1998-1998 -- between Brimstone and Millennium, -- viewers got a double dose of the horror genre at its best, a genre that can ask and answer the big questions of humanity in a meaningful way without seeming preachy.

Cult Movie Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

On first blush, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) is a riveting psychological thriller. However, if you happen to be a parent, you will recognize it as something else: a horror movie.  

The film, directed by Lynne Ramsey, expertly plumbs insecurities not so much about children, but about the role that parents play upon their child’s development and mental health. 

What does it say about you if you bring a monster rather than a man into the world?

And if you do create and shelter a monster, what is your responsibility to that monster, and to society at large?

These are just two of the difficult questions We Need to Talk About Kevin raises. 

What remains so remarkable about the film is how it refuses to provide easy answers about what, precisely, ails Kevin, the child in question.  The movie’s summary description on’s streaming queue describes Kevin in terms like “evil” and “malevolent,” but the truth is much cloudier than that. 

This isn’t a movie about simple labels.

From a certain perspective, Kevin appears to be a sociopath, or at least mentally ill.  He seems to lack a functioning conscience most of the time. The movie provides several Kubrickian shots (like those featured in The Shining [1980] and Full Metal Jacket [1987]) of Kevin glaring up, head titled down, over his furrowed brow.  There’s something primitive, focused, and obsessive in that pose.  It’s the visage of a Neanderthal predator, not the evolved human being we would hope and expect to recognize in our own child.

From another perspective, however, We Need to Talk About Kevin is actually about a kid who wants only to be loved by his emotionally unavailable mother, and who keeps violating family and societal boundaries to pinpoint some – any -- evidence of that love, until finally he goes so far that bloody tragedy ensues.

One image repeated twice in the film – that of the mother literally transforming into the child and then back to mother again while washing her face in a sink -- suggests that she is partially the cause for Kevin’s anti-social behavior.

Or perhaps that’s how she views the situation in the aftermath of Kevin’s bloody action. Her deep shame has led her to question herself and her actions in a deep and relentless way.  She can’t escape the trap of her own memories, and the opportunities she missed.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is unfailingly gorgeous from a visual standpoint, and commendably ambiguous from a thematic standpoint.  It’s a film that eschews easy answers and thus resonates in the memory.   The film’s powerful symbolism -- largely involving the color red -- is brilliantly and consistently applied, and makes us understand the specific shading of Kevin and Eva’s American tragedy.

“Just because you're used to something doesn't mean you like it. You're used to me.”

Based on a 2003 book of the same title by Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin operates on two time-tracks.  In the present, Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) lives alone, tries to hold down a low-paying job at a strip-mall travel agency, and faces her status as pariah or outcast in the community.

In flashbacks, however, we see what events brought Eva to this unpleasant juncture in her life.

We see her fall in love with a man named Franklin (John C. Reilly) at an international tomato festival in Spain.  They make love, and marry, and soon welcome their first child, Kevin. 

Almost from moment one, Eva is remote and distant with her child.  Kevin cries incessantly, and she can’t stand the sound so she walks his baby carriage to construction sites to muffle the noise.   As Kevin grows, Eva is frustrated that he doesn’t speak or respond to her, though he seems to respond in a mostly healthy fashion to Franklin, his father.

One day when Kevin is six (but still not yet potty trained...), Eva breaks the boy’s arm when he intentionally goes to the bathroom in his diapers.  Eva is racked with guilt over her violence, but still, the distance from Kevin remains.  During one conversation about the impending arrival of a baby sister, Kevin suggests that though Eva is used to him, she doesn’t actually like him. 

Eva doesn’t dispute the child’s assessment.

As the years go by, Eva and Franklin grow further estranged, and matters with Kevin grow more troubling.  Although he shows an avid interest in archery, Kevin is still cool (and cruel) to his mother.  When Franklin decides he wants a divorce from Eva, Kevin overhears the discussion, apparently blames himself, and soon cryptically orders metal locks off the Internet in bulk. 

Then, he takes his bow and arrow – as well as the metal locks -- to a high school pep rally…

“Why would I not understand the context? I am the context.” 

We Need to Talk About Kevin’s director, Lynne Ramsey, frequently deploys the color red to express the nature of Eva’s life in the film. 

Red is the color of love and vitality and passion, but also the color, importantly, of blood.  The implication seems to be, through the crimson-hued imagery, that the “red” in Eva’s life turns from passion, excitement and freedom to the color of blood and death.  Finally, red becomes the scarlet letter or color of shame and community rage. 

And the thing that changed the color of Eva’s life from joy and freedom to pain and entrapment was the arrival of a son she didn’t really want, and doesn’t really love.

As We Need to Talk About Kevin opens, we see imagery showcasing Eva at the tomato festival in Spain.  She is covered in red tomato sauce, and lifted above a sea of undulating, half-naked bodies as if some kind of primitive fertility goddess.  The impression is of a woman who is totally and completely free.  The tomatoes here could almost be mistaken for flower petals as Eva revels in her glorious, picturesque independence.  Most of those around her are well-built men, stripped-down to the waist.  For at least a moment, she is the focus of their group attention and when raised up, she enjoys it.

Later, after Kevin is born, Eva no longer feels free.  She isn’t getting enough sleep, Kevin never stops crying, and she feels alone and isolated.  She tries to build a sense of “play” or adventure with Kevin, by playing ball with him.   But he doesn’t return or throw back to her the red ball.  There is no connection there; no give and take.  It’s already too late.  Eva’s entreaty for adventure and partnership is rejected by her son because she has demonstrated in her actions a rejection of him.

After Kevin goes on a murderous spree, an act covered in the blood of his classmates, Eva is shunned by her community.

By night, red paint -- symbolic of blood and shame -- is splattered on her house.  The red which once embodied her sense of freedom, now reminds Eva of her mistakes, and of the troubled child she brought into the world.    Now, Eva is put in the position of having to scrub the red -- both the happiness and the pain -- from her life.

At one point in the story, Eva hides in a grocery store from the mother of a deceased teenager -- one killed by Kevin -- and she cowers in front of rows and rows of tomato soup.  It’s a cruel joke and a cruel image.  The woman who reveled in the spilled tomatoes in Spain now cowers in a world of canned tomatoes. 

Like Eva, the (red) tomatoes have gone from representing freedom to symbolizing containment.

The color red shows up elsewhere in the film as well.  There are red chairs lining the wall of the strip-mall real estate agency where Eva works, a subtle reminder of the joy she once felt that is now reduced to mere furniture in a place that promises dreams. 

There’s also a shot of a half-eaten red apple and a red candle in Eva’s house, a visual representation of the fact that she can’t have freedom anymore because she has eaten the apple; the fruit from the tree of knowledge.  In other words, Eva knows what Kevin is.  And she knows what role she played in inflicting Kevin upon society.

Red is freedom at the tomato festival.

Red is freedom rejected.

Red is the scarlet letter of community shame.

You can't wash the stain of red away.

The (red) fruit of knowledge can't be un-learned.

Cruel irony: Eva now hides behind canned tomatoes...

There are other powerful images in We Need to Talk About Kevin, even beyond the use of the color red.  For instance, Eva constantly attempts to create a space for herself where she can relive the freedom she enjoyed before getting married and giving birth to Kevin.  She decorates a “special place” for herself in the family’s fancy McMansion: a room filled in every corner with detailed maps.  These are memories of places she has traveled, and a promise that she will travel there again, one day.

Even Eva’s job -- at a travel agency -- speaks of her desire to travel, and to be untethered from the responsibilities of family and Kevin.  She gazes longingly at destinations far, far away.

Also, Eva is depicted on a book-signing poster with the term “Legendary Adventurer.”  That particular composition is especially interesting because it is, again, surrounded by instances of red.  And when Kevin stands in front of it, his red sweatshirt supersedes it, replacing vitality and passion with horror and shame.

Kevin knows his Mom wants to escape, a fact symbolized by her room of maps.

Kevin (wearing red) countenances his mother's desire to escape again.

The desire to escape is reduced to making the dreams of others come true. (Notice the red chairs).

What are we to make of all this? 

We Need to Talk About Kevin provides many clues, but no direct answers.  There is a scene mid-way through the film wherein a very young Kevin spikes a fever and is suddenly rendered normal for an agonizingly short span. 

During his fever, he shows kindness, and reveals real love for his mother.  It is the first sign of a connection between them.  This scene suggests that Kevin’s damaged mental status is the real culprit here.

This development in the film reflects what has been termed a “eureka” moment in studies of Autism.  As was reported in 2009 by Jeffrey Kluger (Time: “Why Fever Helps Autism: A New Theory”): “Generations of parents of autistic kids have reported that when their child runs a fever, the symptoms of autism seem to abate.  When the fever goes down, the symptoms return.”

So this short, bittersweet scene suggests that Kevin is not wired correctly, and therefore a physiological condition is responsible for his demeanor and behavior, not Eva.

A fever returns Kevin to normal, although only briefly...

Contrarily, Eva clearly doesn’t want Kevin in her life, and doesn’t want to make accommodations for him.  She doesn’t affirm that she loves him on at least three important occasions, and can’t seem to escape the doldrums of “why me-ism” enough to attempt to reach out, or get Kevin the help he needs.   

The film makes a big point of providing Eva and Kevin nearly identical haircuts, and reveals that both are extremely judgmental about others (as witnessed at an afternoon miniature golf outing).  The point is not only that Eva doesn’t love Kevin, but that he has inherited from her some terrible qualities. In some ways, Eva seems as cold and emotional as Kevin does.

This movie is called We Need to Talk About Kevin, and yet, throughout the film, his parents never talk substantively about Kevin at all. 

His parents don’t discipline him effectively (if at all), and they never discuss with one another if their son should see a therapist, or be counseled for his anti-social tendencies.  This is where real parental responsibility comes in, and in the movie’s title we detect the narrative’s most important takeaway.

If you suspect your child is dangerous, you have a responsibility to both help that child with his or her condition, and make certain that society at large and other children are safe.  

This is where Eva really fails any reasonable test of parenthood.  She believes that Kevin intentionally injures his sister and kills her pet guinea pig, yet she can’t be roused from her doldrums of victimhood and entrapment to do anything about it.  You can’t blame Eva for being sad about her life, any more than you can blame Kevin for possessing a mental illness, but you can blame Eva (and her husband, Franklin) for not doing more to assure that their child is not a danger to the community.

Eva knows what Kevin is but does nothing to stop him or get him help.  All she sees is her own, ongoing entrapment and persistent victimhood.

The portions of the film that take place after Kevin’s murder spree reveal Eva’s deep shame and guilt about her failures.  She must live with her mistakes, as Kevin must certainly live with his.  Ironically, when film ends, Eva and Kevin are finally joined, but not necessarily through love.

Rather, they are joined through guilt.  

The emotional bond that they never shared begins in earnest only after society has rendered (a mutual) judgment.  They find one another only when everyone else has rejected them both.

What’s the point of We Need to Talk About Kevin’s even-handedness in considering what factors “made” Kevin? 

Well, as Kevin himself says, the point is that there isn’t one.  The point is not to blame, but to make sure that everyone is safe.

Lives are shattered and destroyed, and there is no one person at which to point the finger of blame, or ultimate responsibility.    In our culture, we believe parents are important.  And yet we also believe that, at some point, people must take responsibility for their own actions.  So when we ask “what went wrong?” there’s a split decision.

This is an equation we, as Americans, have seen again and again.  Read a book like Dave Cullen’s excellent Columbine (2010) and one gains a sense of sympathy for the parents of the school shooters.  You know they have gone through absolute, unending Hell.  And yet, by the same token, you wonder why they didn’t do anything about their children beforehand, when the warning signs -- as is the case in this movie -- were abundantly clear. 

If there is a point here, it’s that parents must not, in the day-to-day hustle of job, family and other responsibilities, forget that they live in a larger world.  They have obligations not just to their children, but to the children of others.  

Someone really did need to talk about Kevin, before it was too late.