Saturday, October 12, 2013

Saturday Morning Cult TV Blogging: Return to the Planet of the Apes: "Escape from Ape City" (September 13, 1975)

In the second episode of the animated series Return to the Planet of the Apes, which aired on NBC in 1975, displaced human astronaut Bill Hudson is captured by gorilla soldiers and taken with other “humanoids” to Ape City.  There, Zira and Cornelius hope to study this human -- whom they name “Blue Eyes” -- over Urko’s protestation that all humanoid subjects are required for soldier training.  Thanks to Zaius, the chimpanzees prevail.

After Bill reveals himself capable of intelligent speech, Zira and Cornelius realize just how unusual their new subject really is.  A gorilla guard also overhears him talking, and alerts the authorities.  Bill escapes with the help of his two friends, and meets up with Nova and Jeff.  They burn up the gorilla wagons so that no more humans can be captured by the apes, and then flee to the wilderness.

Jeff and Bill realize that the humanoids on the planet are defenseless, but a new sanctuary could be provided in the mountains if only they can retrieve their laser drill from their downed spacecraft, still stuck at the bottom of the dead lake in the Forbidden Zone…

“Escape from Ape City” feels very much like a re-imagination of the middle section of the 1968 original film, and the early section of its first sequel, 1970’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Specifically, the story here involves an astronaut from the 20th century coming into the custody of Zira and Cornelius, and their dedicated efforts to help him escape.  In the film, Taylor was “Bright Eyes” and here Bill is, similarly, “Blue Eyes.”

At least Taylor didn’t have to reckon with General Urko, however, and here Bill must also contend with that power-hungry military leader, as Brent did in Beneath.  In both scenarios, the ranking ape general is rounding-up all captured humans for use in military training or war game exercises.  Also, one of the most intriguing parts of this episode involves Zaius decision to dole the humanoids out to various interest groups and locations, including pet shops, labor camps, and even a nature preserve.  As Zaius makes his decision, the episode cuts to a montage revealing each locale he describes. We see a humanoid woman sitting in a pet shop window, for instance. 

In a splendid bit of continuity between original film and animated re-imagination, Zira suggests in “Escape from Ape City” using the “Hopkins Manual Dexterity Test” on Hudson; something her corollary also suggested in the 1968 Schaffner production.  Another faithful touch: in the spirit of Ursus, Urko declares in this episode that the only good human is a “caged” or “dead” one.  Ursus spoke an almost identical line (“the only good human is a dead human”) during his rabble-rousing speech in Beneath.

Although a retread of so much familiar material from the Apes mythos, this second episode proves worthwhile mainly because of the close-up detail it provides on the Council of Elders in the “Simian Nation,” as well as that body’s motivations.  Dr. Zaius heads this governing council, which is populated by orangutans, and reports here the reason for the edict regarding the extermination of all mankind, should even a single man prove himself capable of speech. 

In particular, Zaius reveals the history of the planet: that mankind rose to prominence on Earth but then destroyed himself and nearly the entire planet with him before his fall to utter barbarism. The apes now live in fear that if man once again becomes intelligent, the whole world is at risk.  This information “humanizes” Dr. Zaius and his ilk since it explains the reasons for ape fear regarding mankind.  Damningly, you can’t say the apes don’t have a cause for concern.

“Escape from Ape City” also features the weird verbal quirk of every character calling humans “humanoids,” which seems like a misnomer.  Aren’t the apes also, technically, humanoid?  Perhaps the series creators changed the moniker “human” to “humanoid” in anticipation of the Under Dwellers, another human-like enemy depicted in upcoming episodes.

The tail end of “Escape from Ape City” also clearly points to a plot-line of future importance.  The astronauts need a device -- a laser drill -- from their ship, and will attempt to recover it.

But first, we meet the Under Dwellers in next week’s installment: “The Unearthly Prophecy.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost (1991): "Something's Watching" (September 14, 1991)

In the second episode of the Sid and Marty Krofft remake of Land of the Lost, the Porter family must contend with Kevin, who is at loose ends, and getting bored with life in the prehistoric land.  As Annie reminds her Dad, she at least has Tasha to keep her company.  Kevin has no one.

However, this fact changes rather dramatically after Kevin captures video-tape footage of two strangers in the land: a human woman, Christa, and small missing-like-type creature, Stink.  The Porters attempt to communicate with the duo, but find them wary of strangers.

When Mr. Porter is bitten by a poisonous lizard, Christa and Kevin must work together to find the antidote, which can be found only in a special plant very near a pterodactyl perch.  Meanwhile, Annie and Tasha become friends with the Paku, Stink, as he tends to Mr. Porter.

Watching this episode of Land of the Lost, I couldn’t help but consider how much better the entire follow-up series would have been accepted by long-time franchise fans if Christa had been renamed Holly, and Stink renamed Chaka. 

After all, we know from original Land of the Lost lore (and episodes like Dorothy Fontana’s “Elsewhen”) that Holly’s destiny was to be left alone in the inhospitable Altrusia -- no doubt unintentionally -- by her family members.  This fact was shared with her by an adult version of Holly, nicknamed Rani. 

Thus, when the human Christa -- a human from San Francisco – shows up in this story alongside a paku named, Stink, it seems only right that the characters should actually be Holly and Chaka, still living and working together some years after Holly lost Will and Uncle Jack.  I don’t know if this was the original intention (as Wikipedia seems to indicate), but it is nonetheless a superior draamtic paradigm, and would have assured deeper buy-in from old fans.  The re-appearance of Holly and Chaka would have made this series, essentially, a sequel rather than a remake.

Otherwise, “Something’s Watching” feels very much like a remake of an original Land of the Lost episode, “The Search.”  There, Rick Marshall was injured and Holly had to find a way to help him survive in the jungle.  Here, it is Mr. Porter who is injured, while Kevin and Christa must save him, tracking down the needed plant antidote.

As we saw in last week’s episode, “Tasha,” the family car is apparently going to get quite the work out in the remake series, despite the fact that there are no gas stations available in the Land of the Lost for filling the gas tank.  This week, Kevin drives Tasha to find the cure, and it is apparently some distance back and forth, since the trip takes most of the day and night.  The location of the cure, incidentally, is Vasquez Rocks.  But the point is that the car is soon going to be useless if the Porters keep using it to resolve the crisis of the week.

Once more, the prehistoric creatures in the new Land of the Lost are hit or miss.  The pterodactyl looks great and moves convincingly, even if awkwardly matted into the live-action scenes.   Also impressive is a gentle stegosaurus who happens into the road in front of the Porter car.  But the prehistoric dogs which show up at the beginning and ending of the episode look much more cute than threatening.

“Something’s Watching” is an important episode in the canon for introducing the huntress Christa and Stink, but again, these characters feel a bit like a lost opportunity to build a more direct connection between this world, and the world of 1970s Altrusia.

Next week, we meet the new Land of the Lost’s Sleestaks in “Shung the Terrible.”

Friday, October 11, 2013

Cult-Movie Review: Surveillance (2009)

Jennifer Lynch, daughter of David Lynch, directs Surveillance (2009), an unnerving and unpredictable thriller that explores the way our assumptions about people dictate our actions, whether or not those assumptions happen to be true. 

Perhaps more to the point, Lynch’s film revises and revamps the central scenario of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) for the twenty-first century.

Rashomon, as you may recall, involves a terrible crime -- the murder of a samurai -- and four differing “witness” accounts of the events surrounding that moral and legal transgression. Those remembering the crime included a bandit, a wife, a samurai (whose viewpoint was recounted from beyond the grave by a medium…) and a woodcutter. 

In the end, however, no definitive account of the crime could be produced, thereby suggesting that there is no such thing as objective truth.  Rather, there are multiple, subjective truths, and all of them are based, in some sense, upon personal “self-interest” according to Kurosawa.

Similarly, Surveillance involves a set of brutal, inexplicable murders on the open Nebraska highway, and four different accounts of the events surrounding it.  The percipients in this case are a junkie, a cop, and a terrified little girl.

And in one way or another, all these witnesses appear to be unreliable narrators. 

From its very first moments, something about reality seems “wrong” in Surveillance, like everyone is just a little bit off, or twitchy about some un-excavated fact or detail.  As the film’s narrative unfolds, that feeling of tension about the characters and their behavior escalates and the suspense grows palpable.  The film divided audiences, and I can certainly see why. 

But there’s certainly a method to the madness here, and I was surprised (but happily so) to see that Surveillance --at least in large part -- fits in with the movie oeuvre of Lynch’s famous father.  Here, director Lynch spends a much time and expends tremendous creative energy charting the gulf between dishonest surface and roiling underneath.  She does so with a quirky and daring visual style and a final twist that re-affirms and punctuates the idea of assumptions proven dramatically wrong.

“I think that’s the most romantic thing in the whole world.”
In Surveillance, F.B.I. agents Anderson (Ormond) and Hallaway (Pullman) arrive at a small police station in Nebraska to question three witnesses to a horrible highway massacre.  The witnesses are a junkie named Bobbi (Pell James), Officer Bennett (Kent Harper), who is still in mourning over the death of his partner, Conrad (French Stewart), and finally, a little girl, Stephanie (Ryan Simpkins), who saw her entire family butchered.
Anderson and Hallaway attempt to suss out how much each witness knows about the crime, but Bennett and Bobbi leave out key details. 
Bennett, in particular, doesn’t reveal that he and his partner spent the day harassing travelers on the highway, first shooting out their tires and then stopping them for some minor legal infraction, so they could play good-cop/bad-cop with them. 
Bobbi, meanwhile, seeks to minimize all aspects of the story relating to the death of her drug dealer that very morning, and her drug addiction.
Stephanie, meanwhile, begins to sense a deeper truth about the crime.
As tempers grow heated, the lies begin to melt away, and the truth about the murders on the highway bubbles to the surface…

“The things we do to each other…”
If Rashomon suggested that self-interest colors perception, Surveillance takes the notion a giant step further.  Here, the characters -- the cop and the junkie, specifically -- knowingly and repeatedly lie to the two F.B.I. agents investigating the case.  We see them lie and hear them lie, while flashbacks reveal for us the actual, horrendous truth of what occurred.    

In the case of the little girl, Stephanie, the matter is a bit more complicated.  A child’s viewpoint of the world is very different from an adult’s, and so the girl seems unreliable, but not necessarily because she lies.  Instead, Stephanie simply talks in a different vocabulary, and with a different set of references. At the end of the film, she also makes a choice regarding silence and truth, one which is smart given the circumstances. 

Attempting to ferret out the truth at the local police station -- and using person-to-person interviewing techniques as well as constant surveillance to do so -- are the two F.B.I agents I mentioned above, played by Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond.  Uniquely, these characters also possess crucial information they have chosen not to share with the witnesses, and this facet of the film also plays directly into Surveillance’s overriding leitmotif regarding assumptions and truth.
Early in Surveillance we see some graffiti written on a bathroom wall. It reads: “You can’t argue with nature.” 
That scrawled message might just provide the key to unlocking the mysteries of the film.  Specifically, it is our nature as human beings to assign values upon people based on how they present themselves, or how more simply, how they look.  We look at an F.B.I. agent, a police officer, a junkie, and a little girl, and we start making assumptions about them, and their behavior.
As Surveillance quickly establishes, however, that aspect of our “nature” -- that instant classification of people based on assumptions -- can be downright dangerous. 
The police in the film, for instance, are incredibly corrupt.  Bennett and his partner Conrad are sadists who brutalize and abuse innocent drivers.  There’s an incredibly discomforting scene late in the film wherein one of the officers begins to make amorous advances towards Stephanie’s mother (played by Cheri Oteri), and Lynch doesn’t cut away or blink.  We wonder how far the moment is going to go, and how much the family is going to have to endure.  

Police officers are not supposed to take liberties like that with the people they are sworn to protect and defend, and yet we watch in horror, as the partners, Bennett and Conrad, act by a new and different set of rules.  It’s the two of them against the rest of us. 
Even when the masked killers arrive on the scene, this principle of behavior endures.
Similarly, our first instinct when watching and listening to Bobbi is to write her off as an unreliable witness.  She witnessed the death of a drug dealer and doesn’t report it.  She’s a drug addict herself, and so we make the assumption that she has something to hide, or is simply undependable. 
Then, there’s the little girl, Stephanie, who doesn’t possess the adult vocabulary that the others do, but who is actually the one character in the entire film that capably sizes up the situation, and understands what is happening.  Perhaps she has not yet learned through years of practice to rely on assumptions about people, and to trust instead her feelings…and her eyes, instead.  She learns a hard lesson in the film about discerning the truth, but keeping her mouth shut.

Lastly, there are the F.B.I. officers, and Surveillance finally ascends to its either “love it or hate it” zenith by revealing how everyone’s assumptions about this duo plays into the narrative.  Here, Lynch puts an exclamation point on the theme about human nature and assumptions by deliberately landing the audience in the same predicament as many of the characters.  We assume one truth right from the film’s opening when the objective truth is something else entirely.
Above, I described Surveillance as a step into the twenty-first century regarding its commentary on truth, and in large part that’s because the film suggests that in today’s world, appearances can be deceiving…and often intentionally so.  
Just one example: remember back during the Bush Administration, circa 2004 – 2006, when the government pushed its Medicare D expansion program with a fake news journalist named “Karen Ryan” reporting?
This individual appeared to be a legitimate, independent reporter, but she was actually a PR flak working for the government. 
Yet Karen Ryan’s “news report” about the wonderful benefits of the government program ran as news on more than 50 local stations in the United States.  There are no doubt other examples of this sort of deceit from the other end of the political spectrum, but this one sticks in the memory and arose in the context almost immediately preceding the creation of Surveillance.  On the surface was a trustworthy journalist fronting an important news report; on the roiling underneath a secret agenda was being pushed. 
How were we to judge – or even know -- the difference?
Surveillance gets at this truth about the world; that the old lines we once considered sacrosanct are blurring and growing ever more indistinct. The obvious “visuals” -- a police uniform or an F.B.I. badge -- are now just that, visuals or symbols.  But they don’t necessarily convey the “substance” of a person’s character in the way we might hope they would.  They no longer signify what they appear to signify, and so society is breaking down.
I suppose that leitmotif makes Surveillance a cynical entertainment, especially given the last few, shocking moments.  But then again, sometimes the truth ain’t pretty, right?
If so, then Surveillance isn’t just a well-visualized, formalist thriller. It’s a horror movie.

Movie Trailer: Surveillance (2009)

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Lunchbox of the Week: Charlie's Angels (Aladdin)

Collectibles of the Week: The Charlie's Angels Collection (Hasbro; 1977 - 1978)

In 1976, ABC had a surprise hit on its hands with Charlie's Angels, an action/crime drama starring Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith, and Kate Jackson as a team of beautiful crime-stoppers. The series ran for five seasons (until 1981), spawned two feature film re-imaginations in the early 2000s, and recently a TV re-boot in 2011.  But the original series also spawned a highly successful line of toys from Hasbro.

Specifically, Hasbro produced a line of 8.5 inch action figures of the series' three main characters -- Jill (Fawcett), Sabrina (Jackson) and Kelly (Smith).  And when Fawcett left the show for a movie career, Cheryl Ladd's Kris was added to the line-up.

But the these action figures -- "beautiful girls that live dangerously" -- were only the beginning of the Hasbro merchandise.  There was also an incredible and much-sought-after play set called "The Hideaway House," a multi-level affair described in promotional materials as "the heavenly abode Charlie built for the Angels." 

In addition, Hasbro produced a "sensational wardrobe for the girls who live dangerously by day, glamorously by night."  These costume changes had names like "moonlight flight," "night caper," "black magic" and "gaucho pizzazz."

Some costume change sets also came with accouterments and accessories.  These sets included "The Slalom Caper," "River Race" and "Underwater Intrigue."

A vehicle was also released for the angles, the "adventure van" which came with a director's chair, wrist camera, headset and binoculars.

Below, some commercial for the Charlie's Angels line, by Hasbro:

Model Kit of the Week: Charlie's Angels Van (Revell)

Board Game of the Week: Charlie's Angels (Milton Bradley)

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Cult Movie Review: The Mothman Prophecies (2002)

In the closing months of 1966 and throughout most of 1967, the residents of Point Pleasant, West Virginia reported to the authorities and local newspapers seeing a strange creature in their formerly-quiet town, a so-called “Mothman.” 

The sightings ceased after the catastrophic collapse of the Silver Bridge on December 15, 1967, which had connected Ohio to Mason County, W.V.   In 1975, a journalist and UFO-logist, John Keel (1930 – 2009) wrote a book concerning the strange Mothman sightings of a decade-earlier, as well as the other supernatural or paranormal events surrounding the tragedy.

As I see it, director Mark Pellington and the other creators of the 2002 film adaptation of Keel’s work, The Mothman Prophecies, had a choice to make. They could either craft a monster movie about a cryptid --- an eight-foot moth-biped creature with glowing red eyes -- or a much more scintillating narrative revolving around a truly horrifying subject: human mortality.

The filmmakers chose the latter course, and in doing so, forged one of the most challenging and cerebral horror films of the 2000s.

The subject of human mortality finds voice early in The Mothman Prophecies when the lead character, John Klein (Richard Gere) comments on how it feels to lose a loved one, his wife (Debra Messing), to disease. 

He notes: “The universe just points at you and says ‘there you are: a happy couple. I was looking for you.’”

Communicated in this nice little line of dialogue is an essential aspect of life on this mortal coil.  Without knowledge, without insight, humans attempt to impose order -- even the order of the Gods, or God Himself -- upon events which seem inexplicable, or driven by random fate.  When those we love are hurt or die, we feel personally targeted, or victimized.  Like, as John expresses, the cosmos itself somehow has it in for us. 

We are God’s playthings, it feels like.

From that single line of dialogue, The Mothman Prophecies weaves an intriguing, and often downright terrifying tale of what it might be like should some mysterious entity -- a surrogate for that universe pointing its finger at us -- possess those answers, and try to communicate them with us. 

Would we understand the messages?  Would we understand the messenger?  Could he understand us?

The Mothman Prophecies proves such a dynamic horror film, however, because Pellington crafts unsettling and resonant imagery to express the spine-tingling sense of uncertainty about the Mothman, his origin, and the breadth of his powers.  These visual compositions suggest a higher (or perhaps just different…) order of life, and the impossibility of man interfacing with it in a meaningful fashion.

Pellington utilizes extreme high-angle shots, for instance, to suggest a viewpoint outside of human dimensions, and a strange visual leitmotif to boot: a bizarre image of symbol which resembles a “Y” to represent disaster. 

These and other visuals create the not-very-pleasant impression that man shares the world with beings beyond his sight, and beyond his understanding.  Ones who may answer the question "why me?" in ways that threaten our very perspectives on life, mortality, and "order."

"To hear a voice is one thing. But this isn't just a message, it's a prediction. It came true."

John Klein (Gere) and his wife, Mary (Messing) prepare for a happy Christmas season, and even put in an offer on a dream house they hope to purchase. A strange car accident, however, changes their fates forever. Just before the accident, Mary sees two glowing red eyes in the darkness, and then wrecks the car.  At the hospital, however, an MRI reveals that Mary is suffering from a terminal brain tumor. She has had it for some time, and there is nothing to be done but wait for the end to come.

Two years after Mary’s death, a still-grieving John decides to drive to Richmond to visit a governor with presidential aspirations.  Mysteriously, however, he ends up not in Virginia, but in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, almost on the Ohio border.  

There, his car breaks down and when John asks for help from a twitchy local, he finds that the man, Gordon (Will Patton), claims to have seen him at the same time for the past three nights.  The local police sheriff, Connie (Linney) arrives to defuse the tense situation, and reports to Klein that strange things have been occurring in town for a few months.

In particular, many denizens of Point Pleasant have reported seeing a large, moth-like biped. Others have received strange telephone messages from an individual named Indrid Cold, perhaps the Mothman himself. John investigates, and comes to believe that Mary’s death is in some way connected to the Mothman sightings, Point Pleasant, and Indrid Cold. 

Soon, Gordon begins receiving predictions of disaster from Indrid Cold, predictions that prove frighteningly accurate.  When Indrid calls John and warns him of great danger on “the river Ohio,” John is convinced he knows the answer…

"In ancient cultures, the moth represents a form of the psyche, or the soul immortally trapped in the hellish death realms..."

In some sense, The Mothman Prophecies revolves around the notion of sight. By this I mean what we see and how we process what we see.

As human beings, we have sight of Earth at the “ground level.”  We see those we love and the things that happen to them, but we don’t always have or get the answers that we seek about them.  Why does someone we love end up on a train that derails?  We can determine the scientific reason for the train’s destruction,  of course, but not the twist of fate that led our loved ones to the accident, and their final reckoning with mortality.  

The same goes for car-crashes, brain cancer, you name it.  Our sight in such circumstances is limited to grief.  When our loved ones die, we react personally, and as I noted above, feel targeted.

In terms of historical context, The Mothman Prophecies was released just months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 while many Americans were still processing and expressing these very emotions. At the time, there were many press accounts regarding survivors who decided not to fly that fateful morning, or who didn’t go to work at the World Trade Centers that day, for some mysterious reason.  

Why were they spared, when others were not? 

Our concrete sense of sight provides absolutely no answer to that question. And The Mothman Prophecies delves into and explores the lack of answers, the sense of uncertainty we all feel at one point or another.

The Mothman Prophecies imagines, however, a creature or entity that possesses a very different kind of sight.  This entity is a “normal condition of the planet,” according to the film’s ufologist, Alexander Leek (Alan Bates): “They’re just not part of our consensus of what constitutes physical reality.”  

Leek goes further in his description, and in one of the movie’s finest scenes, explains the “sight” of the Mothman even more aptly.  Leek points to the top floor of a Chicago skyscraper and points out that if a window-washer were up there at that level, he would possess quite a different view (or again, line of sight) than the people walking below at ground level.  He could see a car accident, or a house fire, miles out, whereas Leek and Keel, walking a busy intersection in an urban setting, could not.  

The Mothman, or Indrid Cold, perhaps, has a similar sense, or distance, from the events occurring on the mortal coil.  And therefore his sense of sight may include an understanding either of the future, or of, specifically, disaster.  

It is this sense of sight that accounts for his capacity to accurately predict plane crashes in Denver or earthquakes in Ecuador.

When an exasperated Klein asks why the Mothmen don’t explain themselves to humans, Leek asks why we don’t explain our motives to cockroaches.  The gulf between species is simply to big to bridge, at least in a complete fashion.

To visually suggest this gap between human sight and Indrid Cold’s sight, director Pellington often cuts to what I term a “God’s Eye View” of the landscape.  A camera (from a plane or helicopter) gazes straight down at the landscape below, and the feeling is inescapably of being watched by something above; the cosmic equivalent of that window washer on the top floor of a skyscraper.

These shots successfully make mankind look tiny (like cockroaches or ants), and also suggest a huge sense of scope, as if the Mothman’s eyes can take in much more than we can. 

Even more inventively, Pellington’s film often frames visual compositions in which a symbol that resembles the letter “Y” appears.   To some eyes, the "Y" may look like a Mothman, with his wings up over his head, even.  But it could be something else too.

Sometimes this “Y” symbol is hidden in a landscape, and sometimes it is etched into a tree or burned into a car, but it appears throughout the film many times.  

I believe this icon is the Mothman symbol or code that represents “disaster,” and that wherever this “brand” occurs, tragedy is destined to strike. The Mothman may inscribe locations with it, himself, but of course, we don’t read his language, or know precisely what it means.  Still, The Mothman leaves the “Y” to warn us that disaster is impending.

Let's gaze at this representation of catastrophe, the letter "Y" for just a moment.  A “Y” shows one line (at the bottom of  symbol) branching into two distinct lines, or a "V" at the top.  

In other words fate is going along, and then, at the point of disaster (or right before it) two outcomes become possible, as the V branches to two separate points.

In the film, this idea of one line suddenly boasting two branches or outcomes is dramatized in the final moments. John Klein saves Connie from drowning and so the outcome of the bridge disaster -- 37 deaths -- branches...and there are only 36 deaths, instead.  The warning has been understood this time, and heeded.

The “Y” may be a sign or hieroglyphic representing disaster, but it may also be a visual representation of the notion that time in certain moments may not be fixed. That in instances like this, two fates are momentarily possible.  Accordingly, the Mothmen -- with their specific and different “sight” -- are able to see this junction, able to detect both realities unfolding at the point right where the bottom of the “Y” form separates into a “V” and one path or another must be selected.

The “Y” shows up in one of the very first scenes of The Mothman Prophecies, in a driveway that has been shoveled clear of snow, an indication that John and Mary’s life is about to move from fixed time to unfixed time, and that disaster awaits.  Of course, neither can see it, as humans can never see what surprise is around the next bend on the road.  

The “Y” recurs in The Mothman Prophecies in an MRI scan of a brain tumor, in the arrangement of car headlights in the Ohio River after the bridge collapse, and at other times as well.   It’s a remarkable visual representation of the notion that our sight and understanding don’t always go hand in hand.  The “Y” is present in many times and in many locations, but from a human viewpoint it is not something that registers or seems meaningful.  

As movie-goers, however, the repetition of the symbol is meaningful, and that’s what counts.  The Mothman Prophecies thus explains its theme with an unforgettable visual.

Mary's brain scan, replete with symbol of disaster.

Mary's car, with the symbol etched in the grill.

A tree in Point Pleasant, etched with the Mothman symbol, "Y."

The sinking cars in the bridge disaster form the Mothman symbol of catastrophe.

The Mothman Prophecies is intricately about sight in other ways as well.  Many times during the film, the very image we watch seems to pixelate and go fuzzy, as if it is a faulty transmission we are receiving from some unknown sender. 

Of course, this particular visualization reinforces the idea of the Mothman's attempts to reach John and others before the occurrence of disaster on the river Ohio.  The Mothman is talking to us from another realm, and mere contact itself is difficult to maintain.  The pixelated images suggest this difficult contact; that the picture of what is happening to John and the others is not quite clear.

Humans sight can also fool us, and The Mothman Prophecies get at this fact in a variety of ways.  Gordon claims to have seen John several times, before John arrives in Point Pleasant.  Is he actually seeing Indrid Cold, in the guise of John Klein?  

Similarly, there's a moment late in the film when John is standing in front of his motel room mirror, talking on the phone.  The mirror image is on the left; John on the right.  The images in the mirror are minutely out-of-synch with the images on the right, meaning that the reflection is not a reflection at all, but something...else.

Even John's meeting with Alexander Leek is suspect once we assume that our sense of sight is faulty, and limited.  Leek refuses to see John initially, and then relents, mysteriously.  But during the actual conversation between and Leek and John, John asks if the Mothmen are causing the disasters. Leek's response is "why would they need to?"  

Similarly, when John talks to Indrid Cold on the phone, he asks him if somehow the strange caller is reading his mind.  Cold's response is "why would I need to?" 

These responses are virtually identical, and that fact makes one wonder if John ever actually meets with Leek at all, or if he meets with Cold in the guise of Leek, as Gordon apparently met Cold as Klein.

So the question then becomes, if, by our very nature, our sight is limited and does not allow us “to know” what Indrid Cold knows, is it worth pursuing him, and the Mothman sightings?  

You’ll never understand the messages,” Leek warns Klein.  “You’ll misinterpret them.”  

And indeed, Klein does just that.  Because of the strength of John’s feelings for Mary, he feels that if he gives up trying to understand her death and the question of “why her/me,” he has betrayed her memory somehow.

In the end, then, The Mothman Prophecies comes directly back to the thought about grieving the dead, and our mortality. 

At some point, you have to stop asking about the “whys” or imagining that you could have done something differently, or stopped fate from unfolding as it did. 

No one can stop it,” a police officer, Connie (Laura Linney) tells John.  “Earthquakes are going to happen. Planes are going to crash…people you love are going to die, and no matter what that voice says, you can’t stop it.”

What Connie asks Klein to accept, then is the essential ambiguity and limitations of our human existence.  In asking its audience to embrace this difficult truth, and not just reckon with the “reality” of an eight-foot, red-eyed monster, The Mothman Prophecies reveals itself as one of the genre’s most cerebral and metaphysical explorations.  

The truly great horror movies aren’t really about monsters, but about the way that mankind responds to monsters.  The Mothman Prophecies recognizes that the greatest terror in the universe is not some cryptid that may or may not be a hoax, but rather the universal human condition of not having answers about the deepest questions of our existence.

After engaging with the Mark Pellington film and its remarkable visualizations, one will feel much like John Klein does in the film, reckoning with the “Visible dark.”  

What does fate look like?

To quote Indrid Cold, "it depends on who’s looking…"

Monday, October 07, 2013

Ask JKM a Question: Surveillance (2008)?

My friend and reader, Trent, writes:

"Could you possibly post a review of a 2008 release of a title called 'Surveillance'? Starring Bill Pullman & Julia Ormond,  directed by Jennifer Lynch,  I am truly curious as to what you think of this film."

Trent, I watched the thriller Surveillance after receiving your e-mail, and found it a strange, strange film, with a quirky sense of humor, and some remarkable visuals.  I have a lot to explore there, so thanks for leading me to Lynch's film. It is indeed...Lynch-ian.

I will post a detailed review this Friday morning, so look for it!

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Brains

The brain is (according to Wikipedia) “the center of the nervous system in all vertebrate and most invertebrate animals.”  The brain “acts on the rest of the body both by generating patterns of muscle activity and by driving the secretion of chemicals called hormones. This centralized control allows rapid and coordinated responses to changes in the environment.”
In cult-television history, however, the humanoid brain has played a different kind of role.  It has survived death (often in jars filled with colored fluid), and it has been the form of life evolved beyond the need of physical, biped bodies. 

In Star Trek (1966 – 1969), the Enterprise encountered three individuals of highly-advanced brain creatures, the Providers, on the distant world of Triskelion.  
In the more notorious episode “Spock’s Brain,” aliens in go-go boots incapacitate the crew and surgically-remove Mr. Spock’s brain so that it can control the faculties of their underground complex on a distant world.

In Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977), Moonbase Alpha traveled through a region of space where a gigantic entity, a space brain, dwelt, in an episode titled, appropriately “Space  Brain.” This brain was capable of defending itself with crushing antibodies and was found to be on a collision course with the errant moon.  A second season story, “Brian the Brain” involved a malevolent robot brain, Brian, who had murdered his human crew.
In the second episode of the short-lived series The Fantastic Journey (1977), a group of travelers on an island in the Bermuda Triangle come across a metropolis where a giant brain controls all the city’s activity – including the capacity to send lost travelers home – in “Atlantium.”
The old trope of the brain in a jar has appeared on Doctor Who, in the serial “Brain of Morbius” and in the Wonder Woman (1976 – 1979) episode “Gault’s Brain.”

In the former program, the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and his companion Sarah-Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) land on a world where a mad scientist is seeking to place the brain of a Time-Lord renegade into a Frankenstein-like body. 

In the latter show, Wonder Woman (Lynda Carter) tangles with Gault (John Carradine), a brain with frightening telepathic powers….
The X-Files (1993 – 2002) featured an episode in its seventh season titled “Hungry” in which a genetic mutant boasting qualities of a shark could survive only by feasting on human brain.
"Brain Guy," (Bill Corbett) meanwhile, was a regular character on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in its Sci-Fi Channel years.  A ghost-faced Observer, Brain Guy carried his brain around -- exposed -- in a pan.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Brains

Not Identified: The Outer Limits: "The Brain of Colonel Barnham"

Identified by SGB: Star Trek: "The Gamesters of Triskelion."

Identified by SGB: Star Trek: "Spock's Brain."

Identified by SGB: Space:1999: "Space Brain."

Not Identified: Doctor Who: "The Brain of Morbius."

Identified by SGB: Space:1999: "Brian the Brain."

Not Identified: The Fantastic Journey: "Atlantium"

Not Identified: Wonder Woman: "Gault's Brain"

Identified by SGB: Pinky and the Brain

Identified by SGB: Brain Guy and Friends from Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Identified by Mr. C: "Hungry."

Identified by Lonestarr357: "The Day the Earth Stood Stupid"

Identified by SGB: Ben 10's Brainstorm.

Identified by SGB: Doctor Who: "The Next Doctor."