Saturday, September 30, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Lost Saucer: "894X2RY713, I Love You," (September 6, 1975)

Following the amazing success of Land of the Lost (1974 – 1977), Sid and Marty Krofft created another Saturday morning live-action series: The Lost Saucer (1975). 

This series aired on ABC Saturday mornings for a season (and then as an element in the Krofft Supershow)  and was part Doctor Who (1963 – 1989), part Star Trek (1966 – 1969), and part Lost in Space (1965 – 1968), with some comedic shtick thrown in for good measure.

The Lost Saucer is the story of normal 1970's kids Jerry (Jarrod Johnson) and his babysitter, Alice (Alice Playten). 

One night, they are visited by a flying saucer, and whisked away on an adventure. Aboard the highly-advanced craft are two androids, Fi (Ruth Buzzi) and Fum (Jim Nabors). These friendly androids hail from the planet ZR-3 in the year 2369, and reveal that their ship not only travels through space, but across time as well.

Alice and Jerry also meet Fi and Fum’s other ship-mate, “The Dorse” (Larry Larsen), a “bio-genetically engineered” creature with the head of a horse and the body of a shaggy dog.

On their first interplanetary journey, Fi and Fum experience difficulties.  The time vortex is accidentally opened, and the “Year-o-meter” is broken, sending the ship to some distant, far off time. 

Alice and Jerry just want to return home, but instead, they are forced to reckon with one cosmic and temporal adventure after another.

You can see the genre antecedents or inspirations immediately in this format.  

We have the lost travelers trying to get home, similar to some extent, to the crew of the Jupiter 2.  

We have advanced time travelers stealing away “companions” and then having difficulty returning them to the right epoch.  And the saucer’s main control column and control room lay-out, even, in some sense, seems to resemble the TARDIS.

And from Star Trek, The Lost Saucer takes a sense of social commentary. Even though this is a silly, slapstick Saturday morning series, each episode tries to convey some imaginative and culturally relevant point. The stories, for all their goofiness -- like the notorious Chickephant episodes -- ape the Gulliver’s Travels aspect of Trek; that each new culture is actually a commentary on our own.

The series pilot, “894X2RY713, I Love You,” is a case in point. 

In this story, the saucer is hurled into the distant future. 

While Fi and Fum attempt to repair the saucer, Alice and Jerry go out to explore a fabulous metropolis and find that all the human inhabitants are covered in masks and thick suits, and go by numbers, not names.   

Indeed, the Earth kids are promptly arrested by police for being in public with no numbers, and held for trial.  Their judge is a giant, movable computer with no face, and no mercy either.

Jerry and Alice attempt to explain that where they come from, people have names, not numbers. Their captors reply that without a number, the “government” can’t “keep track” of people.

The fear expressed here, clearly (in the immediate post-Watergate, post-Vietnam Era) is of the State becoming a dehumanizing influence, one that fails to acknowledge the individuality and humanity of its citizens.

After Fi and Fum rescue Alice and Jerry (using “air-jets”), Fum reflects that it is truly awful “when numbers become more important than people.”  That may sound like an on-the-nose “lesson,” but it goes by quickly, and the episode’s visuals convey the story effectively.  The sets and costumes are inventive, and it is fascinating to imagine a world in which you can’t show your face, or identify someone by name. 

Everyone must be the same and treated the same, or the State intervenes. It’s heady stuff for a Saturday morning series. It's relevant to today's context too, strangely enough. We live in a world of death by drones, government surveillance, and so on, so the idea of the State controlling many aspects of life still resonates.

Of course, there’s also the “shticky” aspect of the series.  Fi and Fum are comic characters through-and-through.  They say things like “watch your tape deck” instead of “watch your mouth,” and are generally clowns. They bumble their way through the adventure, and yet are also depicted as happy, positive figures in the drama. They make mistakes, but they’re good-hearted.  The Lost Saucer arises from a time when heroes and other characters didn’t all have to be broken, broody and angsty. They could just be…goofy.

In terminology and technology, The Lost Saucer has certainly aged a great deal in forty years. Fi and Fum spew paper print-outs for example, and discuss the aforementioned tape decks. But the production values, at least for this episode, are pretty good given the time and the limited budget. 

This episode features a clutch of alien costumes, the judge robot, bubble cars, a future city miniature, and other nice touches.  One chase uses rear-projection, and so on.

The Lost Saucer is not officially available in any format at present, though you can find this and several other episodes available on YouTube.  I'll be reviewing the episodes that are posted there, in the coming weeks, to glean a further sense of the series for readers here.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Bugaloos (1970): "The Bugaloo Bugaboo"

In “The Bugaloo Bugaboo,” Sparky (Billy Barty) grows depressed because he has received no mail from Gina Lolla Wattage, who is away on tour. 

Sparky feels he must do something to impress her, and decides that he should become a song-writer.
Hoping to help, the Bugaloos help Sparky compose a song, and it proves to be a hit.

The success of the song goes to Sparky’s head, and Benita seizes an opportunity. Believing that he is “the genius behind the Bugaloos,” she decides to pretend to be an agent, and signs up Sparky as a client. She promises to make Sparky rich and famous.  She will debut his new song at Peter Platter's upcoming talent contest.

Unfortunately for her, Benita's song bombs, and the Bugaloos come to Sparky’s rescue.

This episode of Sid and Marty Krofft’s The Bugaloos (1970) follows the patterns of others very closely.

First, there is an event of some type (sponsored by Peter Platter), and Benita wants in, but needs the Bugaloos (or Sparky) to succeed.

Accordingly, she dresses up in a disguise to trick her victims. Here, Benita pretends to be an agent, G.W. Wooster, in the belief that Sparky can write her a hit song.

The winner, in this case, gets to appear on TV, but of course, things don’t go that far. Benita’s song bombs, and the Bugaloos perform instead, repeating their song, “So It’s New to You.”

The most memorable quality of the episode involves, once again, imported (stolen?) jokes. Here, a character exclaims “You bet your sweet bippy!,” cribbing a catchphrase from Laugh-In (1967-1973). 

Also, the crystal ball that does a Don Adams/Get Smart impersonation recurs in this story.

Otherwise, the jokes are silly puns (Playbug Magazine for instance), and once again, one can’t help but wonder why the Bugaloos bother with Sparky. Once more, he acts like a jerk, and is rude to them. They come to his rescue, of course, and all is forgiven.  But Sparky is a royal pain in the ass, and easily manipulated by Benita.

Next week: “Benita’s Double Trouble.”

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Return of Savage Friday!

By popular demand (!) Savage Fridays is returning. Starting next Friday, I’ll be reviewing, once again, the films of the savage cinema here on the blog.

However, before I started, I wanted to re-post my description of the Savage Cinema (originally posted in 2012):

As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, the “New Freedom” arrived in full, and cutting-edge filmmakers began to vet stories -- horror stories, I maintain – about basic human nature. 

In tales of the Savage Cinema, resources are scarce, compromise is impossible, and two “sides” go to war.  The Haves and the Have Nots (The Hills Have Eyes [1977]), the lawful and the unlawful (The Last House on the Left [1972]), the male and female (I Spit on Your Grave [1978]), the liberated and traditional (Straw Dogs[1971]), even city folk and country folk (Deliverance [1972]) find that there’s no room for debate…only bloodshed and hatred.

In each one of these films, for the most part, there’s an Every Man (or Every Woman) who is drawn or pulled into combat, and must consequently re-evaluate his or her sense of morality to contend with the sudden, often inexplicable outbreak of violence. That Every Person rises to an unexpected challenge, but also – in some way – succumbs to the basest human instinct: to kill.

In the crucible of (unwanted) combat, the Every Person thoroughly tests him or herself.  Does he or she have what it takes to survive? Does this character descend, finally, into bloody violence? And what is the personal, mental, and physical toll of shedding civilization and established norms of morality, even for an instant? Can you come back from that?  Do you want to come back from that?

Such questions intrigue and fascinate me, perhaps because I have always lived a sheltered and safe life. I’m a largely risk-averse person in terms of my choices and life-style. I live in a world where there is ample police protection, no military draft, and remarkably little crime. But I admire the Savage Cinema films I’ve mentioned above because they force audiences to ponder, quite frankly: what would I do? 

Even better, these films echo their content to an extreme and remarkably pure degree. If Savage Cinema film narratives involve shedding the shackles and protections of civilization and the norms of morality, their cinematic, visual approach involves a stylistic corollary: shredding established film decorum and conventions, and going over the edge into transgressive and taboo-breaking territory.

This territory is not for polite company, to be certain.

It’s a place of frequent female and male rape (Deliverance, Straw Dogs, I Spit on Your Grave, Last House), imperiled family members (The Hills Have Eyes, Last House), and brutal violence. Often that on-screen violence is of an intensely personal and even animalistic nature: A woman bites off a man’s penis in Craven’s Last House.  Similarly, in Straw Dogs, we see a man’s foot blown off (by a stray shot-gun blast) in extreme close-up. 

So yes, these movies are explicit and disturbing, but also courageous in the sense that they follow through on their promise and premise.  Where some people and critics have stated that such films are gratuitously violent, I argue the opposite point. These films are about violence, and the consequences of violence on families, and civilization as a whole. 

The violence highlighted in films of the Savage Cinema is of a type that makes you wonder about our human nature. It isn’t depicted as heroic, but rather, in some instances, as necessary and human, but still awful.  Retribution or revenge -- a hallmark of these pictures -- may satisfy blood lust for a moment, but then what do you do -- for a lifetime -- knowing that you are the same thing, at heart, as the “monster” you slayed?

This is the morally-fascinating territory of the Savage Cinema, and the reason why it boasts artistic worth and social value.”

So, check in next Friday for my first new savage cinema review. I've decided to go "international," to start-out.

The film I’ll be looking at furst is Eden Lake (2008). It’s a British entry in the savage cinema canon, and if possible, please give it a watch before the week is out, so you can comment on it as well.

(The second film I’m reviewing in the series is the new Australian movie, Killing Ground [2017], so you may want to put that in your queue, as well.  Up third: Martyrs.)

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Cult-TV Blogging: Star Maidens (1976): "Kidnap"

Fulvia (Judy Geeson) is now living on Earth, hoping for the return of her domestic servant, Adam (Pierre Brice), so she can return to Medusa with him. The mechanic Shem (Gareth Thomas), meanwhile, works on repairing Fulvia’s space craft, Nemesis, which was damaged in the proton storm on the flight to Earth.

During Fulvia’s stay on Earth, a scientist, Dr. Gregory (Terence Alexander) who is actually working for the Iron Curtain, seeks to capture Fulvia, so that he can electronically transfer knowledge from her brain to a computer storage bank.  To gain Fulvia’s trust, he attempts to seduce her with champagne and romantic music..

Adam, who is spying on Fulvia, becomes incensed by Gregory’s attempts, and races to Fulvia’s rescue, proving that he possesses feelings for his ex-mistress after all.

The fifth episode of Star Maidens (1976) sets its action on Earth, and that’s a crucial piece of the format now. The episodes, going forth, tend to alternate between Fulvia and Adam’s story (on Earth), and Octavia, Rudi and Liz’s story on Medusa.

Right off the bat, I should note that I prefer the Medusa-based stories. These episodes are dominated by strange sound effects, sci-fi devices and philosophies, and even miniature space craft. They tend to be more serious tales of intercultural conflict.

But the Earth-bound stories have their appeal too.  They tend to be a little funnier, a little campier.  Stories like “Kidnap,” with Fulvia being seduced by champagne, are played tongue-and-cheek, and yet boast a rather sweet side as well.

For example, in the episodes leading up to “Kidnap” Adam has been quite convincing about his desire for equality, and his dislike for Fulvia, his former mistress, as well as the culture of Medusa. 

And yet, Fulvia has risked everything -- traveling to Earth without authority to do so, and braving a proton storm en route -- to win back Adam, her domestic. When last we left the series, she was face to face with Adam, and he shunned her, running away, rather than contending with the emotions she felt for him.

Here, we get an answer regarding Adam’s feelings for Fulvia. Quite clearly, Adam does boast feelings -- and romantic ones to boot – for his ex-mistress. We see him overcome with jealousy when he believes she is being tricked and seduced, and he races to rescue her. 

So Adam and Fulvia share…something.

It’s sort of sweet, actually, since they are both emotionally-conflicted.  Take away all the “war of the sexes,” all the politics, all the dogma about men and women on Medusa or Earth, and Fulvia and Adam are seen to actually care for one another.  It’s all the other stuff that is keeping them apart. 

They are both oppressed by their society, and by the expectations their genders carry there. 

This notion seems very touching, to me, anyway, and makes a silly story like this one more than just a joke. In a later episode “The Perfect Couple,” Star Maidens goes deeper with the idea, and turns the series – briefly – into a domestic sitcom satirizing gendered roles on Earth.

The ending of the episode, “Kidnap” actually synthesizes it all nicely. Another Medusan notes to Fulvia how strange Earth is. “A man fights for a woman! Everything is topsy-turvy on this planet!” She says. 

Fulvia is quiet for a moment and then responds. “Yeah, but it’s nice.” It is on Earth, after all, that Adam and Fulvia begin, finally, to connect in a meaningful (not structured) and emotional fashion. Here, not on Medusa, Adam is able to demonstrate the freedom to be, well, gallant.

“Kidnap” is not a perfect episode, for certain. For instance, Nemesis -- Fulvia’s highly-advanced spacecraft -- remains unguarded in a field in rural England. There are no guards from the Army watching over it. There’s no “no fly zone” (that we know of). There aren’t even roadblocks to prevent cars from entering the field.  In fact, the opposite is true. Characters are constantly driving to the field, and parking feet from the spaceship. It seems that a vessel of this high-technology would be coveted by the British government, and under heavy guard, or at least some form of protection.

As noted above, I much prefer the episodes of Star Maidens set on Medusa. The environs are just so much more interesting than the 1970’s Britain we see in “Kidnap.” But this story has its silly, and occasionally affecting joys too. Most enjoyable about it, perhaps, is the idea that Fulvia is kidnapping Adam (back to Medusa), though others think she is the one being kidnapped.  Both parties are wearing blinders, and believe firmly in their own superiority.

Next week: “The Trial.”

Cult TV-Movie Review: Dan Curtis's Dracula (1974)

In 1897, Jonathan Harker (Murray Brown) travels to Hungary, and meets with his client, Count Dracula (Jack Palance), at the count’s castle in the Carpathians. 

After entering the estate freely -- of his “own will” -- Harker attempts to secure property in England for his host: dilapidated Carfax Abbey.

Meanwhile, Dracula shows a suspicious interest in Harker’s photograph of his fiancé, Mina Murray (Penelope Horner), and her friend, Lucy (Fiona Lewis).

The undead Dracula unlooses his three vampire brides on Harker, and leaves for England. 

Five weeks later, there are reports in Whitby, England of the arrival of a ghost ship, the Demeter, and its dead crew.  Soon, Lucy falls ill, the victim of some apparent mystery illness.

In truth, Dracula is draining Lucy’s blood, a little each night. A brilliant scientist, Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport) arrives to help, and evidence leads him to the conclusion that a vampire is responsible for her suffering. 

This Dan Curtis TV-movie from 1974 is not the most notable production of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, perhaps, but it certainly earns points for a grim atmosphere of seriousness in its depiction of the famous “preternatural being,” and his campaign of terror in Victorian England.

The tele-film starts out as an uber-faithful adaptation of Stoker’s work, beginning with the Harker interlude, but as it goes on, it becomes less and less faithful to the source material. This is a result, perhaps, of budgetary or time restraints. 

For instance, Renfield is absent from this version entirely. Lucy’s three suitors are not present either, replaced by the character named Arthur (Sion Ward) instead.

And yet surprisingly -- since this was broadcast on network television -- the film doesn’t shy away from the sexual implication of the story. 

There is a scene here, for example, of Lucy dropping to her knees before a standing Dracula, which, when coupled with the disrobing of her bandaged neck, suggests wanton, sensual abandon.

The film's photography, by Oswald Morris, is quite powerful, and director Curtis shows a facility with film grammar when it comes to establishing Dracula's frightful power.

But any production of Dracula rises and falls on its depiction of the titular character.

Here Jack Palance plays the count squinty-eyed and labored,  an approach which suggests that Dracula is often in terrible physical pain, perhaps from his yearning for blood; or perhaps because of his yearning for companionship.  

Even Dracula’s death feels highly personal here. We (the audience) are on the receiving end of the wooden stake, looking right into Van Helsing’s eyes as the death blow is delivered. From this perspective, it’s as though we are being murdered.

The story, adapted by Richard Matheson, dispenses with some of Stoker’s more nightmarish (but expensive) imagery such as the blue rings of fire on the path to Dracula’s castle, or the dark count scaling the tower walls of his home.

The teleplay also invents a “human” motivation for Dracula’s campaign of terror, his invasion of England. In this case, Lucy is a dead ringer for the vampire’s long lost wife, whom he misses desperately. Intriguingly, this subplot (though changed to Mina...) is also included in Coppola’s 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula, though it is not a facet of Stoker’s original work in any way, shape, or form..

The epistolary structure of the novel is also missing here, but the core of Stoker’s work -- the “new” technology and science of the Victorian era (such as hypnosis…) of England vs the old world magic and romanticism of Dracula’s world -- remains largely intact. 

Van Helsing is portrayed as a particularly pragmatic sort of scientist, noting that he accepts “what is,” whether science agrees with the idea or not. The underlying notion is of a world of mysteries that mankind is conquering, one at a time. Advances in science, philosophy and technology are making that happen, so that the Draculas of the world are becoming fewer, or less dangerous.

It’s also illuminating, I hope, to note that there seems to be no appetite here for some of Stoker’s over-exposed dialogue (“creatures of the night….”). Instead the focus is on a very physically-intimidating Dracula. This Dracula doesn’t rely on transformations into mist or wolves -- again, too expensive -- but instead throws people out of windows and engages physically with his nemeses.

Dan Curtis’s Dracula is generally high-regarded among critics and fans of the vampire, and it’s easy to see why this is the case.

The tele-film is much more faithful to the source material than many of the 1930’s or 1950’s films were, and the Dan Curtis production seems grounded in a way that other dramatizations do not.  Today, the film feels a bit restricted by its origin and nature as a TV-movie, but still impresses, on more than one occasion. On paper, Palance doesn't seem a good choice for the title role, but he is able to project the power, anger, and tragedy of the count in a way that is worth remembering. 

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Way to Eden" (February 21, 1969)

Stardate: 5832.3

The Enterprise intercepts the stolen star cruiser Aurora, which is headed towards the Neutral Zone, and then Romulan space. 

The son of a Catullan diplomat, Tongo Rad (Victor Brandt), is one of the young troublemakers on board, and Captain Kirk (William Shatner) is ordered to treat Rad’s party as guests, despite their law-breaking.

This assignment is more difficult than it may appear at first blush because the leader of Tongo’s group is Dr. Sevrin (Skip Homeier), a scientist and genius, who has also a carrier for a new -- and deadly disease -- Synthecoccus Novae.  

This is a highly unfortunate development because Sevrin’s cult is in search of the mythical natural world Eden, where it wants to start over, away from the synthetic, artificial worlds of the Federation. Among Sevrin’s followers are Adam (Charles Napier) and Irina Galliulin (Mary Linda Rapelye), both of whom will die if Sevrin is allowed to exist in that environment in his condition.

While Kirk struggles to get through to Sevrin and his followers, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) enlists Chekov (Walter Koenig) -- Irina’s old lover -- to locate Eden.

Once the planet has been located, Sevrin and his followers use ultrasonic frequencies to incapacitate the crew, and set foot on Eden.  The mission is doomed, and Kirk and his crew must save the survivors.

It is terribly easy to mock this episode of Star Trek (1966-1969).

Space hippies! Men in skimpy costumes! Ew!

And the space folk songs? They need auto-tune! 

Some Star Trek fans can be such a loathsome, self-hating bunch at times, can’t they?  

All of those complaints have much more to do with the particular audience than the flaws of this particular tale.  It's easy to mock. It's more difficult to examine, truthfully, what is being explored in this drama.

“The Way to Eden” is often counted as one of the worst episodes of the series, and yet I wouldn’t rank it that low, given what it attempts to say. Very few episodes of the original series question the Federation, or Starfleet.  The future is a place of progress, equality, and satisfaction.

But what if you long to live outside this “perfect” world? 

What if you long for a simple, non-technological life? Sure, you could colonize a world like Omicron Ceti III? 

But what if you don’t even want to fit into a traditional work structure at all? Or work as a farmer? 

What if you just want to check out, quit working, and just be one with nature?

What if, as Spock notes in “The Way to Eden,” you are one of those “many” who is “uncomfortable with what we have created. It is almost a biological rebellion. A profound revulsion against the planned communities, the programming, the sterilized, artfully-balanced atmospheres?”  

What if you are one of those who “hunger for an Eden…where spring comes?”

Those who dislike the episode find the very concept of hippies dated, but the question to ask: is this concept, as explained by Spock, dated, or actually forward-thinking?  If Spock himself can sympathize with this idea, why is it so hard for some Trek fans to identify with it?

“The Way to Eden” is all the more tragic, I would argue, because a valid quest -- one that Spock supports -- is co-opted by an insane power-hungry “cult” leader. I know some people see Dr. Sevrin as the man that President Nixon once called the most dangerous individual in America,:Timothy Leary.  

But in retrospect, I would say he has much more in common with Charles Manson.  Sevrin is the dark side of the hippie dream.

Why are the young and the idealistic susceptible to such leaders? 

I would submit that this question is really what “The Way to Eden” is about. Youth is about rebellion, and about turning against the establishment, to one degree or another.  Sadly, some young people hitch themselves to madmen like Manson in that act of rebellion, even while possessing a desire for peace and love.  Yes, their naivete is exploited badly.  

But this does not mean that their dreams or hopes are evil, or even wrong. In the 1980's the mainstream culture did a lot to discredit the hippies, but nothing discredited the counter-culture more than the likes of Manson. After his cult, the baby was thrown away with the bath water, in some sense.

Don’t we want the young to question what we have built? So that it will be better? 

It is sad that in both real life, and in Star Trek, such dreams are stolen by madmen with their own insane agendas.  

What remains so remarkable is that “The Way to Eden” aired before the hippie dream ended, and thus saw clearly -- in 1969 -- the danger inherent in some of the counter-culture’s leadership. “The Way to Eden” is actually the opposite of dated. It is prophetic, predicting that the counter-culture movement would end discredited, and maligned because of men like Sevrin.

“The Way to Eden” finds a perfect way to use Spock on Star Trek, I feel. It is appropriate that the outsider to humanity -- the man constantly questioning his place in the universe --- would find something appealing in the idea of a brand new world, one free of the definitions or divisions of his own.  

Spock sees validity in the “cause,” rather than standing in judgment of the youngsters, and that seems like a clever choice on the part of the episode writer. Spock is a counter-culture figure in his own way because he has substituted his own “alien” way for the establishment way. He's a pacifist, a scientist, a vegetarian, and caustic, at times, about humanity.

I also rather like how Kirk is treated in this episode. For him, everything comes down to maintaining order on the Enterprise. He doesn’t want to be a “Herbert,” and he scolds Scotty for judging the youngsters ("why do young minds have to be undisciplined ones?"). But he also can't have chaos on his ship.

At the episode’s end, Kirk tells Spock that he “reaches.” This means that he understands why Spock feels the Eden movement is worthwhile. Again, Kirk is the equivalent of a naval officer of the future, a military man, in a sense. 

If even he can understand the “hippies,” then what they seek is not pie-in-the-sky, or worthless. It's human.

Chekov’s sub-plot in “The Way to Eden” doesn’t come across nearly as well, by comparison. He treats Irina like a scolding-parent at times, which doesn’t make him seem the young, open-minded ensign we saw in “The Apple,” or  in“Spectre of the Gun.” 

If even Kirk can loosen up and admit that he “reaches,” then it seems Chekov would be a bit more receptive.

While it’s true that the symbolism in the episode is obvious -- Adam eats a poison apple in paradise -- the idea is worthy of further exploration. 

Consider that it is not knowledge, in this case, that caused the innocent to eat a poisoned apple. Rather the “acid” apple that Adam ate came from his placing trust in the wrong person; the wrong leader.  

Again, consider the void in leadership in the late-1960’s and late 1970’s. In the months preceding “The Way to Eden,” America lost both MLK and RFK in separate assassinations. Those in search of a new Camelot or Eden turned to darker, less stable sources of inspiration. Just weeks after “The Way to Eden” aired, the Manson Family killed Sharon Tate. 

I understand why people complain about the hippies and the songs here, but those who dismiss “The Way to Eden” so easily seem to be seeing only the hippies, and hearing only the songs.  

The story - about a noble quest perverted into something insane by a mad leader -- is actually the story of what my friend Johnny Byrne called “the wake up after the hippie dream.” The summer of love gave way, finally, to a season of madness and violence, at least for some. “The Way to Eden” seems to see this possibility in a clear-eyed and prophetic way.  

The mechanics are familiar: outsiders hijack the Enterprise for a quest not of the crew's design. But the ideas underlying the familiar story tell us a lot about our world as Star Trek came to an end.

Next week: “The Cloud Minders.”

The Films of 2017: 47 Meters Down

[Don’t Swim Here if You Don’t Want to Encounter Spoilers Below]

Last summer’s surprise horror hit was 47 Meters Down (2017), a shark film from director Johanne Roberts, apparently in the tradition of The Shallows (2016), and, of course, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). The trailers and commercials suggested cheesy CGI sharks, and a minimum of nuance in the filmmakers’ approach.

Even the movie’s first scene, with red wine spilled in a tropical swimming pool -- symbolizing the red blood soon to be spilled in the ocean -- intimates a juvenile or superficial approach to the familiar sharp-toothed material.

But as the movie progresses, and the film’s central scenario looms --- two young women trapped in a diving cage at the sea floor, 47 meters down -- a commendably high-degree of tension and suspense suffuses the film.

And surprisingly, the sharks not only (mostly) appear real, but actually represent only one of many threats vexing the trapped duo. Rhe film also contends with shortages of air, trapped divers, abyssal trenches, and other jeopardy.

And, delightfully, the film’s cheesiest moment -- desperate fingers scratching out a great white shark’s eyeball -- is earned by a well-prepared-for third act twist. 

47 Meters Down wants to be both suspenseful (which it is), and gory (which it also is), and so the movie’s most outrageous woman-vs.-great white action is contextualized (without giving away the specifics) in a way that maintains the drama’s reality and sense of danger. Specifically, this twist concerns nitrogen narcosis.

In terms of subtext or social context, 47 Meters Down tangentially concerns the fact that 21st century America -- the home culture of our beleaguered protagonists -- has become, in the words of author John Locke, an “autistic” society; wherein people are at ease with technology, but not with emotions, or each other. 

The film concerns sisters, Lisa and Kate, who never really talk, but who are finally forced to talk…at the bottom of the ocean.

With suspense and shocks, and that nice grace note about how modern people relate in our technopol-istic culture, 47 Meters Down earns its gory stripes, and is worth a watch.

“The faster you breathe, the faster you use up your air.”

American sisters Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) vacation in Mexico, but Lisa has been keeping a secret. She recently broke up with her long-time boyfriend, Stuart, and is still reeling from the end of the relationship.

Kate and Lisa decide to drown her sorrows by clubbing and drinking, and meet up with two young men who not only have a romantic interest in the young women, but suggest an intriguing activity for the next day: a trip cage diving to see sharks.

Lisa is not at all interested in seeing sharks from a cage, but Kate reminds her that they can take remarkable photos that will make Stuart jealous, and thus cause him to re-assess his decision to leave her; since Lisa is not “boring” as he claimed.

Lisa acquiesces.  The next day, the two couples board Captain Taylor’s (Matthew Modine) rust-bucket of a boat, and prepare for the dive. The men go down first, without incident. 

However, when Lisa and Kate enter the cage, the winch breaks, and the cage and its occupants plunge 150 or so feet -- 47 meters -- down to the ocean floor.

There, Lisa and ate see their air supplies rapidly dwindle, and are unable to communicate with the surface. 

Meanwhile, great white sharks begin to circle the cage…

“I’m super uneasy about this.”

We live in an oddly narcissistic society, at present, and in some small way 47 Meters Down reflects that fact with the specifics of its narrative. A diffident young woman, Lisa, agrees to participate in an event she has no interest in (cage diving) solely because she will then have (social media) pics to make her ex-boyfriend jealous. 

Lisa overlooks her own feelings of “super-uneasiness" about the activity, and goes anyway.  The error of her ways are quickly pointed out, however.

Even before the action starts, the camera recording all these great social media pictures, is dropped from the cage, and lost in the sea.  

It falls into the open mouth of a great-white shark.

So much for the selfies.

I wrote a persuasive speech recently, about, of all things, how people adopt black cats at a low rate compared to other cats. You might think this is because of superstitions about black cats. That’s a piece of it, sure, but researchers have come up with another conclusion. They have determined that black cats don’t photograph as well as other cats, so those who use social media tend not to adopt black cats, or they bring them back to shelters, disappointed.  

I bring this up because 47 Meters Down offers oblique commentary on this notion of a narcissistic/selfie culture, both in Lisa’s ridiculous motive for participating in what is clearly a sketchy activity (given the rusted state of Taylor’s boat), and the final disposition of the camera.

But also, importantly, Lisa and Kate have -- previous to this trip -- grown apart. Lisa thinks Kate is the perfect person: attractive, confident, and successful. She feels like she can’t compete with her. All she had, she believes, is her stable relationship with Stuart. Now that too is gone.  When one gazes at research involving social media, reports suggest that frequent use tends to make people more competitive with their friends and family, and also, generally, less happy.

In "real" life, Lisa has never confronted Kate about these emotions. These feelings did not come up . They did not come up over drinks, at a bar, or pool-side, but rather 47 meters down, while the sisters are trapped. The same “autistic” society is to blame. Up above sea level, there are too many distractions, and the sisters are not able to communicate except in cheesy post-card ways (a hug on the beach at sunset!)  Under the surface, all the technology is gone, and the sisters actually begin listening to one another, and also fighting for one another.

This idea isn’t heavy-handed, but horror movies universally reflect the way that we live "now." They tell us something about ourselves, and the things that we are scared of, as a people.  Maybe we are scared, at this point, of connecting only to the “black mirror” of technology, and not our loved ones.  I note this commentary because I think it adds to the value of the film, and makes 47 Meters Down more than the “shark attack of the week” movie.

Impressively, the director of the film creates suspense here mostly from the air supply issue, not the sharks.  There are a couple of (good) jump scares involving the great whites, but from the first point that Taylor instructs Lisa in how to breathe to the very last scene of the movie, 47 Meters Down is really about trying to catch your breath.

The women must acquire back-up tanks, and replace them, all underwater, while sharks swoop into view, lunging out from the opaque depths.  Between Taylor’s instructions, and the constant checking of the air supplies (which get down to a reading of “01” at one point), the movie wrings the maximum amount of tension from the limited availability of resources.

And just when the film threatens to go superficial -- wandering into Hollywood happy ending crap -- the makers of 47 Meters Down pull the carpet out from under viewers, and give their film a climax with all that more punch.

Without spoiling it, you’ll be tempted to groan as one of the women is found miraculously alive (after a close encounter with a shark), and together with her sister, swims to the surface, decompresses in the water for five minutes, and successfully combats a shark.

If played for real, this scene would pretty much ruin any sense of verisimilitude the movie constructs.  

Fortunately, the movie provides an explanation for this pie-in-the-sky “happy ending,” and proceeds to a coda that is dark and disturbing.

The sharks are kept hidden, or off-screen, for a good portion of the film’s running time, and yet the director makes the most of small moments in 47 Meters Down. There’s an absolutely unnerving sequence early on in which Kate must remove her mask so she can squeeze between the bars of the cage.  Then, once out -- while she is exposed -- she must put it back on. By this point, we are all too 
conscious of what’s waiting for her outer there, in the dark water.

Another scene of surprising power finds Lisa swimming towards a dropped flash-light when the ocean floor literally falls out from under her.  She must swim out over an abyss, and again, the hungry sharks could be anywhere.  The moment will give you a queasy stomach if you openly engage with the material and the characters.

47 Meters Down starts out superficial and dopey, but like its characters, gets “deeper” and “deeper.” 

One might even choose to view the Nitrogen Narcosis sequence as another example of technology separating people from reality; from the connections around them.  Lisa's cries, at the end of the movie “we made it!” are haunting for two reasons.

One, they are fake news.

And two: she completely believes them.

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Big Chair

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