Saturday, June 03, 2023

40 Years Ago: Psycho II

“Jerry Goldsmith’s first main theme was melancholy and I persuaded him to go with something more innocent. The music he’d written for the stairway flashback…I played it to Tony [Perkins] and he cried.  [He] said he’d lived with Norman all those years and no one else had ever understood his innocence – ‘the boy man’ as Tony called him.”

-Psycho II (1983) director Richard Franklin, in an interview for my book Horror Films of the 1980s (2007). Page 351.

If Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) concerns the “private traps” that people often make for themselves, then its impressive 1983 sequel -- directed by Richard Franklin -- focuses on what happens when people won’t let go of those traps.

No matter what.  

Not coincidentally, Psycho II involves a generation gap of sorts, since two protagonists (Norman Bates and Mary Loomis) are compelled to join their wayward parents (Lila Loomis, Emma Spool) in those aforementioned traps, with dire results.  

In this case, the will of the older generation is imposed violently on the younger generation, and the cycle of violence and madness continues because of it. 

In fact, that’s the image Psycho II leaves us with: madness re-asserted at the Bates Motel because the older generation can simply not live with the possibility of countenancing something new or different. Lila refuses to believe that Norman can be sane, and Spool succumbs to her madness to protect Norman, an act which re-awakens Norman’s own Mommy issues.

In short, both Lila Loomis (Vera Miles) and Emma Spool (Claudia Bryar) wish to stick rigorously to their long-standing biases and preconceived notions, and even take (violent or subversive) action to assure the outcome that validates their viewpoint and desires.

It is the children, however, who suffer for the sins of the mothers, and Psycho II is thus a story about the ways that families keep replaying the same dramas and reliving the same pathologies, one year to the next, one generation to the next.

This sub-text adds some meat to the bones of the film, which -- while not revolutionary like its storied predecessor -- is nonetheless an extremely well-made thriller. More than that, even, Psycho II is a compelling mystery featuring many effective and unexpected twists and turns.

Also, it seems impossible not to read “the generation gap” sub-text of Psycho II as a pre-emptive defense of this sequel. 

Once more, we must consider historical context. The older, established movie intelligentsia was up in arms about a sequel being crafted to Hitchcock’s masterpiece in 1983. It argued, basically, that a sequel could only be more of the same: violent hijinks at the Bates Motel.

Psycho II’s very story, its narrative content, seems to suggest otherwise. Indeed, one aspect of Psycho II that remains quite beautiful is the one alluded to in the quote above, from Franklin. 

This sequel beautifully expresses Norman’s tragic and innocent qualities. One spends the film wishing Norman some measure of happiness, but understanding that the cynical, caustic forces of the world will simply not let him have it. 

I love and admire the original Psycho.  I love how it plays with structure and shatters decorum. And I admire how it splits our point of identification, the protagonist, into three individuals. 

But Psycho II has its pleasures too, even if they are of a different, perhaps more grounded sort

Without resorting to gimmickry or cheap tricks, the sequel really reveals to us Norman Bates as a human being who is worthy of our sympathy, not just as a surprising boogeyman. 

In so many ways, Norman really is like a lost “boy man” instead, and as this film points out, the world -- circa 1983 -- simply has no place for him.  He is now not only a man out of his mind, but a man out of time, out of step with the present.

The film’s serious, sincere attempt to excavate Norman’s identity (and plight) is the very thing that refutes those who say “you can’t make a sequel to Psycho, because it will just be a lame imitation.”

Psycho II opened the same day as another sequel, Return of the Jedi (1983), but nonetheless succeeded at the summer box office, and paved the way for additional sequels, all of which continue more or less in the vein of Franklin’s film, not Hitchcock’s.  

The Psycho sequels are, essentially, character studies of a “lost boy” in the modern world, and the ways that society continues to fail him.

I don’t believe, honestly, that the sequels would have succeeded to any creative degree if they had not adopted this grounded, character-based approach. Psycho II turns the gaze of the camera squarely on Norman and the world of the 1980s. 

And in that view, it’s clear to audiences Norman Bates isn’t the only insane one. The world is “psycho” too (II).

“When he murders again, you will be directly responsible.”

After twenty-two years in asylum, murderer and former mad-man, Norman Bates (Perkins) is released. 

At the hearing before his return to society, Lila Loomis (Miles) stands up and complains that the laws of the country protect the guilty, not the innocent, and that there is no justice for Norman’s victims.  She warns that he will very likely kill again, and that when Norman does so, the blood will be on the court’s hands.

Norman returns home to Fairvale with his psychiatrist, Dr. Raymond (Robert Loggia), and learns that the Bates Motel has been turned into an “adult” (pornographic) establishment by its manager, Warren Toomey (Dennis Franz).  After taking a job at a local diner with kindly old Mrs. Spool (Bryar), Norman fires Toomey and decides to run the motel himself.

Norman also takes in a waitress from the diner, Mary (Meg Tilly), who is having relationship troubles.  But the truth is that Mary is Lila’s daughter. Her mother has asked her to insinuate herself into Norman’s life and drive him crazy, wearing his old “Mother” garb, while Lila telephones him and claims to be the dead Mrs. Bates.

As Mary gets to know Norman, she sees how cruel her mother’s plans truly are, and begins to rebel against Lila and the strategy to de-stabilize Bates.

But all along, another figure lurks in the shadows, one who claims to be Norman’s “real” mother, and will commit murder to protect her beloved boy…

“I don’t kill people anymore, remember?”

At one point in Psycho II, Norman experiences a flashback of his mother, Norma Bates, while standing just outside her bedroom. In the brass door-knob (and over it, in the door itself) we can see a distorted reflection of Norman, but in that reflection, Norman is not a grown man, but rather a child. 

That image, in many ways, is the key to appreciating this sequel. 

Norman is developmentally arrested and a virgin to boot, as Anthony Perkins and Richard Franklin have both pointed out. He lived in a fantasy world before being caught in 1960. But since 1960, he has been frozen in time and living in a bubble of a different sort. While exorcising the ghost of his mother, he has actually learned nothing of life. Thus when Norman is released in 1983, he is a fish-out-of-water, a victim both of his mother, and of the society which incarcerated him but never taught him how to live, or how to succeed. Norman returns to “real life” rudderless and without direction, with few friends, and many enemies. 

This situation makes him incredibly vulnerable. That vulnerability is ruthlessly taken advantage of.

Mary Loomis is a victim in the same sense: a pawn in her mother’s twisted scheme to send Norman “over the edge.”  This plan puts Mary in mortal jeopardy, but it also requires her to be a liar and deceiver.  And it all must happen in the name of Mary’s aunt, the dead Marion Crane. Lila Loomis has been unable to forgive Norman for her murder, even after twenty-two years. 

In fact, Lila has become a cruel, strident person railing at everybody, including the legal system, for failing her. Lila is so consumed with rage and anger that she dresses as Norman’s mother to vex him, and calls him on the telephone and pretends to be Norma. There can be no argument about the fact that she acts deplorably.  Never once does she allow for the possibility that Norman might be healed, or seeking some form of redemption.

Lila simply can’t get beyond the past, and about what she “knows” to be true. Everyone else -- the law, the psychiatrist, and even her own daughter -- are wrong for thinking otherwise. Lila is thus a dead-ender, a person willing to believe things which are not true so as to validate her own hatred and prejudices.  It’s a surprising and rewarding idea to turn our final protagonist in Psycho, Lila, into an antagonist in the film’s sequel, but is also speaks to a sad truth about people. They sometimes get brittle and inflexible with age.

Psycho 2’s cleverness comes about, in a sense, from our conflicted feelings for Norman. He is heart-breaking when he talks about his mother making him toasted cheese sandwiches, and being good to him, and yet, we also remember the weight of history. We know he has killed and that, as I wrote above, that Norman is vulnerable.  

In one well-directed scene, Norman cuts a sandwich for Mary and the scene is alive and electric with tension. Mary hands Norman a very large butcher knife, and, remembering the past, he doesn’t want to hold it or take it.  

Mary -- in on the plan to de-stabilize Norman -- realizes that by handing the knife to him, she is putting herself in danger. 

And then, as audience members, we have to wonder about the moment too.  Mary is handing Norman the tool that could be used to murder her!  

Who, finally, is responsible, when someone knowingly hands a former murderer a knife?  Is Norman responsible for his actions? Or is it Mary?  And does the fact that Norman does not succumb to violence mean that he is, in fact, cured?

Psycho II asks us to consider all these ideas.

Another great scene occurs near the film’s climax.  Norman attempts to disarm Mary, but she is holding the knife.  He keeps approaching her, hands outstretched, and she stabs him, and cuts his hands. At this point, it is not Norman who is acting violently, but Mary, driven to rage by her mother’s death, who does the stabbing.  This is a neat inversion of typical horror movie tropes.  Here the “boogeyman” is unarmed and pleading, and the final girl, Mary, is losing her grip on sanity and drawing blood.

In terms of style, Franklin is a Hitchcock protégé, and so Psycho II features many moments as elegant and frisson-creating as those I enumerate above.  Some moments in the film are also downright shocking, even today.  Lila takes a knife to the mouth (and through the mouth), and the violence is, in its way, decorum shattering too.  Here a sweet old woman (and our former protagonist) isn’t just killed, but tactlessly butchered!

Before she dies, Franklin provides a close-up of Lila's mouth, screaming in horror, and the shot should look familiar from Psycho.  In this, in set design, and in fidelity to the characters, Psycho II seeks to honor its predecessor without slavishly imitating it.

I wrote about this some in Horror Films of the 1980s, but Psycho II is really about Norman making a choice.  

Should he choose the sanity that society prefers, or, finally, the love of a (psychotic) mother figure?  

On one hand, society makes it clear it doesn’t want Norman. Lila frames him. The sheriff suspects him of killing two teenagers. And Mary, even, betrays him. In broader terms, cut-backs in social services mean that Norman is never visited by a social worker, someone who can help assimilate him back into the mainstream. 

On the other hand, we have a woman, Emma Spool, who claims to be his biological mother, and would kill to protect him. “I’m the only one who truly loves you,” Mother says to Norman. “Only your mother truly loves you.”  

The great thing about Psycho II is that Mother’s comment -- while horrifying -- also happens to be absolutely true, given what we’ve seen of mainstream society in the film. If his only choice is between a world that hates him and a mother who is steadfast (but nutty…) then love wins out, every time.

Psycho II’s last moment is perfectly conceived and executed. The vacancy sign turns on at the hotel, storm clouds roil in the night sky above, and Norman stands in the shadow of that Gothic house, in the shadow, again, of his mother.  

For Norman, this is a return to madness, and some might even say it’s a reset of the Psycho franchise, taking us back to the world as it was before Marion’s visit in 1960.

But really, it’s the only logical destination for Norman, the lost “boy man.”  Another shot in the film goes even further in depicting his plight. We see Norman banging on the attic window of his house, locked in and unable to escape.  He sees the world outside, but can never quite get to it. That’s Norman in a nut-shell.

Norman’s just not getting out of the “private trap” the world has made for him.  But tragically – and quite unlike Lila or Emma – he really, really wants out.

Friday, June 02, 2023

40 Years Ago: WarGames

The genre films of 1983 focused largely on two subjects.  The first was computers and computer video games. And the second was nuclear war with the Soviet Union.  

And in some rare instances -- such as WarGames (1983) -- the two topics aligned perfectly.

The year 1983 saw Richard Pryor’s super-computer menace the Man of Steel in Superman III, and Sean Connery’s James Bond back in action in Never Say Never Again to battle Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) over a video game of (nuclear) “Global Domination.”

Meanwhile, in the horror anthology Nightmares, Emilio Estevez got zapped into an arcade game to combat the artificial intelligence called “The Bishop of Battle.” 

In terms of nuclear war, 1983 was the year of the terrifying Nicholas Meyer TV-movie The Day After.   That unforgettable film showcased the gruesome effects of a nuclear war on Americans in Kansas.  Another affecting film of 1983 concerning nuclear war was Testament, starring Jane Alexander.

Why the Hollywood obsession with both computerized games and nuclear war in 1983? 

On the former front, Atari, Intellivision, the Commodore Vic20 and other technological platforms had altered the American landscape permanently in terms of home media gaming and computing.  Suddenly, computers were making the move into every middle-class home in the nation.  The “future” was here.

On the latter front, President Ronald Reagan had been swept into office in 1980 on a platform of economic recovery, but he was also, at least initially, a hawk regarding nuclear war.  In fact, his administration was a strong proponent for a concept called winnable nuclear war, as the historical record clearly demonstrates.

President Reagan’s adviser, Richard Pipes, in 1982, for instance, noted the “probability of nuclear war is forty percent….and our strategy is winnable nuclear war.” 

Meanwhile, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense, T.K. Jones remarked in 1981 that “The United States could recover from an all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union in just two to four years…Nuclear war is not nearly as devastating as we have been led to believe.  If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it.  Dig a hole in the ground, cover it up with a couple of doors, and then cover the doors with three feet of dirt…”

In 1981 President Reagan himself noted that there could (safely) be a “limited nuclear war in Europe.” His vice-president, George H.W. Bush, in 1980 even described how to prove victorious in the nuclear war scenario:  “You have a survivability of command and control, survivability of industrial potential, protection of a percentage of your citizens, and you have the capability that inflicts more damage on the opposition than it can inflict upon you.  That’s the way you have a winner.”

Meanwhile, on February 5, 1981, future Secretary of the Interior James Watt noted to Congress that there might not be "many future generations...before the Lord returns."  

When one couples the pervasive rah-rah attitude about waging winnable nuclear war with the apocalyptic Christianist visions of many Administration officials, including Reagan himself -- as was reported in People Magazine in December 1983 (where he explained that the eighties represented the first time in history that so many Biblical prophecies were coming true...) -- one can understand why many Americans, especially young ones, felt very afraid about the future

Some have credited his viewing of The Day After (1983) as the very thing that turned Ronald Reagan from an ardent warrior in the winnable-nuclear war sweepstakes to a staunch proponent for peace with the Soviet Union. He had to face down the more right-wing elements of his own party -- including Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger (who wrote a letter to the Washington Post urging the president not to give up the nuclear store) -- to wage that fight

Today, we can be grateful for President Reagan’s change of heart, and for his persistence at Geneva and Reykjavik in the mid-to-late 1980s, but WarGames -- released in 1983 -- very clearly obsesses on the inherent madness of the “winnable” nuclear war scenario; the very attitude still prevalent in our national defense establishment in 1982.

Specifically, WarGames sees advanced computers as bringing man one step closer to all-out nuclear Armageddon, primarily because machines don’t boast any sense of morality. 

If men can't act according to human decency and conscience, what are the chances their machines will? 

For a movie about the end of the world, however, WarGames is surprisingly sweet and gentle in its prognosis. The “villainous” computer that nearly initiates World War III is treated with humanity by the film's protagonist, and eventually taught the error of its ways. It is “schooled” by the best of the human race -- kids -- so that it understands that the only way to win a nuclear war is simply not to play. 

Interestingly, the case the humans make in the film is not one explicitly about morality (which a machine can’t fathom, I suppose), but about futility, as empirically demonstrated by numbers..  The computer runs through a nearly-infinite series of test war simulations in a matter of seconds and determines that, in every conceivable permutation of thermonuclear war, there is no winner.  

Why engage in a game in which there is no victor?

40 years after it premiered, WarGames remains a lot of fun, even if it is not as powerful as it once was.  In particular, the John Badham film features some deft visuals and certainly has a lot of heart.  

 WarGames loses some impact in 2023 and even seems dull at spots.  It’s a good film, to be certain, but I remember seeing it in 1983 and thinking how terribly plausible it all seemed.  Watching it this weekend, I was struck by pleasant feelings of nostalgia, but not consumed with excitement or fear.

 “Let’s play Global Thermonuclear War.”

Hoping to preview a new exciting game from a company called Protovision, high-school student and computer whiz David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) accidentally hacks into a computer at NORAD, the W.O.P.R. (War Operations Plan Response).  

David engages the machine in a game of Global Thermonuclear War, unaware that the game could have catastrophic real life ramifications.

After David is arrested by officials at NORAD, he learns that the machine is still playing the war game, and that only some know-how insight from its creator, Dr. Falken (John Wood) can stop W.O.P.R., or “Joshua.”  David escapes from custody and with his girlfriend, Jennifer (Ally Sheedy), sets out to find Falken, now a recluse following the death of his family.

At first, Falken is unwilling to help, believing that “extinction is part of the natural order,” but David and Jennifer soon persuade him to help them stop the countdown to nuclear Armageddon. 

“People sometimes make mistakes.”

WarGames opens with a frightening scenario. Two military men in a bunker are given the order to launch nuclear missiles and, in essence, destroy 20 million lives.  

One man can’t do it.  One man can. But without both men on the same page, the missiles don’t fire. 

Upon audit of this event, the Army and Administration officials are very upset.

If the President wants to launch a nuclear attack, he can’t have a 22% failure rate because his soldiers have an outbreak of morality over causing mass murder, can he?

Instead of honoring human morality, the Armed Forces and Administration decide that the way to remedy this situation is to remove mankind from the loop entirely; to take men out of those launch stations and replace them with computer relays that operate automatically, and are connected to a machine called W.O.P.R.

In other words, it is better to double down on the concept of winnable nuclear war than to question if global self-destruction and mass murder are actually rational courses of action.

This opening sequence remains one of WarGames' finest.  It is tense, well-acted, and it immediately sets the stakes.  We quickly sympathize with the soldiers tasked with destroying the world, and gasp at how stupid the bureaucrats are. They want to have their nuclear war no matter what, and are not going to let a little thing like individual conscience stop them.  By stumbling down this particularly repugnant path (and never looking back…), they nearly doom the entire human race to extinction.

On a much more human and intimate level, WarGames also proves intriguing today because it understands that the future of human race involves, largely, people gazing at screens.  

In this movie, there are big screens, little screens, arcade game screens, home computer screens, and wall-sized screens displaying Missile Command-like graphics, not to mention Tic-Tac-Toe playing boards.  

Plainly, the idea here is that man has crossed a threshold into a new world, one where computers are at the center of every facet of life, whether it is playing games, booking airline tickets, or waging war. And yes, this observation is prophetic in terms of 1983's understanding of the future. Today, we do all those things by computer on a regular basis, and many of us spend eight-hours a day, five days a week gazing at monitor screens.

Screens, screens everywhere...

Would you like to play a game?

Accordingly, several times throughout WarGames, director Badham cuts to images of these myriad screens, and we detect a human face reflected upon them.  This image could be considered a visual way of “boxing in” the characters’ usable space in the composition, positioning them in a frame-within-a-frame, and thus revealing their entrapment or enslavement by the machine.   

Or it could be, perhaps more trenchantly, a way of suggesting a shared world.  People like David are seen, literally, inside the confines of the computer screens, via their reflections. Have we built "children" that will one day be our equals?

The question this brand of composition raises is simple: Are we a reflection of our computers?  Or are they a reflection of us? If we fail to teach our machines our morality, how can they accurately reflect us, their masters and "parents"?  

Contrarily, we could ask: do the computers we stare at all day succeed, instead, in “de-humanizing” us, turning matters of life and death into exercises in statistics, percentages and other equations?

What happens to mankind when life-and-death decisions are reduced to math?  In examining that question, WarGames is a cautionary tale about handing over too much authority, and ceding too much humanity, to computers.

The frequent compositions in WarGames that reveal computer screens, and human reflections “locked” inside them, suggest in uncomfortable ways, a fear of computers and technology, but also a fear of deeper symbiosis with our tools and instrumentation. If the world were destroyed in the scenario presented by this film, it would be because we failed to make our machines a real reflection of our hopes and dreams, it seems.  It will be because we have failed as parents.

Are we reflections of our creations?

Or are they reflections of us?

In some oblique way, WarGames also implies that self-annihilation is in our very nature.  Falken suggests that “nature knows when to give up,” and seems to believe that man has reached that threshold because he has constructed machines -- computerized sons and daughters, essentially -- who lack our conscience and capacity to care.   Only when W.O.P.R. creates a “computer enhanced hallucination” of the end of the world do people readily detect how they are gambling with the world’s future, and humanity’s future by handing over control of our weaponry to the machines.

One quality I have always admired about the film involves the solution to this problem. There isn’t some all-out effort to destroy or unplug W.O.P.R. in WarGames.  Instead, David runs the seemingly-curious machine through the rounds of Tic-Tac-Toe so it can understand futility; how two sides of equal strength can fight to a draw…but  no better. 

This solution suggests that machines are not really such bad sorts after all, if they can -- like us -- gain practical experience. Fortunately, W.O.P.R. can play a few thousand simulations of Tic-Tac-Toe and Global Thermonuclear War in a few minutes and arrive at the conclusion that there is no winning strategy.   He just needs to be taught, and humanity needs to teach him.

In the character of Falken, we very much see this idea of a “father” figure.  He has even named W.O.P.R. “Joshua” after his dead son. But because W.O.P.R. is a machine, Falken has been able to walk away from his creation both physically and emotionally, and become a kind of absentee parent. When David communicates with W.O.P.R. as Dr. Falken by using his password, there even seems to be a longing on the machine’s part for his father’s presence.  He seems to have missed him, after a fashion.  

In many ways, that idea of being “responsible parents” to our technology is more timely today than the nuclear countdown or thriller aspects of WarGames. The technology is different in 2023, but the problem, perhaps, hasn't really changed.

I remember first seeing WarGames in 1983 and being absolutely terrified by it. Today, that emotional response seems a little silly, given the film’s abundant sense of humor and the jokey scenes involving Broderick and Sheedy as they hack into NORAD and evade capture. 

But what’s impossible to convey if you didn’t live through the eighties is just how pervasive the fear of nuclear war was, circa 1980 – 1983. I remember going to sleep almost every night and worrying about nuclear war.  

Where would we go to survive?  How would we live?  What if it happened when I was away at college, and I couldn't re-connect with my family?  

These were not remote, intellectual issues for cerebral or dispassionate debate.  

As a thirteen year old, these were the thoughts that I ended each day with as I fell into slumber. These thoughts were never far from consciousness, and certainly many films of the era, from the Mad Max trilogy to Dreamscape (1984), from Night of the Comet (1984) to WarGames tapped into this pervasive apocalypse mentality. I can assure you, when I was thirteen years old this John Badham movie had me on the edge of my seat throughout, and I wondered -- and worried -- if today could be doomsday. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Writer/Director Notes: "Shadow Self" (Enter The House Between Episode #2)

As we continue our short interregnum before the two-part finale of Enter The House Between Season 1, I want to take a quick look back at our second episode, "Shadow Self."

This story involves the birth of the first lar-human hybrid, Eris, and a malfunction in the smart house that causes different quantum realities to bleed together, sowing confusion and chaos for our denizens.

If you want to get caught up on the episode first, here is the YouTube link for "Shadow Self:"


 And here is the Spotify link for this installment:

This particular story is about a few concepts that perpetually intrigue me.

To a large extent, all Enter The House Between stories concern our modern world, and the way that people of different beliefs, values, politics, etc., have separated themselves into separate bubbles of information and learning, in large part due to social media and cable news. Common ground appears to be melting faster than the ice caps. We retreat into our self-selected bubbles and in those bubbles reckon only with information that we already agree with.

Of course, in the House Between universe, the technology of smart houses permits users to access different quantum realities -- or different Everett Branches -- of the multiverse. In each such "shelf of the Quantumsphere" people encounter alternate versions of themselves, their friends and their lives. 

In "Shadow Self," the smart house malfunctions so that these realities physically bleed into one another, and it becomes difficult to know which reality is true. As a result, our denizens encounter "ghosts" or "shadows" and start to grow distanced from one another. Our Astrid (Kim Breeding-Mercer), for example, feels estranged from Bill after seeing an alternate reality version of him act in an unfaithful fashion.

What is the end result of a world in which we can no longer agree even on basic facts about reality?  

Well, to ponder that, I went back to the Biblical story of Babel, in Genesis 11:1-9, and the idea of people confused by each other so much that effective communication becomes impossible.  

There, a tower could not be completed because understanding broke down. It's not difficult to extrapolate this idea to our modern world. Our towers will break down, and fall too, as we lose, more-and-more, the capacity to understand others, and, secondly, empathize with one another.

The title of the story, "Shadow Self" comes from Carl Jung, and his concept in human psychology of the "shadow."  His "shadow" is the dark side of one's self, a blind spot in the ego.  So, what happens when we nurture blind spots intentionally? When we don't seek out information that contradicts our beliefs?  What shadows are born by turning away from facts, from things we might find uncomfortable or problematic, in our entertainment, in our politics, in our philosophy, even?

But the concept of the shadow goes deeper in Enter The House Between. If each personal decision creates a new reality branch, what responsibility do we have to our shadows and their well-being? How do we know we are not a shadow self?   

One thing I despise about most modern stories about the multiverse is that they just want to show us a funhouse mirror.  It's fun and games where nothing matters. Yet, alternate universes, if they exist, are populated by people like us.  People with feeling and emotions; people with aspirations and dreams. If we land there, is it right for us to treat that alternate world like a second-class reality simply on the basis that we don't hail from it? This is fertile ground to explore in Enter The House Between. Our central villain this season is a deranged cult-leader (with legion, a weapon of mass destruction) who destroys all realities he encounters because he believes only his world, his reality, his belief, is true and legitimate.  

Ever meet someone like that?

In terms of character growth, "Shadow Self" also sees Theresa (Alicia Martin) grappling with the idea of becoming a mother (and dealing with her own shadow self: the specter of how her family treated her, when she was younger), and that's simply a reflection of a concept in communication we call the Johari Window.  

The Johari Window measures the idea that there are things we know about ourselves, things we hide about ourselves, and things we are blind to about ourselves. But one pane in that window -- the final one -- is reserved for potentiality.  It's the place for those things you don't know about me, or yourself, and what I don't know, either. So, for example, twenty year old me didn't know how much I would like being married. And thirty year old me didn't know I would love being a dad.  Forty year old me didn't know how much I would love teaching.  Fifty year old me didn't know how much I would hate going bald...

And so forth.  

This is also the "shadow self" that is always in flux, always changing, with the fluidity or elasticity of life.  The possibility of new pathways in consciousness; of potential realized. In "Shadow Self" Theresa finds herself having one of those moments we all have, in which we step into a new, re-defining role, making amorphous "potential" (in this case, motherhood), reality.

I hope some of this whets your appetite to re-listen to the episode, or give it a first whirl!  If you like what you hear, please like and subscribe, or even write a review.

Saturday, May 27, 2023

60 Years Ago: From Russia with Love

Many film scholars and long-time James Bond fans will tell you that Goldfinger (1964) -- the third Eon film -- is the greatest of all the 007 films, but I respectfully disagree with that assessment. 

The very best of them all is actually Goldfinger’s immediate predecessor, From Russia with Love (1963). It premiered 60 years ago today.

This judgment is rendered for a number of reasons. 

First and foremost, this superbly-crafted entry in the young 007 series features a coherent, concise and extremely tense storyline rather than a series of action set-pieces loosely connected by an umbrella narrative. 

In particular, the film finds James Bond (Sean Connery) forced to survive on only his wits if he hopes to escape enemy territory: Istanbul. He makes good his escape by train, by foot, by truck, and finally by boat, with enemies in hot pursuit throughout. The last half of the movie features a relentless, unceasing push, as Bond seeks sanctuary in Venice.

And although there are some nifty gadgets on hand in From Russia with Love, namely an explosive attaché case provided by Q Branch, Bond still must mentally out-maneuver his most fearsome opponent, Red Grant (Robert Shaw), if he wishes to make use of it in battle. This fact makes the film’s climactic conflict all the more suspenseful. Cleverly, the manner in which Bond ultimately outwits Grant goes right back to matters of class and class resentment in England, a recurring motif in the Bond novels and films.

From start to finish, From Russia with Love also depicts a significant core idea, a conceit that helps to tie many moments together. 

A secret organization (SPECTRE) monitors and shadows Bond’s movements at every step, and sometimes even gets one step ahead of him as he undertakes his mission. He is a man under the spotlight, then, but he doesn’t realize it. This point is made clear by visual framing which frequently positions Bond in unknowing danger; danger that only the audience detects.

Also -- in terms of the film’s virtues -- the primary characters surrounding Bond in From Russia with Love, Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) and Red Grant,  represent two sides of the same dangerous coin, a connection established visually by the importance of a “choker” to both. 

Finally, two more brief notations to make.  

From Russia with Love features one of the cinema’s greatest fight scenes: the claustrophobic brawl between Bond and Grant inside a cramped train compartment. Today the fight scene remains incredibly impressive in terms of stunt choreography and editing. It still plays as absolutely brutal.

And furthermore, this early Bond film is legitimately sexy, unlike some latter entries, which are more... let’s just say…a bit Disney-fied in their approach to sex.  The hell with "puri-teens!"  I want some sex and violence in my entertainment.

Here, Bond emerges from a hotel room shower in draped only a towel to find Tatiana in his bed. After observing that her mouth is “just the right size” (for him…), Bond beds her, blissfully unaware that SPECTRE is taping the whole affair.  

Today, this scene may not seem particularly graphic but there’s a palpable sexual chemistry between Connery and Bianchi, and the scene still goes further in terms of innuendo and deed than anything we’ve seen in the 21st century Bond films.  

In 1963, this scene in From Russia with Love was downright scandalous, and it helps to explain why Bond was considered so edgy, and perched on the very vanguard of pop culture.

They always treat a trap as a challenge.”

As the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West intensifies, a criminal organization, SPECTRE, makes plans to heat it up even more.  

A mastermind named Kronsteen (Vlaedk Sheybal) -- who works for an unseen master, Number #1 00 collaborates with former SMERSH operative Rosa Klebb to lead the British Secret Service into a trap. 

A Russian patriot, Tatiana Romanova (Bianchi) will dangle out the possibility of the West recovering a cryptographic instrument, the Lektor, in exchange for a meeting with 007, James Bond (Connery) and his help arranging her defection. In truth, however, SPECTRE plans to humiliate Bond make East-West tensions worse.

The British understand they are being led into a trap, but do not know who is behind it, and send Bond to Turkey, where cipher clerk Romanova is stationed.  

There, Bond meets a British ally and local power-broker, Kerim Bay (Pedro Armendariz), who assists him in the theft of the Lektor.  

After acquiring the device, Bond, Tatiana and Bay board a train to West, unaware that Kreb’s agent, Red Grant (Shaw) has been shadowing Bond’s every move.  

When Kerim Bay is discovered dead on the train, Bond seeks help from another agent, Nash.  But Grant has murdered the real Nash and taken his place… 

“Well, from this angle, things are shaping up nicely.”

From Russia with Love plays throughout as one of Bond’s most dangerous (and hence suspenseful) cinematic adventures. Bond struggles to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together and make good his escape from Istanbul along with the object of his quest, the code-deciphering Lektor device. 

An ominous sense of menace haunts From Russia with Love thanks to several scenes -- from pre-title sequence to gypsy camp to denouement on the train -- that visually suggest a presence both literally and metaphorically hovering right over Bond’s shoulder…like a vulture.  

First, we see Grant hunt and kill a Bond lookalike in the pre-title sequence, a harrowing sequence until we see the 007 impostor unmasked.

Similarly, the final shots of this opener reveal the truth behind Red Grant’s hunt. At SPECTRE headquarters, spotlights suddenly activate, revealing that Bond and Grant were being watched all along by hidden masters.

Later in the film, Grant saves Bond at the Gypsy Camp, shooting down an attacker, and leaving Bond bewildered.  Bond writes it off as a lucky shot from an ally, but only we know the truth.  He is being kept alive by his enemies.

The most impressive of the visuals showcasing the “hidden” menace tracking Bond, however, arrives at a train station, late in the film. Bond is off the train, seeking to make contact with another agent. He walks among a crowd of travelers, and in a careful tracking shot, we see Grant on the train, moving with him, observing his every movement and word.  Bond is not aware of the danger.  We are. And the film’s sense of suspense goes right through the roof.

All these visuals contextualize Bond as being in danger “on the ground” while sinister forces “above” watch him and contend with him as though he is but a chess piece on a board.  

That’s an outstanding metaphor for the secret agent business, and the Cold War context itself. Accordingly, one of Bond’s nemeses, Kronsteen, is actually depicted in the film as a chess master. He moves pieces for a living, but the rub, of course, is that Bond doesn’t move predictably, like chess pieces do.  

The visual compositions depicting Bond in danger (but not knowing it…) contribute to the film’s overall suspense and sense of danger.  We worry for him, because he doesn’t know he is being taped, for instance, tracked (by Grant), or duped (by Grant as Nash).

The point seems to be that on the field, Bond doesn’t know, at any given moment which people in his life are actually going to prove trustworthy and so must therefore depend on his gut instincts.  

He should trust Tatiana, but doesn’t…at least at first. 

And he shouldn’t trust Nash/Grant, but at first he does. 

The question becomes why is he wrong in both cases?  

Is it because Tatiana appears Russian (hence an enemy), whereas Nash appears to be a fellow countrymen?  

Bond only begins to get suspicious when Grant betrays his lack of breeding, his lower-class origins.  In the dinner car, Grant orders “red wine with fish,” for example. 

Bond uses Grant’s lack of “breeding” to help defeat him, offering to pay him an exorbitant amount of money to let him live. In truth, he’s tricking Grant, hoping he will open the case and trip the explosive device, thus giving Bond the opening he needs. And Grant, for his part, clearly despises everything Bond stands for.  “You may know the right wine,” he barks, “but you’re the one on your knees.”

Importantly, the prominence in the film’s action of Tatiana’s choker/Red’s garrote points out that to Bond Tatiana and Grant are alike and therefore must be treated alike in some crucial ways.  They are “x” factors, or unknowns that must be quantified. 

The choker/garrote is a symbol of this fact. One item is but a decoration, an affectation. The other is a murder weapon. But Bond doesn’t always know which he’s going to be faced with (an idea also expressed in Klebb’s final weapon: a shoe with a poison knife).

One also might look at the choker/garotte symbolism in another fashion.  Bond gives a choker to those he interacts with, expressing his nature as a good guy.  Grant offers strangulation to those he interacts with, expressing his nature as a monster.

From Russia with Love’s sense of danger reaches its zenith in the moments leading up to the train car fight between Grant and Bond. Theirs is battle between two men whose capacities for lethality the audience knows quite well. We’ve seen Bond in action several times by now, and know he can handle himself in a fight.  But we’ve seen Grant in action too with his watch-garrote…killing a Bond double and other victims. 

So this fight is as much about the characters and their capabilities as it is about thrills. We’ve waited for the whole movie to see who emerges triumphant. Will it be the elite, urbane Bond, who has been successfully manipulated to the point of death? Or the thuggish but thus-far-successful Red Grant: a killer with a chip on his shoulder?

Who has the edge?  The killer instinct?

Grant has prepared for this fight for some time. Bond, on the other hand, must rely on his wits and instinct.  He doesn’t know his enemy the way Grant knows him. The actual fight is not only fast-paced, and brilliantly-edited, but buttressed by the fact that there appear to be no stunt doubles involved (though, of course, there were…)  It really looks like Connery and Shaw are slugging it out, and vying for superiority, and the sense of authenticity is incredibly powerful. The fight feels frighteningly and painfully real.  

When it is over, Bond emerges with bloody knuckles, and looks quite disheveled.  In From Russia with Love he is not yet the suave superman he would become, but rather a very human man trying to stay alive in a dangerous business.

The performances in From Russia with Love are superb, and Shaw is particularly strong as the cold-blooded but not un-inventive Grant.  Yet it is Sean Connery who holds the attention.  Here, his Bond is jocular, fresh-faced, and always lining up (or eyeing up) his next lay. 

Connery’s Bond is charming and funny, and yet this Bond is also at the whim of fate, unlike some of successors.  He is badly outmaneuvered on the train by Grant and survives not because he is stronger, not because he is better equipped, but because he thinks on his feet, and gets lucky. 

Watching Connery in action here, it is easy to understand why so many fans still retain such loyalty to his portrayal of 007.  He is thoroughly disarming, and yet also thoroughly relatable, right down to his sense of humor, appetite for sex, and obvious desperation when he realizes the cards are stacked against him.

When I write that From Russia with Love is the best film of the Bond series, it is largely because Bond is so relatable here, and because he faces such abundant danger.  It is a danger established not just by the narrative, but by the clever visuals. The form represents the nature of the content, and for me, that’s what the film-going experience should be all about.

But I also reserve such high praise for this Bond film because From Russia with Love has the good sense not to over-gird itself with unnecessary or bloating elements. The story is, simply, that Bond must walk into a trap to get a McGuffin, and then survive the trap. The film hits every point it needs to hit in service of that story.  It doesn’t hinge on slapstick humor or spectacular action scenes set over global landmarks like the Eiffel Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge to be interpreted as successful.  Instead, From Russia with Love is the meanest and best-shot Bond film, though I also boast great affection for Roger Moore, because I grew up with him, and believe that Timothy Dalton’s efforts are vastly underrated.

And so I agree with James Bond’s assessment in From Russia with Love.

 Looking back, one can see things “shaping up” nicely in the franchise. 

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