Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Will Ferrell in Land of the Lost Movie. Will Ferrell!?

I was one of those 1970s kids who grew up watching Sid and Marty Krofft's live-action adventure series Land of the Lost on Saturday mornings. It was riveting viewing, this live-action series about a contemporary family (the Marshalls) lost in a closed universe with dinosaurs, Sleestaks, Pylons, and the Pakuni.

I watched the show religiously for three years, and just completed my collection of episodes with the release of the third season DVD. I've written about the series for Cinescape, in a detailed online retrospective replete with interviews, and for Media Whack I conducted an interview with a screenplay author (Teddy Tenenbaum) in 2000-2001, who was fashioning a faithful adaptation of the series to movie form. I was even "thanked" on the Second Season DVD box set credits, for helping to arrange interviews with cast & behind-the-scenes personnel. So it's fair to say that I remember Land of the Lost fondly, and that I've devoted some time and effort writing and thinking about it.

And that's why I'm utterly aghast (and heartbroken) at the news published on April 25th, 2005 that the series is being "re-imagined" as a broad comedy movie starring Will Ferrell. That's right. Will Ferrell. True, he did play Marshal Willenholly in Jay & Silent Bob Strikes Back, but otherwise this is a really uninspiring and sad choice. Bewitched (also starring Ferrell...) is being re-imagined this summer as a post-modern movie-within-a-movie version, and now Ferrell is participating in a Land of the Lost farce. Will, can't you let my childhood rest in peace? Can't you just leave it alone?

For many children of the 1970s, Land of the Lost was our first exposure to serious science fiction. And it was just that, despite the fact it aired on Saturdays and was intended for children. David Gerrold was the series story editor, and the series' episodes were penned by giants in the fields of science fiction and television such as Larry Niven, Theodore Sturgeon, and D.C. Fontana. Why, Harlan Ellison was nearly retained to write an installment, if I'm correct. In 43 episodes (over three years) the episodes dealt with time loops, alternate universes, alien possession and other long-standing themes of the genre in a way that made them understandable (and still fascinating) to young minds. The show never talked down to its intended audience and that was part of its magic.

The show also wasn't afraid to be scary. Remember those creepy Sleestak, hissing and attacking from the pitch black of night? Or the episode where Will and Holly encounter a vision of their (deceased) mother? Or the one where Holly hangs suspended over a bottomless pit for the better part of a half-hour, surrounded by darkness on all sides? For children of the disco decade, these were signature moments and ones that we have held with us for thirty years.

But what I always liked best about Land of the Lost was its environmental message. You see, the Land of the Lost was a closed, pocket universe which ran by its own set of rules. Sometimes, those mechanisms would get out of whack and the Marshalls would have to act as good stewards to fix them, preventing storms, endless days, unending nights, and so forth. And they fixed things by cooperating with their neighbors, the Sleestak and the Pakuni. The message was plain to me even at age 5 -- we must all work together to protect our universe's treasures, the riches and resources of this fragile Earth.

It would be wonderful if a new Land of the Lost would take the concept of the original series seriously, providing our youngest generation with an understanding of environmental responsibility as well as a healthy dose of science fiction action.

Instead, we'll probably be invited to laugh at burping dinosaurs, silly ape men, and risible Sleestak bumblers, all with Will Ferrell goofing off in the middle of it.

What a shame. I'm still going to show my kids (when I have 'em...) the original Land of the Lost on DVD. It still has currency for children, I believe, and I hope that other people will do the same.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Project Greenlight's "Feast" and Clu and John Gulager

Hope y'all have been watching this year's riveting installment of Project Greenlight, the screenplay/director's contest-cum-reality TV show sponsored by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, horror guru Wes Craven and Chris Moore (soon-to-be the director of a remake of the 1975 Peter Fonda/Loretta Swit horror vehicle Race with the Devil). To get you up to speed, this year is a real humdinger. The producers have selected a horror script called Feast (concerning a pack of monsters chowing down on a bar full of patrons with names like Honey Pie, Hot Wheels, Beer Guy, etc.) and handed it over to first time director John Gulager, son of the great 1970s-1980s B actor Clu Gulager. The elder Gulager appears in the film as a shotgun-toting Bartender, and looks great.

Man, I have so many memories of terrific Gulager performances from years past, but my favorite has to be his role as Burt in Dan O'Bannon's 1985 flick Return of the Living Dead. He played the owner of the Uneeda Medical Supply Warehouse, and the boss of James Karen's Frank and Thom Matthews' Freddy, the two nimrods who (accidentally...) opened some U.S. Army barrels containing zombies and thus started an outbreak of living dead in Louisville, Kentucky. For those who have forgotten, the film also features Linnea Quigley's striptease in a graveyard, atop a stone monument. Yowza!

Anyway, one of Gulager's best scenes has him soliciting help from Ernie (Don Calfa), an embalmer next store, in disposing of some incriminating body parts. Gulager's shtick about the handy bags of limbs actually containing "rabid weasels" is pretty funny. Anyway, he's a great and underrated actor, and it's nice to see him back in the saddle again, especially in the horror genre.

And I really respect his son, John Gulager, for sticking with his film, Feast, through thick and thin. You see, John has arrived at the unpleasant truth that the producers of the film (and they outnumber the director by about six-to-one...) see him only as a contest-winner, not an artist, and are unwilling to let him express his vision for the film. He also has to deal with a recalcitrant DP who would seemingly rather argue with him about camera placement than actually place the camera where John Gulager would like it, and is surrounded by bean counters who just worry about "making their day" (meaning sticking to the schedule).

This Project Greenlight is a textbook example of how corporatized and ugly filmmaking has truly become today. It also explains why every film that comes out of this grueling Hollywood process looks the same: directing by committee. Like Julius Caesar surrounded by murderous senators, John is under constant siege from his fellow filmmakers, who all want to blunt his edge, dampen his creativity, and be certain that he cranks out something acceptable. Acceptable, but not great.

But here's my thing -- I think John Gulager has a great movie inside him. If he were actually allowed control over casting, or the honor of deciding camera placement, we could end up with what the writers actually intended - a spiky, kinky Evil Dead meets Die Hard with raunchy humor. Instead, as the reality show makes plain, John is there as a hired hand only, but goddammit if I'm not encouraged watching him every week, standing up for the primacy of the director in this technological art form.

John Gulager fights a lot of battles. He loses some, but you know, he's absolutely right most of the time. He should get to choose who is in his film. He should get to choose what the camera sees. He should get to choose which take he wants to use, and if he falls an hour-and-a-half behind, well, in the end, everyone will still make more money because the movie will be better. There seems to be no recognition of that fact. So fellas, do you want the movie done fast, or do you want it done well? That's the schism being acted out. The producers want it done quickly and on schedule, while John sticks to his guns and fights for quality, for his vision.

It's remarkable to see this battle play out before our eyes, and Project Greenlight is riveting, heart-wrenching television this season. I want to see John make his movie, and I'm delighted that the series has become a place where the role of director in Hollywood is being debated. Producers want John to be a traffic cop, and he wants to be an artist. Personally, I'd rather see a movie directed by an artist. In the dark of the theatre, who really cares if Feast took a half-day longer to shoot?

Saturday, April 23, 2005

An Intro to My Blog, and the first subject: Mass Media as New Boogeyman

Hello everybody, welcome to my blog. And to start us off, I quote the illustrious Admiral James Stockdale: "Who am I? Why am I here?"

Good questions...

My name is John Muir. and I'm a published author who writes under the name John Kenneth Muir, not because I'm pretentious or anything (though I am...) but because - for some reason - there are a lot of writers out there named John Muir.

Specifically, there's the great American naturalist from the last century, and also a fellow who writes about fixing Volkswagens. Others too, I think. In the age of the Internet, I realized I had to distinguish myself a little for Google, Yahoo, Lycos, Ask Jeeves and other search engines, so for the record, I'm the John Muir (the John Kenneth Muir...) who writes about film and television for a living.

And I know nothing about Volkswagens, so don't ask...

To let you know a little bit about my work, I'm the author of fifteen published books and several articles and short stories. I live in Monroe, North Carolina and work out of my home office penning books on film and television.

You may (or may not...) know some of my titles. From
Applause Theatre and Cinema Books I've written: An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith (2002), The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi (2004), and Best in Show: the Films of Christopher Guest and Company (2004).McFarland, a publisher here in North Carolina, has published eleven of my books, including award winners Terror Television (A Booklist Editor's Choice, 2001), Horror Films of the 1970s (A Booklist Editor's Choice, 2002 and ALA "Best of the Best" Reference Book '03), and 2004's The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television.

I've written about prominent horror directors (Wes Craven: The Art of Horror [1998], The Films of John Carpenter [2000], Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper [2003]) and several TV series studies, including Exploring Space:1999 (1997), An Analytical Guide to TV's Battlestar Galactica (1998), A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television (1999), A History an Analysis of Blake's 7 (2000), and An Analytical Guide to TV's One Step Beyond (2001).

I've also written an original (licensed novel) based on the TV series Space:1999 called The Forsaken, from
Powys Media, and freelanced for magazines including Cinescape, Filmfax, Rerun, Collectors News, and The Official Farscape Magazine. On the web, my home page is here, and I'm the regular media columnist for the web-zine Far Sector, which features original fiction and great editorials and opinion columns. My column this month "It Boldly Went," discusses the need in our society for a show like Star Trek, and the cancellation of Enterprise. So that's my cv, and that's the experience I bring to the table.

That answers the first question, who am I?. The second question, why am I here? involves pop culture, film and TV. I hope I can utilize this space to discuss, debate and ponder trends in movies and TV programs. I'm open to all subjects - fantasy, horror, science fiction, Bollywood, musicals, you name it. Basically, I just hope to create an ongoing journal about contemporary and classic entertainment.

I wanted to start with this idea that has been consuming me ever since I first saw The Grudge on DVD a few weeks ago with my fifteen year old nephew, Austin. Watching it, the notion struck me that both The Ring and The Grudge (based on original Japanese source material) seem consumed with the notion of the mass transmission of suffering and horror. The pain of the few gets broadcast to many.

In The Ring, for example, a strange little girl named Samara broadcasts her anguish through a deadly videotape. You watch it and seven days later - like clockwork - you die. The only way to stop it is make a copy and pass the terror on. In The Grudge, a terrible and brutal murder infects a house in Tokyo. Everyone that enters the house is "exposed" to this horror, and will die too. Nobody escapes.

What interested me about these two films is that they both postulate the notion that just by showing up, just by being a spectator, you are fair game for evil. I believe this to be a shift in the tide of horror cinema. The old horror movies of the eighties (the era when I was fifteen...) had a different brand of ethos. Engaging in activities like pre-marital sex or smoking a little weed instantly called up the wrath of a machete-wielding maniac like Jason Voorhees in the Friday the 13th films. But at least in some way, there was a link between bad behavior and death. An action precipitated death.

But in these contemporary horrors, the would-be victims really do nothing to deserve their horrible fates...they're just accidental tourists. Relatively passive acts bring about their destruction. You pick up the tape at Blockbuster, watch it in ignorance, and you die. You go to that house in Tokyo, even if you are a kindly nurse trying to help out an old lady, and you die. And if you drag in your boyfriend/girlfriend, Mom, Dad or Boss, they're going to die horribly too. Just being exposed to this terror at all means that your whole calling circle is going to be decimated.

I believe firmly that art imitates life. So can there be any doubt that this new notion in horror, the passive receiving of another being's suffering, is really just a coded reflection of our world, and the ascent of international, 24-hour news cable stations? If you break it down, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC exist to broadcast the suffering of a few to millions, perhaps billions of people. There's a school shooting in heartland USA, and suddenly cameras appear on the scene like vultures, broadcasting the terror of young students to the entire country. Or through the magic of instant replay, we watch a Russian helicopter get shot down again and again on the nightly news until it becomes a spectacle, a real-life special effect. We see people humiliated and tortured at Abu Ghraib in the most despicable de-humanizing ways, in every broadcasting media available. Why, in recent years we've even seen Saddam Hussein's sons on TV - as bruised, bullet-ridden corpses. Purple, yellow and brown, they are forever etched in our collective media as dead men.

These ubiquitous and highly disturbing images hang in the ether of the mainstream media, take on a unique life of their own, and even perpetuate themselves (with ancillaries like newspapers, the Internet, etc) - and what is the cumulative result on our psyches? Can we know how such images will effect every individual who comes across them? Will the depiction of evil on the news foster evil in real life? These are interesting questions, and I believe that The Ring and The Grudge entertain them with wit, humor, and chills.

Does the mass media, by revealing such horrors on such a routine basis, inure us to the suffering of others? Are we so disconnected from our common humanity that we must witness the horrible suffering of others to stay engaged with our emotions? The Ring and The Grudge seem to suggest that "being there" -- the act of watching -- is enough. We don't have to commit the atrocities we see on the tube ourselves to be held responsible for them. When we watch them - just by flipping on the boob tube (or in the case of The Ring, pressing the play button on our VCR) - that's enough to hold us accountable. The horror touches us as surely as it did those who "suffered" in the transmitted event.

It's an interesting notion and it would be fascinating to study how and why this manner of subject matter first became so popular in Japan. What is it about that culture that gives this idea such currency today? Any thoughts? And why does it find currency here, too? Whatever the reason, The Ring and The Grudge cause me to have great optimism about the horror genre. They remind me of the great days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when horror films really related to the dreads of the day. Films back then dealt with issues like Vietnam (Night of the Living Dead), Women's equality (The Stepford Wives), even abortion (It's Alive), and I strongly believe that one can make the argument that The Ring and The Grudge speak to us in this time, the early 21st century. They focus on a world where one person's pain has the capacity to be shared with billions; where an ugly day in an Iraqi prison can catch the eye of whole continents, where evil spreads like lightning from boob tube to boob tube or across the world wide web.

Once again, through films like The Ring and The Grudge, I think that the horror film is proving itself an efficient and valuable art form, one that has meaning and purpose within our society but which, unfortunately, many critics still don't appreciate.

20 Years Ago: Sleepy Hollow (1999)

After the box office disappointment and mixed critical notices of  Mars Attacks!  (1996), director Tim Burton returned to theaters in...