Saturday, July 30, 2005

Saturday Comic-Book Flashback #2: 2001: A Space Odyssey - "Vira, the She Demon"

Our second comic-book flashback is another Marvel book, and also one from the mid-1970s. In particular, it’s the short-lived 2001: A Space Odyssey series “based on concepts of the 1968 MGM movie by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke.” Wow - just imagine attempting to capture the age-spanning awe of 2001: A Space Odyssey every month, and you get an idea of what height this comic aspired to reach.

In particular, I’m remembering issue # 2, from January of 1977, written, drawn and edited by the great Jack Kirby. In this “startling second issue” of a comic that urged readers to “begin a new journey to the stars - and beyond,” we are treated to the fascinating tale of “Vira, the She Demon.” The story begins in prehistoric Italy - a land dotted by live volcanoes - as Vira, a “non-submissive female” in the words of Kirby, attempts to survive in a totally inhospitable environment. She is dying of starvation until she encounters the Monolith. This strange alien tool/being imbues her with the knowledge of “fear,” and she hence sets herself up as the fierce She-Demon Goddess of a local tribe. Terrified of this pretend-God, the tribe's men house Vira and hunt game for her, and in return she leads them with wisdom...forming mankind’s first government.

Fast forward to the 21st century and we meet astronaut Vera Gentry, of Explorer Unit 5, now stationed on Ganymede. A race of vicious alien hunters destroy her life support and shelter, and like Vira the She Demon so long ago, she flees, only to encounter the Monolith.

This time, the Monolith whisks her off into a world of her own (just like David Bowman’s sitting room in the famous movie...). In her own environs, including a swimming pool she once owned, Vera Gentry ages to 102 years old before ultimately transforming into a Star Child, a so-called “New Seed.”

Wow. Trippy stuff. It was an audacious move to begin a comic-book line based on a film that had few interesting characters, little dialogue, and which jumped from time-period to time-period with regularity, but I wager Jack Kirby was just the talent to do it. This issue apes 2001 by starting at the “dawn of man,” (like the film...) leaping to the year 2001 (like the film...) and then on and beyond into the “future of man” - just like the film. The enigmatic black Monolith, as one can tell from this summary, is a key player, a catalyst, and agent of transformation.

Apparently, it wasn’t long before Marvel's editors realized this sort of story was going to be awfully difficult to sustain every issue. I mean, how many times can you repeat the same tale as the movie? The anthology format essentially meant there was nothing recurring for comic-readers to latch onto each month except....philosophy and the general concept. Therefore, in later issues, such as the final one, number # 10, Kirby went in new directions, focusing on a character named “Mister Machine,” and avoiding the Monolith. In the "Monolith Mail" page of that book, the editors wanted to gauge reader response. Should they focus on Mister Machine as a central character or continue the anthology format? Alas, we'll never know where the comic-book might have finally gone...

So why remember Kirby’s 2001: A Space Odyssey comic today? Well, first of all, it was daring. This wasn’t Star Wars where you could take Luke Skywalker to a water planet one issue, then team him up with a giant green bunny for a pastiche of The Magnificent Seven the next. Kirby’s take on 2001 was a bold idea that relied on the notion that fans would be interested in real science fiction stories, even ones not held together or connected with recurring characters.

Also, I’m a sucker for Kirby’s unique art design. Why hasn’t some clever filmmaker faithfully adapted his style to cinema? His concepts and designs are inherently cinematic, and totally different from anything we’ve yet seen captured on the silver screen. Anyway, that’s another story. I just really believe that Kirby’s comics accurately captured the nature of the 2001: A Space Odyssey universe (with a nod to Marvel’s Watcher thrown in too...), and I wanted to champion that accomplishment.

After all, 2001 is an odd and beautiful film, one with a minimum of talking, but oh such remarkable imagery. We all remember the scene where an ape-man in the past throws a bone into the air and we leap forward to a bone-shaped orbital spaceship, right? Well, Kirby constantly presented panels like that in the comic-book, leaping us from century-to-century with the same kind of visionary touch. Original? Nah, it was Kubrick’s imagination translated to a comic, but it was translated in interesting fashion nonetheless, and Kirby’s art certainly made it feel original, that’s for sure.

So let’s hear it for doing something bold and different in comics. It’s easy to do a Star Trek, Star Wars, or Battlestar Galactica in comic form, but 2001: A Space Odyssey? That’s just a crazy notion, and Marvelous Marvel’s been there and done that.

My Cat: The (Animated Short)

Mark Bailey is a young animator working in New York, and just last night I checked out his Foxtrot Studios web site because I heard he’d created a short animated film called My Cat. Now, as everybody here is acutely aware - based on my blog’s "Cat Nap Tuesday" feature - I’m a huge lover of animals of the feline persuasion. So I checked out My Cat, and got a good laugh out of it.

The conceit of the film is funny. Basically, it’s that cats do annoying things (like knocking over dinner dishes and Christmas trees, etc.). In this case, however, one orange kitty’s behavior escalates, and escalates and escalates...

I don’t want to ruin the (strangely plausible...) punch-line of the short, but I certainly had a good time with this well-done and amusing animated piece, and I hope you will too, so I’m tagging it for today’s link to a cool site.

I plan to check in with Mark Bailey and Foxtrot Studios from time to time to see what else he’s got cooking there.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Filmmaker Interview # 2: Jordan Cooper, director of Tim Warner: A Life in the Clouds

As I indicated a few posts back, I want this blog to profile and interview filmmakers working outside the Hollywood mainstream. Ones who are doing good work and doing it their own way. These artists are my heroes because they aren't buying into what others tell them to do, and instead are creating entertaining works based on their own personal aesthetic.

Anyway, this week, my filmmaker interview is with the delightful (and very young...) Jordan Cooper, the director of a documentary-style comedy (or mockumentary...) entitled Tim Warner: A Life in the Clouds
Some background: Late last year, Applause Theatre and Cinema Books published my fifteenth book, a study of the fantastic Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind, etc.) entitled Best of Show: The Films of Christopher Guest and Company. Soon after, Jordan contacted me through my home page and asked me to take a gander at his student film, which is a mockumentary of a vastly different stripe.

Well, this is has been a busy year, and to my chagrin, it took me months to look at his work. Like 8 months. Well, I finally did screen The Silver Lining with my wife Kathryn just a few weeks ago, and I was astonished by the professionalism of Jordan's film. Much more to the point, I laughed my ass off. I've grown so tired of mass-produced, hollow Hollywood comedies like Dodgeball, Meet the Fockers, Anchorman or Envy because they tend to be stupid, empty films that rely on old formulas. You know what I'm talking about: a bunch of loveable losers get together to accomplish some task, fight powerful bad guys, have a falling out, and then emerge triumphant. It's been done a million times. I can say without reservation that I laughed more times in Jordan Cooper's film, Tim Warner: A Life in the Clouds (about a misanthropic comic strip artist...) than I have during any of those aforementioned films. It's goofy, wickedly satirical, and ultimately touching in some weird way. It's a low-budget film, so naturally it is rough in one or two very minor ways (make-up and occasionally pacing), but the editing is absolutely superior, and most of all, the ideas behind it are hilarious. So there you have it.

I wanted to know more about the film and about Jordan, so I asked if he was game for an interview, even though I'd been dilatory about getting back to him. He consented, and I'm happy to present the conversation here. James Jajac, co-writer and actor in the film also joins us briefly.

Tell me a bit about yourself and your education. How did your interest in film develop, and which filmmakers are inspirations to you?

COOPER: I live in Kew Gardens, Queens! My main interest is actually music and songwriting. I have written almost 200 songs. When I was 13, I went to an arts camp and took video there, where I made some music videos and little fake commercials. I noticed that when holding a camera, I got very bossy, and tons of ideas would pop into my head, and realized I enjoy taking charge of a film shoot. So I went to School of Visual Arts here in NYC as a directing major. I hated a lot of student films, which only served to motivate me more.

I've never been a huge film fanatic, and I'll often fall asleep during some great movies. But as a creative medium, it can't be beat. It incorporates can have something visually creative, or the timing of a shot could be creative, or the way something is cut. Something in the sound could be funny, or meaningful. Film just involves every aspect of the arts, and because of that, I often appreciate movies that use a lot of original artwork and music. Specifically I get shivers when music and film react perfectly to each other.

The films that started blowing me away were Kubrick films. A Clockwork Orange invaded my brain in high school. Kubrick's films (and I still haven't seen them all...) really showed me that a film - and the performances within a film - can be hypnotically good. You just can't turn away. I got a lot of enjoyment out of Coen Brothers movies too. I was very inspired by the way even their seemingly silly comedies would have a thoughtful otherworldliness to them. Something more to sink your teeth into.

Brazil by Terry Gilliam blew my mind as well, though it took about 5 times for me to completely fathom it. My absolute favorite movie is True Stories, directed by David Byrne. It's like the perfect movie to me. It's hilarious, and touching, and WEIRD, and it's about everything. It's got a loose vibe where you can imagine David Byrne just saying "I want to see this weird thing in my movie, so I'm just going to put it in," and he did.

MUIR: Could you give my readers a description of your film,
Tim Warner: Life in The Clouds?

What I always say is: It's about a horrible cartoonist who is a miserable bastard, and everybody loves him. Tim Warner is the creator of "The Silver Lining," a completely average, mediocre (at best!) newspaper strip. It's incredibly popular (go figure...). The first part of the movie is a sort of a TV fluff piece: we meet his fans, family, see the strips' highs and lows. But then as things start going wrong, the style of the film becomes more voyeuristic. A rival comic strip artist knocks "The Silver Lining" into the Obituaries section, and to settle this dispute, the two cartoonists engage in a ridiculous and bloody rooftop fight scene. Who could ask for more?

MUIR: Describe the conception and shooting of the piece...

COOPER: My friend and I took a lot of notice of how bad daily comic strips in the newspaper were. Not just bad, but disturbing and insulting. "Garfield" in particular has seemed almost suicidally depressed lately. One night, we videotaped a very quick improv of an interview with "Tim Warner." The idea was that these comic strips are SO bad, so mundane and without personality at all, so WHO'S doing them? What is that person like? We thought it was hilarious to personify the very idea of bland passionless art. It's not JUST about comic strips, but really boring soulless art in general.

By the way, some REALLY BAD comic strips :
"Girls and Sports", "Zits" , "Mallard Fillmore" , "State of the Union."

I showed this quick rough version to my film class (it was a slow lesson day) and it got a surprisingly positive response. A year later I needed a thesis film, and that seemed like something we could get a lot of guaranteed laughs out of.

First we answered a bunch of random questions about "Tim Warner." i.e. his favorite food (pears), his biggest fear, etc. We thought of what other characters could pop in and out. We sat on it for a long time and let ideas come to us, which is something I have to do because I'm not good at thinking of ideas on command.

We got together one day and in an intensive writing session hammered out the entire detailed outline of the movie, with almost all the plot points, characters, locations, etc. That was a relief. My co-writer James Jajac [who also plays Tim Warner] and I worked off each other excellently. I have a tendency to think of half ideas, and James is great at finishing the other half. Meanwhile James tends to think of an idea that is funny but maybe without context, and I'd be good at having it make sense. James IS Tim Warner, so a lot of the ideas involving quirks of the strip itself would come from him drawing and drawing. For example, he came up with art concepts such as: "Squiggles never smiles or changes his facial expression." Also, our friend Dave who plays "Lance Gold" thought of the idea for a rival cartoonist in the first place, though it was only a small detail until we surprised Dave by telling him it was now a HUGE plot point (what the heck, the ONLY plot point...).

MUIR: What was your film's budget?

COOPER: There wasn't a specific budget, but most of it was spent on props and post production. I needed new equipment to make the music, and I also needed a hard drive to store all the footage. Ouch.

MUIR: You shot digital?

COOPER: Yeah, we shot with the digital camera the school gave me. However I changed the settings and frame rates depending on where we are in the movie. The first half is meant to look more like TV video, the 2nd half is meant to look a bit smoother, more natural, like a handheld "realistic" documentary. I wish I could have shot on film, but I like to think I used the medium of video to it's strengths. This type of project isn't really supposed to look like film anyway. It was a one man crew. Just me on the camera, that's it.

MUIR: How long did the project take to shoot?

COOPER: It took 2 full weeks to shoot. 2 weeks is actually a LOT of time for a student film, so we allowed ourselves freedom to go at a somewhat leisurely pace. Some days I'd shoot multiple interviews, other days we'd just grab a quick shot and relax for the night. Throughout the long shoot, I was already editing the movie in my brain.

Mockumentaries are a breed all unto themselves. People think they are easy to shoot, but in fact the opposite is true. Did you have a detailed script, or, like Christopher Guest's documentary-based commentaries, did you merely go by a detailed outline?

COOPER: I had never done anything like this before, and I intentionally stayed away from Spinal Tap, and Christopher Guest's films. I still haven't seen Spinal Tap actually. I love the subtlety in Guest's films, but I wanted to make a mockumentary that WASN'T subtle. I wanted it to be really manic and silly, and sort of slamming in your face how ridiculous everything is. That sounds like it wouldn't be funny, I know, but I really felt it could be different by being as direct and unforgiving as possible, and not so much "realistic." I think sometimes Guest's films are TOO subtle anyway. It's funny because when I was reading your book about Guest, I noticed your formula you have for making a successful mockumentary sort of contradicted what I had done, which is what made me curious for you to see it!

James and I came up with a ton of different ideas. It was a personal goal of mine to make a movie where we would spend a whole day on a shot, or making a prop, spend a lot of money even, only to have it be a small detail in the film. I love how impressive that is. So we came up with ideas and story elements that would intentionally give us a lot of hard work to do, because we knew how well it would pay off.

MUIR: Well, I have to say, I think that your film is very original. You don't stick to the traditional structure of a three-act story, or develop the plot in an expected way. For me, this is a great strength of your film. It's unconventional and fresh.

COOPER: Storytelling was never my strongpoint. Most of my earlier films lack a strong story, so it was really hard to think of plot points. That may be why the plot awkwardly starts towards the END of the film. In the outline we specified every detail of history about Tim Warner and his life, every topic of conversation the interviews would cover. However the outline contains almost no actual jokes. It just states the topics people will talk about: Tim's childhood, Cousin Eskimo, etc. On the set is when most of the content was actually created. The 2nd half of the movie was planned out more specifically, and the fight scene was storyboarded.

MUIR: How did you enjoy directing?

COOPER: Directing the movie was incredibly fun, mostly because everyone on camera is a friend of mine. I didn't use any professional "actors." My friends can just read my mind so much easier, and know exactly what I want. We didn't rehearse much at all, except preplanned things like the fight scene and certain details we knew had to come up.

Sam, who plays Brian the Squiggles-Maniac, preferred to do a few takes with the camera off first. Matt, who plays Professor Nougat, just rambled on and on and on. After he'd finish, I would tell him what was funny, and have him do another, tighter take with more emphasis on that particular line. He also mostly stayed in character when the camera was off.

James, who plays Tim Warner, wrote out beforehand a lot of jokes and lines he wanted to say, and together we would figure out the most efficient way to get them across. The part when Tim Warner is very LOUDLY scratching the microphone on his chest was unplanned, James just did that and I started dying laughing. We then did some more takes to get the sound just right. It's one of my favorite parts cause the joke has nothing to do with anything in the movie, except maybe how oblivious Tim Warner is to how he's really being portrayed in this "documentary."

The book signing scene was beautiful because I barely directed. Everyone was so in character that day, and when they'd interact with each other it really took on a life of it's own. That scene, and the awkwardness within it (Brian handing Tim a GIANT "SQUIGGLES #1" sign), is why you make a mockumentary.

A lot of people off the street are in the movie as well. Half of the book signing customers are actual people who just wandered into the store, including the very angry man who forces Tim Warner to sign his son's book. He just walked in off the street and made all that up in one take! What you're seeing is not only unrehearsed, but we never even MET that man before, and we only very quickly explained what the scene was about to him. Amazing. The movie is filled with unpredictable moments like that, things we never would have thought to put in the outline.

MUIR: One thing that floored me about your film is the level of pre-production and preparation that must have been involved. For instance, throughout the film, you cut to the comic strip frames as your B-roll, both Tim Warner's The Silver Lining (and later Silver Hell), and then the evil strip - Sitting Ducks. You also feature a gaggle of Silver Lining merchandise. This was just amazing to me. Describe, if you can, the process of producing the strips and this ancillary merchandising stuff. Why was it important to the film?

COOPER: So much work. Luckily I didn't have to do much of it, ha! James is an amazing illustrator and had to dumb himself down about 99% in order to draw "The Silver Lining." James and Emily, my then-girlfriend, took charge of all the propmaking. She made the puppets that her character Melissa plays with. I made a few magnets though, and sketched out some ideas. I made a lot of the dolls, which would take hours and hours to hand sew the T-shirts onto them.

It was extremely important to really convey the hugeness of "Silver Lining." The bigger the strip is, with all it's merchandise and history, the funnier the entire idea of the movie is. We wanted to make a "freeze frame" movie, where we'll work on a prop for a week just to have it in the movie for 2 seconds. I specifically wanted people to say "wow, you did a lot of work" when watching it, and that's what most people do say!

Mainly the goal was to be as non-stop funny as possible. We can't really make a product without putting a joke in it, sometimes just to amuse each other, so that's why there's so many of them piled on each other. For example the Silver Lining bedsheets, which are oddly sexual and gross. Or the Silver Lining light switch, which has the audacity to quote God and says "Let there be light!" Or the "So you got your tonsils out!" greeting card that Berkeley Breathed is holding. Or the "Silver Lining" mirror, which is hilariously without function being that the Silver Lining characters are obnoxiously blocking most of the glass (that still makes me laugh). Or the retarded names of the Silver Lining treasury books. For us, it's all about the details. They simply make people want to watch the movie multiple times. Honestly, our goal was to amaze people (including ourselves!)

To shoot the actual b-roll of them was arduous and not one of the highlights of
the shoot. To make all these props took about 2 months. Many of them were still being made halfway into the shoot. It was at literally the last minute when I got a lot of the finished strips! James was really responsible for most of it. We'd talk about what we wanted, then the next day he'd show up at my house with something hilarious. Often he wouldn't even tell me what he was going to do. For example the Squiggles hat that Brian wears was a surprise to me. James just did it without me knowing about it. Also, most of the strips and fake advertisements (i.e., "always wear a helmet!") were created independent of me. I came up with a few of them, to take some of the load off of James, but he really just created mountains of this stuff.

Also, the "Silver Hell" strips were maybe the best details of the entire movie. When James first showed them to me I knew we had ourselves something really special and hilarious. That always gets HUGE reactions at screenings. I mean if you really study those strips, wow, they are completely insane, and there's lots of little hidden things in them too (freeze frame!)

JAMES JAJAC: With the strips basically what I was trying to do was bring an air of authenticity to it. I based a lot of "The Silver Lining" on strips that operate on a format (repeats the same jokes and gags over and over again). Garfield used to be very energetic and funny but now it seems like the characters are straight out of a dictionary and they don't do anything new or interesting or challenging or funny with them. And so The Silver Lining is an exaggerated version of all the strips we didn't like ,and I wanted the characters at the very least to be believable creations, with a world that you could buy into. I think The Silver Lining is more a product than it is a comic strip with a point of view. It is basically the opposite of anything that we would like in a comic strip, no jokes, no energy, no character at all, though I happen to enjoy the design of them. If I was a kid I know I would have read it.

My personal favorite product is the Silver Lining bed sheets, with a nearly nude life sized TED sprawled out beside you (its kind of seedy if you think of it as a kids strip). It goes by so fast I don't even think it registers with people, which might actually be good; I still laugh every time I see his oversized nipples. We wanted it to seem as if there was an endless variety of products, a "flood of merchandising". Credibility "mon frere" (to quote my brother, who is a french poodle). We wanted everyone to believe us!"

MUIR: One of the interesting things about mockumentaries is that filmmaker's shoot them like a "real" documentary (with hours and hours of footage), and then have to trim away in the editing process - a process that can take months. What equipment did you use to edit the film, and how long did it take to pare down to its current length? How did you go about choosing which material to retain and which had to go?

COOPER: I edited using Final Cut pro, at my school and using my then girlfriend's computer, which was very stressful. I had 15 hours of footage. That may not sound like a lot, but here's an example of how overwhelming that was: My previous film had only 1 hour of footage, which got cut into a 15 minute film. To cut this film was very difficult and took 2 months. Now for "Tim Warner" I had 15 hours of footage and still, only about 2 months to edit. The fight scene alone was like editing a short film onto itself.

Editing was heartbreakingly difficult. I literally cried during that process. The first version of the movie was an hour and 15 minutes long, and while a lot of it was funny, it just did not work as a feature. I can be very stubborn though and did not easily cut the movie up. Some of my favorite things I've ever shot had to be chopped off, including a ton of hilarious Professor Nougat footage, and even whole other plot points and characters. I was a character in the movie but I cut myself out (which I didn't mind). I played a newspaper cartoonist who gets sued by Tim Warner for having a cat say "meow" in his own strip.

I was absolutely baffled as to the structure for a while, and thought it was too weird to have the plot start towards the end. I think with most filmmakers, they reach a point in the editing when suddenly nothing makes sense to you anymore. You just don't understand the film and have no clue how to organize and convey it. That definitely happened with
Tim Warner.

You may notice the movie has a LOT to set up. The audience HAS to understand "The Silver Lining," all the names of the characters, they really have to feel like they know the strip, because every joke in the movie plays off that history. I couldn't figure out how to shorten the intro because we have so much information to introduce, or else none of the jokes LATER will make sense. We need people to feel they've been reading about Squiggles, Ted, and Doggy their entire life, so that when we tear it all apart it feels significant.

My favorite scene to edit was the fight scene, because I like editing in real time, where you have to follow actions with multiple camera angles, and make the scene really exciting. Editing the talking heads interview footage was often perplexing, but sometimes by coincidence two different things that two different characters would say would just happen to play off each other perfectly. For example Melissa says about Doggy - "He's just a fat little dog!", to which the Professor replies, "JUST A DOG? NOOO! A CLITORIS!" I loved how they, without realizing it, talked to each other.

As hard as it was, I still wish I could cut more out of it though. After seeing the film 100 times, I feel like I could easily chop off another 5 minutes.

MUIR: I'm sure you always get asked this, but is Tim Warner based on any cartoonist/comic-strip artist in particular? What do you think the film says about fans and scholars who study these things? Were you out to make a particular point, or just create a funny movie?

COOPER: One day when reading the "Funnies," I noticed that "Mallard Fillmore" took a jab at "Doonesbury." I was shocked, but mostly thought it was one of the most pathetic and juvenile things I have ever seen. The 2nd half of the movie was based on that. "Sitting Ducks" is "Mallard Fillmore." "Silver Lining" is very much based on "Garfield," "Ziggy," "That's Life!". The way comic strips have declined in quality over the years, especially compared to amazing old ones like "Pogo" by Walt Kelley, Or "Popeye" by E.C. Segar.

We weren't really out to make fun of fans or scholars. There are comics out there worth studying. But the idea of everybody embracing this comic that is so bland and offers NOTHING new or interesting, I suppose that was a commentary on certain pop culture trends. We hope that when that first "Silver Lining" strip shows up, the audience really gets the joke - that it is BAD and NOT worthy of a documentary. We hope they can think of something they hate that's popular as well. Everyone has their own "Silver Lining," where you just can't believe how popular it is, cause all you're seeing is crap.

Personally I'm more interested in character studying than making points. We wanted to know what kind of person could make such bad, passionless art. And once we created Tim Warner we wanted to really get to know him, and find humor in stirring things up for him. There aren't a lot of all out "jokes" or wacky situations in the movie, most of the humor is based on knowing the character. And once you get a handle on Tim Warner (and his fans) there's so many different ways to get humor out of it.

Our goal for Tim Warner is that by the end of the movie we wanted him to care about his strip. How could we end the movie and have Tim feel passion? And how could we have the audience feel passion for Tim, a man we've been sort of mercilessly making fun of for half an hour? It was sort of an experiment and I feel it was a successful one. I've cried at the ending, and I know other people who have also (the sad music helps)!

If there is a point to the movie, it's about art and passion in general. The movie really defines me and my friend's sensibilities, which are to really care about what you do, really appreciate your own talents and any positive response it gets. Don't be like Tim Warner and be completely indifferent to your own work.

MUIR: I just really have to compliment your James for his incredible portrayal of Tim Warner, who struck me as a really miserable - yet somehow touching - person. What did you think of his performance, and what were your discussions about it? Everybody in the cast was great, from the comic "scholar" to the young, obsessed fans...

COOPER: The first thing we shot was a long interview with Tim Warner, and we ended up not using any of it. We realized that while the joke is that Tim is a very boring passionless guy, the performance was a little TOO passionless and dry. So we pumped a bit of life into him, and sort of went with the idea that Tim is trying VERY hard to look good in the documentary. The whole time on the shoot we were aware that TIM'S character was aware of the camera on him. The way he acts in normal life is probably not how he acts on video.

I thought James really nailed Tim Warner during the book signing, as mentioned before. I think after that point we really started seeing the potential of the character. We threw in stuff like his cat dying, and him being lonely and loving pears, yes, to play the sympathy card with the audience, but also because Tim is a human being. He's clearly depressed and a little explanation of that goes a long way when creating a character. I love Tim when he's sort of uncharacteristically perky, like when he's painting, or in the supermarket. It makes him a bit endearing, although he never stops being arrogant and selfish.

One of my favorite moments is towards the end, when you see a brief out-of-context clip of Tim sitting in front of the fake sun, looking really sad and annoyed. It's footage from before everything went wrong, and we're showing it sandwiched between footage of him all beat up and defeated. The idea of that really saddens me, showing Tim before and after, and he's miserable in BOTH shots. I'm not sure why but that really disturbs me. I'm really proud of that moment.

Matt told me he based Professor Nougat on some English professors he had in college. I've never been more impressed with Matt then during the filming of that scene. It's a loud big performance, but there's so much subtlety in the way he says certain lines. You can guess so much about his life from the quickest things he says or does. Like when he bites Doggy's tail and says "It's a clitoris!" That's not just funny cause it's inappropriately vulgar in regard to a children's cartoon, but because of what it implies about his character. Obviously he must not be a huge hit with the ladies if that's how he, well...acts.

The young obsessed fans were tricky because I didn't want to be cruelly making fun of them. I wanted them to be sort of sad and not very bright, but not in an ugly cynical way. They are nice characters who like a very very bad, but nice, comic strip. Thinking about how much they like it does make me sad though. Sam (Brian) has a very dark sense of humor and brought a lot of that to the movie. Like in the final scene where he's sad about "Silver Lining" being canceled, he put a bandage on his wrist to imply that his character tried to kill himself. He also came up with the idea of Brian stealing some of Tim's blood from the fight scene. There was also a running joke cut out about his imaginary girlfriend.

Emily thought of the idea for Melissa to become a goth girl in the end, which always gets a huge reaction.

Basically the idea with the fans and the scholar, was that everybody sees "Silver Lining" in their own ridiculous way.

MUIR: What has been the response to the film? Are you selling copies, and if so, where can readers purchase the film?

COOPER: The school screening of the film was incredible. A packed Loews theater hysterically laughing throughout the entire thing. A man behind me laughed so hard during "Silver Hell" that he was crying.

Most everybody who sees the movie really likes it, but we've had trouble getting large audiences. Most people, such as yourself, are pleasantly surprised that a student film is actually VERY funny and is so packed with jokes and details. We wanted to make a movie that was extremely accessible (but not in a dumbed down way), which usually works in our favor. We've been sending it out to cartoonists, filmmakers, comedians, etc. It's gotten some good responses, though a lot of people think it's too long. We've been happy that most everyone likes it, not just people who are interested in cartoons or comic strips. It works as it's own as a funny movie.

YES, we are selling copies! The DVD we sell has an outtakes reel (!), 3 deleted scenes reels (!!), 2 full artwork galleries including ALL of the comic strips created for the movie (80% of which ISN'T actually in the film!!!), a photo gallery, plus the DVD is going to come with a hilarious full length "Silver Lining" Activity Book done by Tim Warner himself! Not to be missed!

MUIR: What's your next project and when can we look forward to it?

COOPER: Being that I am out of school, I have no access to cameras or editing equipment. I am too broke to make another movie. However James has a movie he wrote called "Life On A Bike" that is sort of a surreal comedy, or as he describes it "an existential Michael J. Fox movie." We may do a rough version of that in August. I have other film ideas, but mostly I am working on music, writing songs, and trying to start a band! I play shows often in NYC. Also me and my friends (James Jajac and Dave Fox) are trying to sell our comic book "Antenna" around NYC. We always have something we're peddling. Besides we are still trying to get "Tim Warner" out there, it was such a huge project, and at this point in my life I'm not sure I would attempt topping it!

I want to thank Jordan Cooper (and James Jajac) for talking with me about a film I really enjoyed. I hope folks will go to the Tim Warner web site and contact Jordan Cooper about buying copies of the movie (at $10.00 a DVD, it's more than worth it). Buy the DVDs and spread the word; This is a funny movie...

Cult TV Friday Flashback # 3: One Step Beyond's "If You See Sally"

Ten months before Rod Serling's Twilight Zone bowed on network TV in the fall of 1959, television audiences experienced another brilliant anthology, John Newland's One Step Beyond (also known as Alcoa Presents). Unlike Thriller, The Outer Limits or Serling's program, One Step Beyond did not concern itself with fantasy, gothic horror or science fiction, instead devoting itself exclusively to the world of the paranormal. Originally titled Imagination, the series attempted to document real cases involving pre-cognition, E.S.P. poltergeists, apparitions, and other phenomena. "It had to be real," Mr. Newland stressed to me in his final interview on the subject, in October 1999, "and there had to be proof, either anecdotal or published."

One Step Beyond ran on ABC from 1959 to 1961 for a total of 96 half-hour segments. John Newland directed and hosted every installment of the anthology, and with the able assistance of guest actors such as Warren Beatty, William Shatner, Jack Lord, and Christopher Lee, created a moody, black-and-white classic. The score by Harry Lubin is guaranteed to evoke shivers, even today.

One Step Beyond's 66th episode, "If You See Sally" is our cult TV flashback this week. Dramatized by Howard and Roberta Martin and directed by Newland, it aired on October 18, 1960, early in the program's third season (and shortly before the production team moved to England for the final 13 shows). This episode's story involves young Sally Ellis (Ann Whitfield), a kindly girl who leaves her grieving family after her hard-hearted father blames her for the accidental drowning of her brother, Paul. On her own - and very afraid - Sally moves to the big city for a time, barely surviving as a waitress at a diner, until her Pa sees the error of his ways and tells her to return home. Jubilant to be returning Sally begins her long trek home, but she never makes it. She is killed in a terrible road accident. Despite her death, Sally's spirit keepts trying - and failing - to make it all the way home. Year after year, lonely drivers on isolated country roads encounter her spirit in the isolation and blackness of night. Sometimes, the drivers make it all the way to her house, and drop off her off just feet from the estate. But when her Pa and Ma go out to the car to see her, at the driver's urging, the spirit is gone. Vanished.

This is one of the creepiest and most emotionally moving of One Step Beyond shows, as Pa Ellis (George Mitchell) pays for his sin of cruelty by always just missing a visit from Sally. Others witness her spirit (truckers, traveling salesmen and the like), but she never quite makes it home to him. The episode's final twist (that Sally was never in the car of a traveling salesman - only her ghost) is absolutely haunting, and like the best of OSB stories, has one foot in reality, or rather, in the tenets of paranormal research. The imagining of a traveler on the road has been described (on page 81 of Omni's Catalog of the Bizarre (Doubleday and Company, 1985), as a "hallucinatory event brought about by folklore that lingers in our collective imagination from a time when man first drove horses and chariots. Late at night, exhausted and alone on a dark road, the vulnerable driver may summon the ancient hitchhiker from his subconscious; in his weakened state, he becomes convinced that the eerie fellow is truly sitting beside him."

But perhaps even more interesting than the sociological basis for "If You See Sally," was the response the episode drew when it aired. As reported on page 29 of Gary Gerani's 1977 book Fantastic Television, "This broadcast ["If You See Sally"] elicited a spate of letters - forty five in all - in which viewers described their own similar experiences. In one variation, the man [traveler] lends the child [ghost] a sweater. When he is told that the child is dead, he...immediately asks what happened to his sweater. The garment is retrieved on the headstone of the child's grave."

Boy, if that doesn't give one goosebumps, I don't know what will.

Another scary moment (of a very different sort...), however, actually occurred behind-the-scenes of "If You See Sally," as John Newland told me and I recorded in my book, An Analytical Guide to TV's One Step Beyond. "It was shot late at night, and we had an eighty man crew shooting on this hill. On the other side of the same hill, Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford were filming some war movie. Anyway, we were going along fine when Frank Sinatra sent a messenger over to our side of the hill to tell us to keep it down," Newland recalled. "Well, I gave the guy a message of my own: I said he should tell Sinatra to go fuck himself. The messenger returned to his side of the hill, we resumed shooting on our side, and everybody thought everything was fine. Then suddenly, it got really quite on our side of the hill. I was behind the camera, so I didn't know what was going on, but when I turned around, Frank Sinatra was right there, standing just a few feet from me. 'Johnny,' Sinatra said deadpan, 'I got your message.' There was silence for a second, then everybody laughed...and it was over."

There are any number of One Step Beyond episodes that would prove great flashbacks on this rainy, humid Friday. I've always adored "The Sacred Mushroom," the series' only documentary-style episode, wherein John Newland actually samples hallucinogenic mushrooms to see if they endow him with psychic powers, or "Night of April 14," about the psychic web entwined around the sinking of the Titanic. But there's something special and devastating about "If You See Sally." It's not just the fact that so many people have reported similar stories, and that the myth of the ghostly hitchhiker goes back hundreds of years, but rather that the story is so human. In some sense, we all understand how important it is to get home. To reach that place where we feel safe. But like some ghostly Odysseus, poor Sally never reaches that hearth of safety, and forever walks the byways and lonely, dusty roads of nighttime. It's creepy as hell, and truly haunting.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Media Round Up - Odds & Ends

Some interesting links for the day:

The death of James Doohan is still a big topic in the genre press and blogosphere. His Associated Press obituary is here, at CNN, and his life is being remembered and honored all over the web, from Boing Boing to Geek Philosophy.

In other news, you can see what the latest of incarnation of that famous Time Lord looks like over at the BBC. Eccleston left the show after just one season, leaving us with the now ninth regeneration of the Doctor. Meanwhile, the new Doctor Who still isn't being aired anywhere in America...

Finally, a friend of mine named Fred turned me on to this interesting web page about the ongoing evolution of the DC comics logo/icon. It's here at Apocalyptek.

Thursday Toy Flashback # 3: Model Kits!

As a child of the 1970s, I grew up with model kits. It was a natural thing because my father was (and remains) a model builder of uncommon skill. His favorite "school" of models was from the military, mainly the vehicles from World War II, and in the years between 1970 and 1980, he constructed, detailed and painted a veritable Army, Navy and Air Force worth of models. I inherited his love of model kits, but my specialty was - big surprise here - science fiction TV and film.

AMT (and later AMT/Ertl) held the license to Star Trek from 1966 till the advent of Voyager in the 1990s, and produced some amazing kits, including my all-time favorite, the Star Trek Exploration Set (which is pictured to the right, and as you can see, featured a phaser, a tricorder and a communicator). In particular, I remember being perhaps five or so years old (in 1976) and staying up late as my father applied the finishing touches on this model. After I went to bed, he would lay the models out on the staircase next to my room for the next morning - inevitably a Saturday. I would wake up, see the completed model, and begin my adventure as Captain of the Enterprise, all tricked up with the right gear.

AMT produced some fantastic Star Trek kits, including - of course - the U.S.S. Enterprise. I remember my Dad building that one for me as late as 1980, during the Lake Placid Olympics, when I was home with the flu. I also recall playing with an odd alien ship, the "Interplanetary UFO," sending my starship Enterprise to a model of K-7 (the space station featured in "The Trouble with Tribbles,") and so on. Over the years, I built every version of the Enterprise from the TV show to the motion picture to the Final Frontier (which came with its own shuttlecraft!) to Picard's Enterprise D.

And Star Trek was not the only model kit game in town, by any means. MPC produced models from Space:1999 including the utilitarian Eagle (a remarkable kit!) the warship called a "Hawk," and even a highly-detailed diorama of Alpha Moonbase, which included a "blow-up" size version of Main Mission Control, down to accurate figures of Commander Koenig, Helena Russell, and the desk in Koenig's office.

As the seventies went on, I continued to collect and built an armada of outer space model kits, including those from Revell/Monogram, which held the license to Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. I remember building Colonial Vipers, Cylon Raiders, Cylon Basestars, Draconian Marauders, Directorate Starfighters and the like. Why, I even built the robots (V.I.N.CENT and Maximillian) from The Black Hole -- kits from MPC. I never did build the Cygnus though. I'm still on the look-out for it...

There are great companies today - like Polar Lights - producing Star Trek, Lost in Space and Land of the Giants kits. But is the thrill gone for the generation growing up right now? I mean, in the 1990s and 2000s, we've seen companies like Playmates, Konami, and Art Asylum manufacture replicas of instruments and spaceships with such unbelievable accuracy and detail. My gosh, as a kid, I couldn't have even imagined toys so authentic and faithful to the series' designs! Yet...something is missing. There was some kind of happy thrill about building models with your dad, or on your own, back in the 1970s. There was the expectation, the anticipation, and then the resulting final kits - decaled up to be just perfect. With models, every time you finished one and waited patiently for the glue to dry, it was like Christmas morning, the opening of your gifts just moments away.

There are all generations of model kits (from AMT Trek to Airfix Space:1999, etc.) available for purchase on E-Bay today so you can still relive the thrill of building your own kits, but sometimes I just think American culture has passed models by. Hobby shops are fewer and further between than in my youth. And today - with a Playstation 2, X-Box or GameCube - you can insert yourself into all kinds of space adventures, so "making up" your own adventure with the Star Trek Exploration Kit probably seems antiquated.

But I'll never forget the first morning I saw my personal exploration kit complete. I'll never forget slinging that Tricorder over my shoulder, gripping that phaser, flipping open that communicator, and "beaming down" with neighborhood friends to the alien territory beyond (the wooded-trails just half-a-block from my house....) That morning, I was a member of Starfleet, ready to face all the challenges of the universe.

And I've still got the box...

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

FantaSci Wrap Up

Some photos from this weekend's FantaSci Convention in Chesapeake, Virginia, where I discussed SCI-FI TV:1970s.

Catnap # 3

This is my kitten Lily. She's about four months old. We just adopted her about a month ago after visiting our vet in Mint Hill. Lily was rescued in a Food Lion parking lot after her tail was caught and mangled in the fan belt of a truck. Her tail was amputated before we adopted her, and she is now doing fine. I've nicknamed her Black Lightning because she bounces around the house at warp speed except on those rare occasions - as pictured in this photo - when she catches a nap.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Thursday Retro-Toy Flashback # 2: The Lunch Box!

Well, it’s time to highlight my retro-toy of the week. This time out, my focus is...the TV/movie tie-in lunch box. Pictured left is the lunch box from the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson TV classic series, UFO, which starred Ed Bishop, Michael Billington and Wanda Ventham. The box illustration depicts S.H.A.D.O.’s Sky One flying over the moon’s craggy surface, a UFO whizzing by on the left; and Moonbase down on the lunar plain.

Once upon a time - back in the 1970s and early 1980s - every primary school kid carried metal lunch boxes, and it was a sign of utter coolness if you had a really neat one. A lot of my friends had the Star Wars lunch box (which displayed a dogfight between an X-Wing and a TIE Fighter on one side), but - ever the contrarian - I owned a Battlestar Galactica lunch box, which featured Boxey and his daggit (Muffey) fleeing from the Cylons on one side; the rag-tag fleet on the other. Another popular one of the day was the Superman: The Movie (1978) lunch box, a red box dramatizing scenes from the Christopher Reeve movie, including baby Kal-El's arrival on Earth and lifting of a 1930s-style truck to save Pa Kent.

Today, I display several movie-TV tie-in lunch boxes in my office collection, including: Planet of the Apes (TV series; 1974), Space:1999 (1975), the UFO one you see here (1973), The Last Starfighter (1983) and even one from Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987). I make a point to collect ‘em whenever I can - and flea markets are often ideal - but I wonder why TV-and-movie lunch boxes don’t have the aura of popularity they did when I was a kid.

Which ones did you have? And do you still have 'em?

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

May the Wind Be At His Back

I just learned that James Doohan has passed away at age 85, at his home in Washington State. The Canadian actor and veteran is best remembered for his performances in film and on TV as Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, of the U.S.S. Enterprise on various incarnations of Star Trek, including the original TV series (1966-69), the animated series (1973), and the film franchise (1982 - 1991). This character is such a part of the American lexicon that Scotty has been mentioned throughout our pop culture in all kinds of places, from the 1995 submarine-crisis film Crimson Tide to various episodes of The Simpsons. I also remember Doohan as the Commander of the Space Academy on a season of Filmation's Jason of Star Command, from the mid-1970s.

Doohan's Scotty gave the original Star Trek so much of its heart and drive. I'll never forget Scotty drinking a Kelvan agent under the table in "By Any Other Name," defending the honor of Lt. Palamas in "Who Mourns for Adonis," or nursing the U.S.S. Constellation back to health in "The Doomsday Machine." I'll always love Doohan's Scotty for defending the honor of the Enterprise in "The Trouble with Tribbles," and admire him for commanding her through multiple crises in episodes such as "Bread and Circuses," and "Friday's Child." Basically, Doohan brought energy, zeal and a sense of determined "can-do" attitude to Star Trek, and I know from experience that engineers around the world grew up admiring him. He truly was the miracle worker that Captain Kirk claimed he was.

We'll all miss Mr. Doohan, grieve with is family, and cherish his life and talents. He brought so much joy to so many millions of viewers, and his legacy will live long and prosper.

As Captain Kirk would no doubt say at this point, "Well done, Scotty..."

Cult TV Flashback # 2: Space:1999's "Force of Life"

I’m posting Cult TV Friday Flashback on Wednesday this week because I’ll be out-of-town for the weekend, making presentations at the FantaSci Convention in Chesapeake and at the Williamsburg Regional Library. But I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to feature one of my all time favorite episodes of any cult TV show.

In 1975, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s epic space adventure Space:1999 aired in syndication in the United States and was a mega-hit in the ratings, causing networks to dump shows like William Shatner’s Barbary Coast, David McCallum’s The Invisible Man and others. The series was also a critical smash, at least before Star Trek fans and writers got their say in the burgeoning genre press (which in those days consisted mostly of Starlog). No less a source than Science Digest, in November of 1975, termed the Andersons' production "a visually-stunning space age morality play that chronicles the downfall of 20th-century technological man," while Newsweek noted on October 20, 1975 that "not since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 have sci-fi freaks had the chance to trip out on so much surrealistic gimmickry." The Richmond Times commented that Space 1999 had "one foot in science and a range of special effects that would make even the emotionless Mr. Spock envious," and The Wall Street Journal enthused that it was "the most flashy, gorgeous sci-fi trip ever to appear on TV. Watching it each week is very close to being under the influence of a consciousness altering drug." Even The New York Times (on October 19, 1975) reviewed the show positively, noting that it "has what no other TV science fiction program except Star Trek had - good stories and good special effects."

As these reviews make plain, Space:1999 was unlike any other sci-fi show ever produced, the model being much closer to 2001: A Space Odyssey than Star Trek or Lost in Space. It was a quantum leap forward for the genre, a pioneer. And as those who watch it will recall, the series had a whopper of a premise. The story involves the 311 denizens of Moonbase Alpha who, on September 13, 1999 are stranded there after the moon is blasted out of Earth orbit by a nuclear explosion. These stalwart scientists and astronauts are left to fend for themselves - drifting among the stars - as the moon encounters temporal anomalies, space warps, visiting aliens and the like.

The ninth episode of Space:1999, "Force of Life," written by Irish poet Johnny Byrne and directed by UFO and The Prisoner veteran David Tomblin, is probably the episode that really blew the whole Space:1999 controversy wide open for most viewers. Some people (like myself...) immediately fell in love with it, while others simply could not stand it. "Force of Life" was the dividing line between those who appreciate ambiguity in their drama, and those who prefer neat little wrap-ups and attempts at explanation.

To re-cap briefly, this episode of Space:1999 sees a mysterious ball of energy - an alien life-force - infiltrate Alpha. In particular, the alien focuses on Nuclear Generating Area Three and Technician Anton Zoref, played by Ian McShane (of HBO’s current hit, Deadwood.) Before long, to the dismay of Anton’s loving wife, Eva (Gay Hamilton), the technician begins to change. In particular, he can’t seem to stay warm. By seeming osmosis, he begins to drain all the heat from a lamp in his quarters, then a lighting panel in a corridor, and so forth...his appetite for energy and heat ever-increasing. Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) and his team, including Victor Bergman (Barry Morse) and Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) register the energy drops, but don’t yet realize Zoref is the cause. Before long, Zoref is seeking to stay alive (and warm...) by draining the heat from living human beings, his fellow Alphans. Koenig and the others catch on, but not before Zoref marches right into the Nuclear Generating Area and absorbs its heat...causing a tremendous explosion on Alpha. Out of the smoldering rubble of the devastated nuclear plant, the energy sphere re-emerges whole - stronger than before - and heads off into space, no doubt carrying elements of Zoref with it. There are no definite answers about the strange and dangerous alien encounter, but Professor Bergman speculates that the Alphans may have witnessed some kind of creative evolution, the birth stages of a star, perhaps...

And that’s it. The episode makes no bones about the fact that the Alphans don’t understand a lick about the alien that has come knocking on their doorstep. These are not the knowledgeable, highly-evolved humans featured on Star Trek: The Next Generation, who attempt to make peace with aliens and learn all about them through tricorder readings and techno-babble. Instead, the viewer is presented with a simple mystery. I love the episode’s haunting coda, wherein Dr. Helena Russell tries to comfort Anton’s wife, in mourning over the loss of her husband: "We’re living in deep space, there are so many things we don’t understand," she says. "We don’t know what that alien force was, why it came here, or why it selected Anton. But we’ve got to try to help each other understand..."

In other words, the episode perfectly reflects the essence of our human condition. There are things in this universe we don’t understand - fate, life, death, you name it - but what we can do is reach out to other humans; provide comfort and succor. For me that’s a very human and touching message in what is otherwise a spine-tingling episode with a hard-edge. For an example of the latter, I need only recommend you to the scene in which Astronaut Alan Carter (Nick Tate) fires his laser at Zoref and chars his skin off. Completely. Yikes! (See photo above for a look at the charred Anton about to enter the nuclear generator...)

Some folks, including the late great Buster Crabbe, just didn’t like "Force of Life," and that’s certainly their right. Back when Space:1999 was on the air, he complained about the episode on a talk show in which the other guest was series star Martin Landau. Mr. Crabbe wanted to know what the alien was, what it represented, and what the whole episode meant. But of course, that would have spoiled the fun. Better, isn’t it, to leave some things unclear; to allow the viewer to fill in the gaps? (Think of Hitchcock's The Birds. Would any explanation really satisfy you as to the reason for the avian attack on humanity? The same holds true for "Force of Life.")

Over the years, I’ve had the honor to speak with Johnny Byrne, Space:1999's script editor, about many series episodes, including "Force of Life." This is what he told me about the episode in 2001:

"It was a process of a life force traveling through space, chrysalis into butterfly. That’s entirely all it was. Why can’t people see that? Just last night, I was watching this program about the universe, about the incredible ways life can survive. These scientists study these tiny microbes found on Mars, or learn how life can survive literally anywhere. It’s incredible. I didn’t know about these things when I wrote "Force of Life," but it is the same thing. The life force had its own agenda, and there were no philosophical discussions to be had. It couldn’t express itself verbally, because it was very different from the Alphans. I mean, was it going to pop in and say ‘charge me up and send me on my way’? That would have been ridiculous."

"The Alphans didn’t understand the process," Byrne continues, "but remember, we weren’t dealing with super smart space jockeys, we were dealing with near-future people caught in a very un-Earth-like situation. But the process was purely that of the caterpillar transforming into something else."

Beyond the interesting story, "Force of Life," is worthy of spotlighting because of its startling visualizations. I’ve always loved Space:1999 because it is a TV series that adroitly manipulates film grammar (i.e. mise-en-scene, camera angles), and in the process cogently transmit its themes. It is a visual masterpiece first and foremost, and almost everything else (including characterization...) is secondary to the mind-blowing imagery. David Tomblin directs "Force of Life" with a quiver full of stylish film techniques including a tracking camera, slow-motion photography, distortion lenses, and most famously of all, a slow turn of the camera into an inverted position.

The aforementioned upside-down camera turn, the final shot of the episode’s shocking teaser is efficacious because it symbolically (and visually) suggests that Moonbase Alpha will be turned on its head by the alien energy force. Even more effectively, the use of extensive slow-motion photography in the chase sequences prolongs the terror of Zoref’s victims, and heightens audience suspense. The menacing low-angle shots of the technician stalking his prey also contribute to the episode’s overall feeling of dread and paranoia. These moments - which fill the screen with the imposing image of the homicidal, starving Zoref - depict strength and the invincible nature of this alien intruder. The color and focus shifts on Zoref’s face further reflect that this human is in the grip of an alien force by alternating dramatically from blue to red (symbolically cold to hot...) as Zoref drains his victims. All of these remarkable and stylish touches make "Force of Life" appear more like a full-fledged feature than a mereTV show. As in the best of productions, form reflects content. This isn’t just a pretty melange of master-shots/close-ups, but a clearly-thought out tapestry that carries distinct visual meaning and thus thematic weight.

"The way it looked took some thought," acknowledges Byrne, "and was beautifully expressed by David [Tomblin]. I don’t understand why people don’t get it..."

I must say, I also like the little in-joke about Zoref’s name, which Byrne insists was unintentional. Jumble the letters around a bit and you spell the word...froze. Nice touch.

The essence and driving concept of Space:1999 is always that outer space is a realm both frightening and wondrous, so unlike the series' detractors, I believe it totally unnecessary to explain where the alien in "Force of Life" originated, how it thinks, why it selected Zoref, where it’s headed, and so forth. If all those questions had been addressed, the mystery would vanish, murdered in the rush to find an authentic-sounding scientific explanation or some pat psychological motivation for something that - to the Alphans - should remain inexplicable. There would be no room for horror, no space for awe, and thus no sense that the Alphans are strangers in a strange land - the very thesis of the program.

So today, I wholeheartedly champion Space:1999's ninth episode, "Force of Life." It credits the viewer with intelligence, and doesn’t rush to spoon-feed us every last detail. In its deliberate ambiguity and impressive technical skill, it represents a remarkable installment of an often misunderstood or underestimated TV series. After you watch it, you might look up at the stars and shiver. There are things up there we can’t even imagine, and every now and then, science fiction TV programming has a duty to look beyond laser duels, tales of good vs. evil, or metaphors for our political world, and focus instead on the universe of mystery inherent in the cosmos. That’s precisely what "Force of Life" accomplishes, and the genre is stronger for it.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Cat Nap Tuesday # 2

Here's another one of my three feline girls for Tuesday Cat Naps: Ezri (EZ for short). She's a healthy six-year old, coming out of a deep sleep on our family room sofa. Groggy, but truly adorable. She's a playful cat, and almost like a dog with her wagging tail and constant need for affection.

Monday, July 18, 2005

The Dorothy Grim & Splatter Show!

Just saw Future-Kill (1985), a low-budget horror-fantasy movie, for the first time last night. The box art (see pic) is by the legendary H.R. Giger, but has virtually nothing to do with the actual film, which is celebrated in some circles because it's the reunion of Edwin Neal and Marilyn Burn, two stars of Tobe Hooper's Texas Chain Saw Massacre. No, we're not exactly talking Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Here, Neal - so memorable as the Chainsaw hitchhiker - plays a mutant/punk villain named Splatter, and Burns is his punk-rocking, heavy-eyeshadowed sometimes friend/sometimes foe, Dorothy Grim. That probably tells some people as much as they need to know but whether or not they want to see the film...

Anyway, the hijinks in Future-Kill commence in earnest when a group of frat brothers get in trouble for tarring & feathering a brother, and are sent downtown to capture a Mutant. A mutant? Well, yeah. You see, this was 1985, and the socially-conscious makers of this film imagined a future where No-Nuke Protesters and punks would combine to start their own sub-culture, the "Mutants," and live in an inner city ghetto, spurned by "the conservatives." This is really funny, because no-nuke protesters are socially-conscious people who hope for a better future, whereas punks are deliberately nihilistic and see no future at all. So mixing the two ideas doesn't make much sense. Whatever. At least it's kind of different. It's like Escape from New York meets The Road Warrior meets Streets of Fire meets The Warriors. All for about $1.50.

So anyway, the frat boys visit the bad part of the Mutant town to abduct an unlucky mutant for a party back at the frat. Unfortunately, they run into Splatter, the major domo of Eddie Pain, the pacifist Mutant leader. Eddie doesn't believe in violence, which upsets the psychotic Splatter, so he assassinates his boss and frames the hapless frat boys. The rest of the movie concerns a night of terror as Splatter and his elite guard of mutants chase the frat boys through a series of abandoned warehouses (supposedly nuclear research labs...) A kindly hooker named Julie helps the boys, and then there's that bad-ass Dorothy Grim, whose allegiance is a mystery right until the climax. Such as it is.

What a strange, strange movie. Yet...there's something to it. Sure, it is relentlessly low-budget, the acting is barely adequate (except for Neal, who is a monstrous and powerful villain...), and the story is absurd. Still, this is one of those movies you can't take your eyes off of. It's an honest (and frankly, kinda silly...) horror-fantasy that attempts to extrapolate what a future America could look like (from the perspective of the Reagan 80s): frats versus freaks. I know it doesn't make a lick of sense, but the same filmmakers could have made an unimaginative, rote slasher film instead, one where they had to tread no new ideas or imagine no interesting concepts. They didn't do that, and I champion them for setting their sights just a little higher. Future-Kill kept me interested in it, even if the execution left something to be desired.

Never heard of Future-Kill? Join the club. This is one of those movies that inevitably turns up at flea markets and sells for a dollar or less, but, hey, I've seen far worse. To name a few: Troll 2, Neon Maniacs, The Stay Awake, and so on.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Saturday Comic-Book Flashback; ROM, Spaceknight (Issue # 7)

When people talk about their favorite comic-books from childhood, they probably think about titles like Spider-Man, The X-Men, The Hulk, Superman, or Batman. But as a child of Star Wars and the 1970s, I had another favorite from that bygone era of disco: Marvel's ROM, Spaceknight.

For those who don't remember ROM, he was once a normal human denizen of Galador, but then came the Dire Wraiths, a race of malevolent invaders bent on taking his world. Many young patriots from Galador volunteered to fight the Wraith, but they did so "neurosurgically" grafted into machine Cyborgs. The battle for Galador was won, but Rom the Spaceknight ultiimately ended up on Earth, the Dire Wraiths' "mightiest stronghold," according to the legend.

The comic-book series followed Rom's adventures on Earth, in West Virginia, as - armed with a weapon called a "neutralizer" - he battled the Dire Wraiths (who looked human, like David Vincent's Invaders on the series of the same name) and their minions, including the Dogs of the Dark Nebula. Rom's friends were a secretary named Brandy, who had feelings for him, and her jealous but helpful boyfriend Steve, an auto mechanic.

ROM was actually based on a popular toy/action-figure of the day (from Parker Brothers), but as it had with another comic-book series, The Micronauts, Marvel really created an interesting universe surrounding the merchandise. The Dire Wraiths were inventions, as were the other enemies Rom fought. You didn't need to have a toy Rom to like the book, but it helped...

This Saturday morning flashback involves ROM issue # 7 (from June, 1980), featuring art by Sal Buscema and story by Bill Mantlo. Rom has just survived (barely...) a battle with a renegade spaceknight called Firefall. An electric shock received when battling dogs of the black nebula has rendered our favorite spaceknight catatonic. A policeman named Artie Packer, Steve and Brandy attempt to revive Rom, hoping he can recover. Meanwhile, a Dire Wraith scientist named Rachel Sweet and a Wraith Elder summon another foe to dispatch Rom and his allies: Thornoids. These are fast-growing purplish plants (with thorns, as you might guess...) that fall to Earth in acid rain, immediately take root, and attack. Rom comes out his coma just in time to stop the Thornoids, though there is a casualty in the battle. Rom finally defeats the Thornoids by lowering the temperature of his suit, and thereby freezing and cracking the now-brittle stalks of the Thornoids.

I like this issue in particular, because it reveals facets of Rom's companions, Steve and Brandy. Brandy has feelings for the alien in the suit, and Steve doesn't like that. Nonetheless, he helps Rom in his time of need. I like also that deaths are involved here. The war against the Dire Wraiths isn't easy or painless. ROM was a fun, great book that forecasted elements of the RoboCop film series and even the Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation. This issue, with chapter-headings like "As I Lay Dying," "Alien Seed," and "Greater Love Hath No Man," is a prime example.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Cult TV Friday Flashback: Star Trek's "This Side of Paradise"

This week, I want to highlight my all-time favorite episode of Star Trek (The Original Series), the first season entry entitled "This Side of Paradise," directed by Ralph Senensky and written by D.C. Fontana (from a story by Fontana and Nathan Butler).

Set on Stardate 3417.3, this 25th episode of Star Trek (which first aired March 2, 1967) saw the U.S.S. Enterprise arrive at planet Omicron Ceti III. The crew expected to find the colonists assigned there dead, due to exposure to poisonous Berthold Rays, but instead, everyone on the planet appeared healthy, happy and content. The rub, of course, was that alien plants - spores - were keeping the human colonists alive. But the spores were strange symbionts which had also taken away the colonists' will to work, to produce, to do anything but experience bliss. An idyllic existence or a trap, an inhuman nightmare?

As Captain Kirk puzzled this mystery out, Spock encountered an old flame, Leila Kalomi (played by the lovely Jill Ireland). On Earth - hell - even in public, Spock could never acknowledge that he loved this young woman, but once infected by the Omicron spores, Mr. Spock could finally do just that. He could go all emotional, even engage He could finally be happy. Unfortunately, when the deleterious spores were transported aboard the Enterprise, they caused a suddenly euphoric crew to mutiny, leaving stubborn Captain Kirk all alone on his ship, determined to remove the influence of the spores once and for all...

"This Side of Paradise" came about late in the first season, after the series original story editor, John D.F. Black had departed. So had the series' second story editor, Steven Carabatsos. Gene Roddenberry approached D.C. Fontana about Nathan Butler's story, and told her that he wanted a major re-write on it, and that if she could do it on time and to his satisfaction, he would promote her to story editor. She did the job. And how.

Originally, the story had involved George Takei's character, Mr. Sulu, and was called "the Way of the Spores. Dorothy Fontana, whom I interviewed in 2001, told me how she changed the episode: "I read the script and Gene wanted to know my opinion about it. I thought about it and realized that there were a couple of things that weren't working. The love story really had to be about Spock because the situation of the spores offered an opportunity for us to get to his emotions. And as a result of the character switch, the love story just worked."

"The other thing was the technical part of the show," Fontana recounted to me. "How do the spores infect the people? In the original story, you had to go into a cave where the spores were, to be compromised. The answer to that problem was, simply, don't go into the cave! But if the spores were ubiquitous, if they were all over the planet in this flower form, you couldn't escape them. They were going to get you one way or another."

As anyone who has seen this episode (and who hasn't?) can attest. The coda on the bridge is one of the most emotional and touching of the entire Star Trek canon. Spock admits he has never before been happy. If you don't get a lump in your throat over that line (and Nimoy's brilliant delivery...) you really are a Vulcan with green ice-water in your veins.

"The spores gave us an opportunity to see the softer side," Fontana considers, "to find out about the emotions Spock could have."

In the process of this exploration, Star Trek got one of its most memorable episodes. There are so many wonderful scenes in this show, apart from the coda. One of the most memorable involves Kirk's knock-down drag-out fight with Spock in the transporter room, wherein he attempts to goad his first officer by insulting his lineage and saying "You have the make girl!" What classic Shatner-ian delivery! And what character fireworks.

Another great moment in the coda is Kirk's reflections on Omicron Ceti III. "Maybe we weren't meant for paradise," he suggests, and this is a line that resonates all the way through the Star Trek franchise. As late as Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), Spock seems to be thinking about this. He hangs a painting in his quarters - the expulsion from Paradise. A reminder to him, at that point, that all things must end.

There are a number of wonderful Star Trek episodes worthy of remembrance for my new blog series Cult TV Friday Flashback. Among them, "The Trouble with Tribbles," "Amok Time," and "City on the Edge of Forever," but I wanted to start with my favorite Trek, and one which I think is grossly underrated, perhaps because it doesn't feature Klingons, Romulans, Gorns, time travel or tribbles. No episode of Star Trek better captures the feelings of the series' dramatis personae than this one. And few are as heartfelt or as dramatic as "This Side of Paradise."

The Road Warrior (1982)

I first viewed  The Road Warrior  on a double bill with  Superman III  at the Castle Theater in Irvington, New Jersey. I was thirteen or fou...