Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Deadline Looming...



Hey everybody! I'm on a tight book deadline right now. But I'll be back soon. In lieu of new material here, enjoy "reruns" on the archive at your right!

But have no worries, I shall return, cracking-wise in no time. Well, a little time
...

Monday, August 21, 2006

Non Sci-Fi Quote of the Week

A dear friend shared this passage with me the other day. It's a quote that I find fascinating, in part, I suppose, because I live my life in the company of "words." How often, it seems, words prove truly insufficient for the genuine expression of emotion.

And also, I deeply love my cats because, I suspect, in my quiet moments with them I achieve what every writer occasionally needs, a respite from all the words; a freedom to sense and understand a life form without the weight of symbols or pre-conceived notions of "meaning." My communication with the cats is instinctual, primordial, and simple. It relaxes me.

Anyway, this passage is from May Sarton, from The Poet and The Donkey, page 92-93:

"How often, in human affairs...such a simple misunderstanding of motive or need causes all the pain and anger. Because we have words, we think we can explain ourselves to each other, but how often words fail - the elusive fish of personal truth slipping through them unseen and unheard. But, Andy thought, in a relation with an animal, we are back in the good wordless world which tests our naked sensitivity. Intiution, sensing is everything. And as he slipped back into sleep, he promised Whiffenpoof to try to be more aware from now on, to learn her language as best he could..."

Sunday, August 20, 2006

TV REVIEW: Nightmares and Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King

TNT termed this horror anthology “the four week television event of the summer” in its advertisements, and for good reason. Horror writer Stephen King is not only a brand-name in movies and television going as far back to the 1970s, but this hour-long series is superbly cast with top stars such as William Hurt, William H. Macy, Samantha Mathis and other first rate talents.

Like Masters of Horror on Showtime, Nightmares and Dreamscapes is a collection of unusual horror stories sans voice-over or narrator, as would be featured on the Twilight Zone, for example. Instead, there is simply an “umbrella” of unity holding the various episodes together. On Masters of Horror, that umbrella is the inclusion of the cinema’s finest horror directors. Here it’s tales (or short stories) of the macabre from Stephen King, still horror’s most successful novelist.

The stories on Nightmares and Dreamscapes run an impressive gamut of styles. “Autopsy Room # 4" stars Gretta Scacchi and Richard Thomas, and concerns a man wheeled into the morgue at a South Carolina hospital after he’s suffered an apparent fatal heart attack on a golf course. Turns out, the corpse (Thomas) isn’t so dead after all...he was bitten by an unusual snake and left paralyzed. The audience hears his desperate thoughts throughout the episode, as the doctors come perilously close to cutting him up. Yes, this is the old chestnut (seen on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the 1960s and in Wes Craven’s film The Serpent and the Rainbow in the 1980s...) about a man who appears dead, but is conscious, alert and feeling everything as he is about to be dissected or buried alive. In previous stories, what’s saved the poor wretch’s life is a biological reflex action: a tear rolling down his cheek at just the right instant. Since this is Stephen King, and this master of horror has a wicked sense of humor, the reflex in “Autopsy Room # 4" is something quite different and unexpected. Just as he is about to be cut open, Thomas experiences an...erection for all to see.

“You Know They Got a Hell of a Band” is a totally different sort of entry. Here, bickering married couple Steven Weber and Kim Delaney take a trip through the Pacific Northwest and end up taking a very wrong turn...into a Norman Rockwellian town called “Rock and Roll Heaven.” There, Janis Joplin is a waitress in a local diner, Ricky Nelson is the short-order cook, Otis Redding is the town sheriff, and Elvis Presley is the mayor. Turns out there’s no escape from this corner of the Twilight Zone...oops, I mean “nightmares and dreamscapes,” and the couple is doomed to an unending rock performance by the genre’s greats. This is a fairly disappointing and nonsensical story, and one that fails to scare in the slightest.

One reason why “You Know They Got a Hell of a Band” fails so egregiously is that the writer (scenarist King and writer Mike Robe) fail to make any connection between the personalities of the “victims” and their eventual fate...trapped in rock limbo. In classic Twilight Zone episodes such as “Nick of Time,” which finds a superstitious William Shatner held in thrall to a fortune telling machine, there’s a clear connection between personal foible and ironic twist of fate. No such relationship is forged in this episode of the Stephen King series, and so the episode is without real suspense or character interest. In fact, it comes off campy and ludicrous at times. What's the point?

More genuinely thoughtful (if not terribly frightening...) is another chiller, “The End of the Whole Mess,” a stirring story that asks pertinent questions about human nature and the time we live in. Ron Livingston plays Howard Fornoy, a man spending his last minutes of life recounting for a camera (in a video journal...) how the world is going to end. He tells the invisible audience the life story of his brother Bobby (Henry Thomas), a child prodigy - a Da Vinci or Einstein - who finds his “true north” in trying to cure the ultimate human disease. No, not cancer or AIDS. Instead, he hopes to cure “ meanness” and develops a calmative that suppresses human aggression and makes people unwilling or unable to fight. He calls his invention “pacfist white light” and he is able to deliver it to the world, with catastrophic results. See, there’s a side effect he didn’t reckon on. The calmative also causes early Alzheimers...and so the whole population is doomed.

Because it airs on basic rather than premium cable, Nightmares and Dreamscapes is less gory and graphic than Masters of Horror, but the stories are at about the same middling level. Some are stirring and interesting, but most are simply run of the mill. And very few actually scare. These two series are nice to have around in the age of pabulum like Supernatural, but watching both anthologies, it’s clear that ironic (and classy...) touch of Rod Serling is missing. And missed.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "Vultan - King of the Hawkmen"

Script editor Ted Pederson contributes his first teleplay to Filmation's Flash Gordon with this, the third "chapter" of the ongoing serial.

"Vultan - King of the Hawkmen" finds Aura, Barin, Thun and Flash captured and taken to Vultan's hovering "Sky City." Vultan - who looks and sounds suspiciously like the movie's Brian Blessed - consigns the men to the city's "atomic furnace" and decides he wants to marry the yummy and scantily-clad Aura. Meanwhile, Ming launches his space armada to rescue his daughter and warns that Vultan will soon feel "the wrath of Ming!"

Down in the atomic furnace, Flash instigates the second slave revolt in two weeks and devastates the city's power core just in time for Ming to come and reduce much of the Hawkman city to rubble with his fleet. This is where the episode really takes off as the battle rages. In the air (over the spires of Sky City...) it's laser-firing spaceship versus sleek, flying Hawkmen, and I was amazed to see a children's cartoon featuring images of Hawkmen (and their hawk steeds...) being disintegrated in mid-air by the weaponry! Damn, that's cool...

In the end, the Hawkmen flee Sky City with Ming, Barin and Thun. Vultan resolves to join them as "brothers" since they now "share the same fortune." In just three episodes, Flash has allied three Kingdoms of Mongo, and soon he will begin the rebellion against Ming in earnest...

"Where there's a will, there's a way," he tells his new friends, and again I'm reminded of Flash Gordon's origins in the 1930s...in a time of gathering global danger when tyrants were sweeping through Europe and bringing the tide of fascism with them. The only chance to resist the momentum of evil was for the countries of the world to band together against evil; and Flash Gordon is certainly a metaphor for that idea of uniting: the putting aside of racial and ethnic divides to serve the common good.

That's a valuable message, especially today, when war wages in so many places.

Friday, August 18, 2006

TV REVIEW: Hex (BBC America)

Hex. Rhymes with "sex." And put in an "H" at the beginning for horror.

Described in promotions as a “supernatural coming of age series,” the scintillating adolescent drama Hex began airing on BBC America earlier this summer. Although the series premiered in England (on Sky One) in 2004, BBC America aired all eighteen episodes of the first two seasons in one 2006 sortie. So this is the best time to get hooked.

Hex is set at a countryside boarding school/high school in rural England, called Medenham. There, a beautiful (and promiscuous...) blond student named Cassie (Cole) learns that she’s the reincarnation of a powerful witch. Her roommate, a lesbian named Thelma (Rooper) is killed in a terrible scene, and then becomes Cassie’s constant companion and guardian...as an incorporeal ghost (who can only change her fashions by stealing the clothes off corpses...)

Meanwhile, Cassie falls in love with a hunky and dangerous bad boy named Azazeal (Fassbender), but he’s actually a creature called a ‘Nephilim,’ a fallen angel who hopes to breed with a human and launch a new war with Heaven. Guess who Azazeal’s chosen to be the mother of his child? Worse, as Thelma learns, these events have repeated over and over again through history, with the women in Cassie’s role all suffering horrible deaths.

Cassie is briefly possessed by a demon, and in that compromised state has sexual intercourse with Azazeal, an act which effectively brings about the beginning of the end of days. After an accelerated pregnancy, she gives birth to a son, Malachai, who - once grown - can release two hundred Nephilim monstrosities from their prisons. The only way to stop the apocalypse is by killing Malachai, but that’s understandably difficult for Cassie, the boy’s mother. Another problem: if the baby dies, order in the universe is restored and Cassie will no longer be able to communicate with the ghostly Thelma.

Soon, Ella (Pyper) arrives at Medenham. She’s a witch-hunter determined to stop Azazeal hellbent on murdering Malachai. Other cast members on Hex include Roxanne (Sainsbury), a ravenous schoolgirl trying desperately to deflower a handsome instructor at the school who also happens to be Azazeal’s minion. And Leon (Davis) is Ella’s confused boyfriend, also doomed to some unpleasant “growing pains.”

Critic W.M. Stephen Humphrey at The Portland Mercury insightfully termed Hex “Buffy the Vampire Slayer crossed with late-night Cinemax,” because the series boasts graphic sex scenes with plenty of female nudity. As for the Buffy metaphor, it is appropriate for numerous reasons. Cassie’s relationship with a hulking, brooding, 200-plus year old “monster,” dramatically recalls Buffy’s relationship with the sometimes good/sometimes soul-less vampire, Angel. Fans will also remember that Buffy’s witch friend, Willow became a lesbian in later seasons, and here Rooper - a similar friend supporting character, also plays a woman of alternate sexual persuasion. Man-eater Roxanne is also heavily reminiscent of Charisma Carpenter’s selfish Cordelia character, concerned only with fashion, sex and herself. There’s even a strong accent on comedy and wisecracks, so Hex could - at least on first glance - be aptly termed a clone of the more popular American series.

However, Hex is more frankly and openly sexual, and in some terrible sense, darker than its American cousin. The characters are frequently faced with terrible decisions (like aborting a child that could destroy the world...). They also often act more selfishly and unheroically than the more likable Buffy characters. In one episode, for instance, Thelma makes an alliance with Azazeal to get something she wants...an alliance that nearly kills Ella.

Also, without revealing too much, Hex brazenly pulls a Psycho-style trick mid-way through its second season, killing off a main character and throwing the entire series into disarray and chaos. This move will leave faithful viewers reeling. Finally, Hex features fewer and less impressive special effects than Buffy the Vampire Slayer did, but as characters fumble and fight, and darkness encroaches inevitably on mankind, the series becomes more and more compelling as a statement about tomorrow’s generation heading over the precipice.

A third season lands in America in the summer of 2007...and it’s going to be a long wait. If you miss Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hex isn't quite the same, but it is an adequate substitute, and getting better on an episode-by-episode basis.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

TV REVIEW: Lucky Louie (HBO)

Videotaped before a live audience, Lucky Louie starring comedian Louis C.K. is a sitcom that views itself as the heir to such blue collar classics as The Honeymooners and All in the Family. The series concerns a working class American family run by hapless Louie, living in a tiny, rundown apartment building in an urban setting. The primary sets on this HBO series include a dilapidated hallway (with dents and paint scrapes...), a kitchen, and a tiny bedroom. If the Kramdens were around in the 21st century, this would no doubt be their environs.

Louis is a dopey, overweight working class joe raising his smart-alecky daughter, Lucy (Gould) and engaged in a constant state of war with his wife, a nurse named Kim (Adlon). Louie doesn’t understand Kim, and so his friends at the muffler shop where he works, including Mike (Hagerty), are around to offer sage advice about women. Tina (Kightlinger) is Kim’s friend, performing essentially the same function, only in reverse. The next-door neighbors are Walter (Minor) and Ellen (Hawthorne), a well-to-do, snobby African-American couple. Walter and Ellen wear nicer clothes and own nicer furniture...which raises the practical question of why they’re living in the same rundown urban building with Louie’s one-the-edge-of-poverty family.

In the course of the series, Louie forsakes frequent masturbation sessions when Kim wants more intercourse...a ruse, in fact, for her to become pregnant again (“Pilot”). Another episode, “Kim’s O” revolves around Louie’s wife experiencing her first real orgasm at age thirty-seven...after seven years of marriage! Other plots revolve around other domestic issues, and occasionally, ones involving modern city life, like “A Mugging Story,” wherein Kim goes ballistic after losing her pocket book in a duel with a teenage mugger.

Lucky Louie comes straight from the mind of C.K., who has honed this working-class material for years. “When I started writing this stuff, I didn’t know it would be successful,” he told reporter Ed Condran, for The New York Daily News. “When I said that ‘I now understand why babies get thrown in the garbage,’ I was surprised that Middle America got it. Soccer moms in Cincinnati told me how hilarious the ‘baby in the garbage’ joke was to them.”

Which brings up why many are of two minds about Lucky Louie. The kind of meanspirited humor of “babies thrown in the garbage” is part of the problem with the series. Although Lucky Louie attempts to shatter sitcom conventions by featuring close-up simulated sex (“Kim’s O”), full-frontal nudity (“A Mugging Story”) and scatological language (the word “fuck” is deployed on a regular basis...), the underlying tenor of the series is crass and crude, and rather unpleasant. Married life is depicted ruthlessly, which is an interesting perspective to be sure, yet the characters are all despicable and selfish. Nor do they express themselves cleverly, because swearing is a crutch for bad writers. Why turn a smart phrase when someone can just say "shit" or "fuck?" All these blue collar blues more aptly makes Lucky Louie an heir to Married with Children rather than All in the Family or The Honeymooners.

Also, Norman Lear's classic All in the Family revolved around blue collar people confronting issues such as racism, sexual harassment, rape, menopause. There’s no overarching social value or message in Lucky Louie, as the characters don’t engage the outside world in any meaningful way and remain stubbornly stupid and fail to grow through the run of the first episodes. Archie Bunker was a bigot and ignorant, but in some senses, he grew over the years on the series. By contrast, Louie is a dolt who remains forever a dolt. His character is constantly re-booted to the lowest setting of "stupid" at the beginning of each new misadventure.

However, despite such reservations it is impossible not to appreciate the audacity of Lucky Louie. It doesn’t buy into Hollywood myths about America, and that in itself is refreshing...even liberating. The American dream of prosperity has never looked so unattainable on a TV show...or at least not in a very, very long time, as Neil Swidey writes in The Boston Globe: “Lots of sitcom sets looked this working-class in the ‘70s, in the era of Good Times, before we were all asked to swallow the notion that coffee-house waitresses could afford spacious Greenwich Village apartments with skyline views.”

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Thoughts on Contemporary Horror Films...

I just saw this!

Film scholar Kevin Flanagan has a terrific post up at Virtual Fools on the state of the contemporary horror film. It's an insightful, thoughtful read, and eminently worthy of debate and discussion. Kevin is a remarkable writer as well as a first-rate thinker. This guy has interviewed director Ken Russell (and excerpts of that interview appear in my upcoming Horror Films of the 1980s), written meticulously-argued and thoroughly-researched essays about films such as Gothic (also excerpted in Horror Films of the 1980s...) and more.

Here's a sample of Kevin's latest work, entitled Some Casual (But Deadly Serious) Thoughts on Contemporary Horror Films. As you'll see, even when he's casual, Kevin remains damn impressive:

"Last October in Asheville, North Carolina, I had the pleasure of attending a theatrical viewing of Saw II (2005) with a group of experts. Don Mancini (creator of the Child’s Play franchise), Barry Sandler (screenwriter), and Ken Hanke (genre scholar and critic) shared my distaste for the film, which I felt to be slightly hard to pin-down at first. Saw II was imaginative, stylish, and often displayed verve, yet left me sour. It was certainly a cutting-edge (puns aside) horror film, symptomatic of larger trends in the genre at large. Finally, after some discussion, we began to understand our mutual suspicions: films of this cycle delight in the minute, realistic depictions of pain and torture, now entirely possible due to advancements in effects technology (digital or manual). Whereas the greatest films of 1970s horror cinema transgressed towards social ends, this latest subgenre (“pain films”) seemed to remove or avoid marked political, moral, or artistic positions. Evil, sadism, and blood consumed the screen, sometimes without motivation or hope. How, when and where did the horror film lose its status as one of the most consistently socially conscious, probing genres?"

Click
here to read the full piece.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Star Trek: Legacy!

Okay, I know all you Trekkers have seen this news, right?

Star Trek captains--William Shatner's Kirk, Patrick Stewart's Picard, Avery Brooks' Sisko, Kate Mulgrew's Janeway and Scott Bakula's Archer--are beaming aboard Star Trek: Legacy, a new videogame marking the 40th anniversary of the legendary sci-fi franchise.

The game, due out this fall from Bethesda Softworks, will be the first time the five stars from the five TV series will team up for a Star Trek project.

Shatner, who will reprise his career-defining role of Captain James. T. Kirk on the original Star Trek voyage from 1966 to 1969, tells Reuters that he hopes his participation in the game might spark renewed interest in Star Trek. The franchise had been labeled "in decay" by Activision, which previously held the game license, and saw its most recent incarnation, Star Trek: Enterprise, fizzle out with lackluster ratings and uninspired plots. Some fans and industry watchers believed the end was near.

"It's been around a long time, it's a staple of American life and I think we need something new and different," Shatner told the wire service, noting that he just couldn't resist returning to the part that made him a legend. "I couldn't imagine someone else playing Captain Kirk, even in a videogame, so I kind of got a little territorial."

Personally, I welcome this news. I was interviewed for a Cinescape article in 1998 about the problems with the franchise following Star Trek: Insurrection, and I noted that there was no Star Trek youth market anywhere. I loved the show as a kid...but I'm 36 now! (Dammit, Jim..!). A kick-ass, state-of-the-art video game would be a lovely and exciting way to bring in the youth crowd, especially if a new Kirk/Spock/J.J. Abrams movie follows soon. And who can resist a game that includes all five captains? (Only problem, no Christopher Pike!). In addition to being wonderfully entertaining, Star Trek is about terrific morall values (like not interfering in other cultures; like relishing diversity...) and I believe that a new generation would benefit from having the franchise around. I'm not talking about the dull-as-dishwater recent series...but a revived, and electrifying Star Trek that speaks to this time, while not forsaking the history of the property.

Anyway, I guess I'm going to have to buy an X-Box now, huh?

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Sci-Fi Mantra: Mal Reynolds

Lately, I find myself thinking of these words (spoken in the feature film, Serenity by Captain Reynolds):

"I aim to misbehave."

It sounds flip, but it isn't. What Mal is responding to in the film when he voices that particular thought is the need - indeed, the duty - to sometimes question - and push back - against overreaching governmental authority.

In the film, Mal discovers that his government, the Alliance, has created something called PAX, a pacification drug that Parliament believes will make the citizenry "better." (And also, no doubt - safer.) He sees it for what it is: a new way to "control" and consolidate power for the powerful.

This mantra comes up for me now, because last week I saw the most despicable comments repeated on television. I saw government officials in high office (and wannabe government officials) telling us that to be safe and secure, we have to think just like they do.

Worse, they compared American voters in Connecticut - American citizens, mind you - to the Taliban and Al Qaeda because they didn't like the voters' choice. This is a new lowpoint in political discourse, and it is crass, ugly manipulation. Sorry, but I don't want my government telling me that making a personal choice between two options in the voting booth is tantamount to treason and makes voters "terrorists" or even in league with terrorists. What actually happened in Connecticut? That's called democracy, folks. The voters spoke. For better of worse. Instead of respecting that fact - and I still can't believe I'm hearing this from major politicial figures in the U.S. - the message coming out of Washington D.C. following a foiled terrorist plot in the UK is that only one party is good and American, and that the other is the party of "Al Qaeda." On CNN, I heard an anchor actually question if Ned Lamont could be called "The Al Qaeda" Candidate. What the fuck?! I hasten to add, I would be just as offended if that CNN anchor had asked if Condi Rice could be called "The Al Qaeda" Secretary of State. Disagree with any of these people...but jeez...they aren't terrorists!

This inflammatory, ugly rhetoric is something every American, regardless of party, might very seriously think twice about. Yes, Republicans and Democrats, Liberals and Conservatives differ on how to achieve national goals, but why can't these differences make us stronger in the War on Terror? Isn't it always better to have more ideas rather than less? What about IDIC, Infinite Diversity and all that stuff? Why must we be in brain-lockstep and define different philosophies as traitorous, appeasing and terroristic? Here's a radical idea: as Americans, we can believe different things, and learn from each other. As Americans we can believe different things, and still be cordial...and still help one another. Hell, as Americans we can believe different things and be...friends. I don't know about you, but when I have conversations with my friends who hold different beliefs, I inevitably learn something from them; or see things in a new way. I might ultimately reject those things or I might not, but in every case I'm stronger and better for having listened to and understood a different point of view.

I tell you, some Americans - and from every end of the political spectrum - are going to sic the (electoral) Reavers on all these bastards if the kind of inflammatory and divisive rhetoric emanating from the tube last week doesn't subside. I direct these remarks in particular to Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman. Truly - they are the most craven politicians I've seen in my lifetime. I now call them the "vote for us or die horribly" bloc - and they are, individually, Republican AND Democrat.

And...they both suck.

As long as men like these control the bully pulpit of the corporate press and use it to cling to power by frightening people, I aim to misbehave and call them out for their crap. Bottom line folks: we can do better. I don't care if you vote Democrat or Republican come November, but please vote your heart and your gut and your brain, and throw the rotten, divisive bastards in both parties out. These jokers serve at our pleasure, so when the time comes, let's misbehave. We can have arguments, we can disagree, but Americans who exercise the right to vote as they wish are not and will never be terrorists. Can't we all - from both parties - at least agree on that?

Captain Reynolds would expect nothing less than some serious misbehavior. Only one thing left to say... "Miranda..."

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "The Monsters of Mongo"

The animated Flash Gordon series kicks it to high gear in "The Monsters of Mongo," the second episode of the early 1980s Filmation effort. Here (in a tale written by Sam Peeples), Flash, Dale and Thun (The Lion Man...) escape Mingo City into the caverns below, only to be recaptured by luscious Princess Aura. Then, Ming adds Dale to his harem, and consigns Flash and Thun to radioactive mines beneath the city, a place that "rots flesh and burns eyes."

In the caverns below, whipped and dominated by Lizard Women Overlords (mmm...Lizard Women Overlords...), Flash and Thun organize an impromptu miner's strike. "By sticking by each other, maybe we can accomplish something," Flash tells Thun. There's an uprising in the caves, and in great anti-fascist (pro communist?) imagery, the workers brandish their shovels and pick-axes (seen in black silhouette...) against their masters. The animation here is powerful, by the way. Black shovels jut into the air triumphantly and the background is a fire and revolutionary red. Okay, my friend Rick Coulter -- is this secret Marxist imagery creeping into American mainstream (kids!) entertainment during the right-wing Reagan eighties or what? I know you'd cheer if you saw this episode...

After the slave revolt (which gets flooded out by Ming...), Aura helps Flash and Thun escape to Arborea, but first the unlikely allies must face the god of the caverns, Ti-Sack (not to be confused with the other God of the mines, Ti-Bag.) The episode ends with Flash and Thun fleeing from Arborea (and the arrival of the Hawkmen), as Prince Barin and Aura trade barbs.

One of the things that struck me most powerfully about "The Monsters of Mongo" is the adherence in the series (and indeed, in the very concept of Flash Gordon) to the whole madonna/whore complex. Think about it: Flash is always forced to choose between the abundantly sexy but evil woman in the metallic bikini, or the acceptable, loyal, demure always-in-need-of-rescue Dale Arden, who in this episode lamely declares. "I'm no wilting violet. I share the risk." This is right after she gets scooped up by a dinosaur, by the way, and Flash saves her. AGAIN!

What's interesting is that Flash treats the "whore" as an equal. He's physically aggressive with Aura (he's always grabbing her by the wrist; and here he steals her *ahem* Multi-ray projector rod...). When they are attacked by a giant carnivorous plant [a metaphor for a devouring vagina, perhaps?), he lets her - like his buddy Thun - fend for herself. Whereas he's basically Daddy and protector to Dale, treating her like a child who needs guidance or help. I guess this is a 1930s vision of male/female relations, or is it still in play today? All I know is this: if I treated my wife as patronizingly as Flash treats Dale - indeed as a wilting violet - I'd get a swift kick to the groin. You know? So what's with this two-dimensional treatment of the ladies in Flash Gordon? Harmless male fantasy or something more subversive? Personally, I think if you blended Aura and Dale into one person...you'd have a hell of a woman, instead of two extremes -the virtuous madonna and the hip-swinging whore - but that's just me...

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 46: Kenner's Alien


Look who's sitting on my desk today! He just hatched...

Yep, it's that wily "bug" from Ridley Scott's classic horror film, Alien. This unusual and highly cherished toy was released by Kenner (the same company who had the Star Wars license...) in 1979 to tie-in with the Christmas release of the film.

But the monster - who stands a whopping 18" tall - ended up scaring little kids out of toy stores by the dozen and was removed from shelves in a hurry. Ho-ho-ho.

Forget Winnie the Pooh or Teddy Bears or Peter Rabbit, this will be my son's first cuddly "animal" friend...

No, just kidding...my wife won't let me.

As you can see, my alien isn't in very good shape these days. Rubber bands are keeping his barely-attached arms from falling off his body; you can see them in the photos. They are no longer "spring-loaded" to "crush victims" as the toy box once promised.

My alien's head dome is missing-in-action, though he still possesses his inner-jaw; which lunges out to bite people. These are, according to the package hyperbole, his "mechanical, easily operated jaws!"

The alien's finest attribute might be his curled, whip-tail because you can use it to surreptitiously hang the alien on door knobs, in the pantry, from the dish washer, from lamps, etcetera. "Alien can swing from his movable tail!" screamed the box, and I took that advice in earnest.

I enjoy scaring Kathryn with this guy, but truth be told, she's more frightened by my (to scale...) Mogwai/Gremlin figure from the 1984 Dante film. I'm not allowed to leave that Gremlin out anywhere; not after that time I waited until she was asleep and then stood him up on her night-stand so when she woke up, he'd be peering down at her. That was probably very wrong of me...

But that's a different story...

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Trading Card Close-up # 5: "Mark Lenard as Urko"

My fifth trading card "close up" is # 59 in the Planet of the Apes TV series collection from 1974. There are sixty-six cards in this set, and this one serves as number six in puzzle # 1. Got that?

Anyway, I picked this particular card, featuring series villain General Urko, not just because I love the gorilla's hat (!), but because - as the legend reads - the great Mark Lenard essayed this role. I've always felt that Lenard is a true shining star of sci-fi actors. He passed away in 1996, but Lenard is one of the few actors in history to have played (in a featured, not extra capacity...) a Vulcan, Romulan and Klingon on Star Trek.

And that's just one achievement. In addition to his role as Sarek - Spock's father - on various Star Trek generations ("Journey to Babel," "Yesteryear," "The Search for Spock," "The Voyage Home," "The Undiscovered Country," "Sarek," and "Unification"), he made a (brilliant...) career of playing aliens or non-humans on other classic TV shows.

Planet of the Apes is probably his most memorable role, because he was so effective as the brutal simian General, yet Lenard also played an alien ambassador with a removable head (!) on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century ("Journey to Oasis"), the evil Emperor Thorval in the Cliffhangers (1979) segment "The Secret Empire" and a military overlord in an episode ("Zone Troopers Build Men") of Otherworld (1985).

Lenard guested on shows as diverse as Mission: Impossible, The Magician and The Incredible Hulk, and even had a role in the Woody Allen film Annie Hall. Now that, my friends...is a great actor.

So today, gazing upon the ape features of the evil General Urko, let's also remember the performer beneath the appliance and yak hair. Let's hear it for Mark Lenard. Just imagine if he were still around. It would have been amazing to see him on Stargate or Firefly or Farscape...

Monday, August 07, 2006

Your "Arena" or Mine?

Anybody who appreciates genre television history also probably understands that the very medium of television - a massive gobbler of hours and stories - tends to repeat the same formula and conventions again and again. Decade after decade. Ad infinitum.

That's probably why we've had so many "civilization of the week" programs such as The Starlost (1973), The Fantastic Journey (1977), Logan's Run (1977) and Otherworld (1985). Yet science fiction TV doesn't just repeat formats, it very often goes further than that; repeating specific episodes (sometimes alarmingly so...). Variations on a theme, or rip-offs? Discuss amongst yourselves...

One old chestnut that has been repeated quite a bit since the 1960s is a variation on the brilliant short story "Arena," written by Frederic Brown. This story has probably been repeated more frequently even than that other cliche: the most dangerous game.

The original "Arena" first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction Magazine in 1944 and concerned the war for survival in outer space between two equally matched forces: the human race and the aliens known as "The Outsiders." During the final space battle of a long interstellar war, a human pilot named Carson is miraculously plucked from the cockpit of his one-man scouter and teleported to an arena of blue sand and bizarre, speaking lizards.

He is contacted there by an omnipotent alien who informs him that the space war will not be settled amongst the stars, but on this unique field instead. Carson is then forced to combat a deadly alien representative of the Outsiders, a repellant, round tentacled organism called "The Roller." Naturally, the battle is to the death. If Carson loses this vital contest, mankind stands to be wiped right out of existence. If Carson wins the fight, however, the human race inherits control of the galaxy. Talk about the weight of the world on your shoulders, huh?

In the short story "Arena," what followed this brilliant and elegant set-up was a tense, Darwinian tale of mental and physical conflict between two species in a battlefield replete with an impenetrable force field. Although author Frederic Brown was not aware of it when he penned this classic tale in the World War II era, his vignette would someday become the most cherished "stock" story in science fiction TV, at least in the sixties, seventies and eighties.

Perhaps the first variation on Brown's "Arena" arrived on TV in 1964 when Robert Specht wrote his teleplay "Natural Selection" for the anthology series called The Outer Limits. The episode became "Fun and Games" for air, and producer Joseph Stefano claimed never to have read Brown's original work. Specht's variation on the genre standard involved Earthlings who were transported away from their lives to fight a deadly alien competitor on an another planet and - of course - in a kind of arena.

As in the original story, the victor in this Outer Limits battle (and his species) would be permitted to survive and the loser, along with his people, faced annihilation. In this case, the battle occurred on a world known as "Andera," which is a jumbling of the title "Arena," isn't it? See the similarities?

Gene Coon, producer of the original Star Trek realized that "Arena" was too good a concept to pass up during the first season of that classic series in 1966-67. He authored a teleplay appropriately called "Arena" and did the right thing: he actually credited Brown as his co-writer on it. During this particular voyage of the starship Enterprise, the stakes for survival had changed. If Captain Kirk lost his battle with a reptilian Gorn captain (after a massacre at the planet, Cestus III), the Enterprise would be destroyed - but humanity would still survive. And vice versa.

At the end of the Trek adventure, a new twist entered the "Arena" mythos. Where Brown had described survival as a moral imperative and had seen his protagonist Carlson execute the evil Roller, a creature he likened to an intelligent spider, William Shatner's dashing and demonstrative Captain Kirk took a higher road. He refused to kill his lizard-like opponent and thereby demonstrated the advanced trait of mercy. As on so many TV series, a "valuable" lesson had been learned. In this case, I don't mean valuable lesson in a cynical fashion. Remember, America was getting deeper into the Vietnam War at the time of Star Trek, so the notions in the story were just as timely as they had been when Brown crafted the original.

The Star Trek variant on "Arena" also featured another important element in what has become a stock story: the search to build a primitive weapon to defeat a stronger foe. In Trek, it was Kirk's efforts to collect raw materials to forge gunpowder and build a primitive cannon. That element also stuck in the memory of many future episode writers.

When the stock "Arena" story re-appeared on Year Two of the British space opera, Space: 1999 in 1976, it was deja vu all over again. This time, the story was called "The Rules of Luton." It was written by Charles Woodgrove (a pseudonym for producer Freddie Freiberger...Star Trek's third season producer!), and saw Commander John Koenig (Martin Landau) and Science Officer Maya (Catherine Schell) facing off against three alien criminals when they committed a so-called "crime" on the planet Luton - eating a berry. Yes, it was a planet of intelligent vegetables and eating a berry was tantamount to murder. What do you want, it was the seventies, okay?

On Space: 1999 there was no threat to the galaxy, or even Moonbase Alpha. At stake were merely the lives of Koenig and Maya if they lost. Interestingly, the three bad aliens (a teleport, an invisible alien and a super strong fella), were not the real bad guys at all. Instead, the supervisors of the arena became the primary antagonist because of their blood lust. Again, this was a new twist. The villainy had shifted from those the heroes had to fight against to those who were orchestrating the fighting. Perhaps this is symbolic of 1970s post-Watergate anti-authoritarianism.

Also, instead of building a makeshift cannon to defeat his foes, the resourceful Koenig made a bolo. Now if only Captain Kirk and Commander Koenig would fight in an arena, cannon against bolo. Landau vs. Shatner...man to man. One has an Oscar, the other an Emmy...

In 1978, another British space series, Blake's 7 recycled the "Arena" concept one more time. The first season episode "Duel" found freedom fighter Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas) battling his nemesis, the one-eyed, cyborg Travis, in an arena supervised by another superior (and condescending) life form. On Star Trek it was the Metrons. On 1999 the Lutons. Here it was a Keeper called "Giroc" and a guardian called "Sinofar." Sinofar and Giroc's people had destroyed all life on their planet centuries earlier in a useless war, and were now doomed for eternity to teach other battling humanoids the same lesson in destruction.

In this case, Blake and his pilot Jenna forged primitives lances and spears out of the local brush (see how the same concepts keep sneaking in?). Blake also followed the example of Kirk and Koenig before him, refusing to kill his enemy. However, In typically cynical fashion (the rule on Blake's 7 rather than the exception...), Blake allowed Travis to live because he knew he could beat Travis, not out of any glorious human instincts or quality of mercy.

And so it has gone, over the years.

In 1979-80, Gil Gerard's out-of-time hero, Buck Rogers ended up in arena to fight a villain called the Traybor in an episode of that series, entitled "Buck's Duel to the Death." There was no superior overlord, but the battle in an arena still decided the fate of a society. Here, the Traybor could shoot bolts of electricity out of his hands, and Buck had to utilize Twiki as a kind of inhuman shield who got the bolts. Bidi-bidi-bidi. In the end, Buck won and freed the planet, telling the people that democracy was in their hands, not the Traybors'...or his.

Even Star Trek eventually regurgitated the "Arena" concept as late as 1987, when the fourth episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation vetted an (uncredited...) re-make called "The Last Outpost.' This time, the avaricious Ferengi (in their first appearance) subbed for the Gorns, and the Metrons were replaced by an old, cloaked alien from the mysterious T'Kon empire, called "Portal."

As before, the Federation and an enemy were locked in hostilities over "ownership" of territory or equipment, both ships were paralyzed in space by the superior race, and the answer to the riddle was to be found on a planet below. Portal stood in judgment over the combatants, and tested them for worthiness. I hasten to add, there have been cheesier variations of of the "Arena" story, but none that ended as anti-climactically as this installment. Riker beat the Ferengi simply by quoting Sun Tzu to Portal. Cop-out! Cop-out! This was also the second time in four episodes that Picard had surrendered the Enterprise, the Federation's flag ship. Jeez...Kirk must have been spinning in the Nexus over that.

But I digress. The core of the timeless "Arena" story, the idea that is resurrected over and over again across the decades on genre TV, is obviously a powerful one on an emotional level, which perhaps explains its longevity. Human beings are (apparently...) intrinsically violent creatures, and our violence makes us do stupid things. In the "Arena" template, aliens - sometimes with good motives, sometimes not - make us face the consequences of our stupidity. A superior force, like God in some fashion, stops us in our tracks and makes us confront the truth about our brutal natures. (I think this idea is also at the core of Star Trek's "Errand of Mercy," which also concerns the notion of war, and a third party stepping in to stop the killing.)

Perhaps there is also an element of wish-fulfilmment in the idea of two enemies battling it out personally, rather than with the might of governments behind them. Instead of millions dying in a conflict organized and orchestrated by a few planners, only representative leaders would face physical harm. I think we'd like to believe things could be so simple; that the fate of the universe could be settled by a good right hook.

Now I just wonder, how can I fit the "Arena" template into my series, The House Between? I probably shouldn't try, but it's fun to think about. Fredric Brown's story - forged in war time, when populations were being bombed from above by V2 rockets - will continue to carry meaning for us so long as humans wage war, and find more and more antiseptic ways to do so. How would you write a variation on "Arena" in 2006? What points would a clever writer make now, in light of the War on Terror and other conflicts raging across the globe? I wonder.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week: Matrix Reloaded

"Denial is the most predictable of all human responses."

-The Architect (to Neo); Matrix Reloaded

Saturday, August 05, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "A Planet in Peril"

With the first season of Land of the Lost behind me, I shift to another Saturday morning cult tv fixture from my cherished youth, Filmation's animated series from 1980-1981: Flash Gordon!

The Filmation version of the Alex Raymond legend is a bit more naive and straightforward than the campy 1980 movie starring Sam Jones (which I love), but I have great memories of watching this show. In fact, I still own many of the toys from the series, including action figures of Flash, Ming and Dr. Zarkov. I also have (an inflatable...) toy of Flash's rocketship, which is featured in the first episode of the series. Lately, I've had fun flying it around my office.

"A Planet in Peril, Chapter One," by Sam Peeples begins with action, action, action. The planet Mongo is on a collision course with Earth, and Flash Gordon, Dale Arden and Dr. Hans Zarkov have launched into space to discover why. Unfortunately, Ming's warships shoot down their spacecraft, and - in a scene that reminded of me of Planet of the Apes, the rocket spectacularly crashes in a lake on Mongo.

Before long, the Earthlings are captured by Ming's "sea mutants," his fishermen. They have also netted Arborea's Prince Barin (who here has a very nasal voice and is bald...) and Thun, a Lion Man. These captives tell Flash and the others that Ming is "emperor of the universe" and that he maintains his control of Mongo because every race on Mongo is the enemy of every other race on Mongo.

And I thought Ming promised to be a uniter, not a divider...

Although Flash, Zarkov and Dale escape the fishermen, they are soon hunted in the "Dire Marsh" by sexy Princess Aura and her witch woman warriors. They all wear sexy metal bikinis and mount giant ostrich creatures. This is where the episode really picks up...

The episode climaxes as Flash and his buddies are taken to Ming's throne room. Ming forces Thun and Flash into the arena, where they battle a giant "training ball" equipped with lasers. The episode ends on a cliffhanger, and man...I was left wanting more. The episode literally moves at warp speed.

I've always loved the retro-1930s feel of this version of Flash Gordon, whether it be the art-deco design of Mingo City, or the anti-fascism message embedded in the material (and taken straight from the source material). I also really enjoy Filmation's art work, which is often criticized, but I believe rather impressive given the time and budget restraints of the day. This is a fun show, and I can't wait for the next adventure on Mongo.

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Land of the Lost: "Circle"

Well, I've reached episode seventeen, "Circle," the last episode of Land of the Lost's first season. This is where I will leave the show for a while. Though I plan to return. One day soon.

But before we say our goodbyes to the Marshalls, let's discuss this episode by Larry Niven and David Gerrold(and directed by Dennis Steinmetz), because I think it's one of the series' absolute highpoints.

The episode finds Will, Holly and Rick Marshall at a swimming hole by the swamp when Will locates an underwater cavern that looks a lot like the Lost City. The Marshalls explore it and find the Sleestak...hibernating. Apparently, it's the dormant season for the giant lizard people. Then comes one of the episode's highpoints: the monstrous Sleestak suddenly awake and chase the Marshalls through the catacombs. If I were a little kid watching this sequence, I'd run right up to bed and hide under the covers. The best moment in the dramatic chase occurs when one Sleestak pursues Holly out of the cave and swamp, and rises up out of the water like the shark in Jaws (or the Daleks in "The Dalek Invasion of Earth." Yikes!

After escaping from the Sleestak, Will makes it to the Lost City and finds Enik, who is "unable to leave" the Land of the Lost. Turns out there's a problem with the time door. Namely, the "law of conservation of temporal momentum has been reversed." Nothing can leave the land of the lost unless an object of equal temporal mass leaves.

This imbalance must be corrected, and it involves the Marshalls. Turns out they never really fully entered the land of the lost at all. Simultaneously, they are both stuck on the rapids and stuck in the land of the lost - in essence straddling two "realities." Let me just say that the manner in which the writers resolve this temporal problem is quite clever, and essentially "re-boots" the whole series.

When "Circle" ends, our set of Marshalls have escaped from the Land of the Lost, and returned home. But another set of Marshalls - those trapped on the rapids - have entered. At the time, this was the writer's way of explaining a season of reruns. A "new" set of Marshalls (without memory of their captivity in the land...) would have all new adventures. Get it?

Of course, there are some problems with this conceit. One is: wouldn't Cha-Ka be confused? Suddenly, the Marshalls don't remember him or the other Paku, you know? He'd have to start his friendship with them from scratch. (and wouldn't they wonder why he knows their names, and speaks pidgin English?) Another problem is the cave at High Bluff. So far as I can tell, the first set of Marshalls, before they left the land of the lost, didn't clean up their cave. Which, from evidence in earlier episodes, would have a broom, backpacks, pots and pans, and all kinds of homemade Gilligan's Island style accoutrements. So technically, when Marshall family # 2 arrives at the cave, they should find all of their stuff already there. But this doesn't happen, for some reason.

Lastly, "Circle" has a problem with continuity. Enik establishes that the time doors are stuck, and that the presence of the Marshall family is disrupting them. Okay, then how come that parachutist was able to enter the land of the lost through a time door in the previous episode, "Hurricane?" I don't get it.

Still, this is a cool episode of Land of the Lost, because it deals with the concept of a time loop; but more succinctly a notion that is growing more accepted in quantum mechanics today. Which is simply this: identity is not linear...only our memory and concept of time (which is unreal) makes it feel that way. So therefore, the Marshalls on the rapids are distinct and different entities from the Marshalls in the land of the lost. This is called the "timeless" theory in quantum physics, and it's come a long way since 1975, but still, it's amazing that Land of the Lost - a kid's show from thirty years ago - plays with the concept.

So, for now, with admiration and nostalgia, I'll say "ganecktik" (meaning "go in peace" in Altrusian...) to the Land of the Lost and the Marshalls.

Friday, August 04, 2006

The House Between at Out of Order

Hey, Debra Burrell's column, Out of Order features an encouraging review of the first episode of The House Between!

Debra and I have shared con panels before (and she's quietly incited me to make mischief on them...), and she attended the screening of "Arrived" after Fantasci V last week.

Here's what she had to say about the first episode (and you can check out the entire column
here):

It was really good! I forgave a lot of audio discrepancies because it is a rough cut, but the premise is excellent, the acting is first rate, and if you're going to have 5 people locked into an empty house together, you'd better have a darn good writer -- which this show has. The producer is Joe Maddrey, who is a producer of "A Haunting" on Discovery Channel, and the author of "Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film."

The stark B&W look, the flat blacked out windows and doors, the inability to determine day or night, it's all surreal. Call it an "irreality show." This is not like the patently phony "Surreal Life," which pretends to be real. This is more like the play it frankly emulates, "No Exit," only with a contemporary house and a few more people -- and, from the teasers I heard, more plot twists. I'm definitely looking foward to all the episodes.

Thanks, Debra for the kind words and the encouragement.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Aristocrats (2005)

Heard any good dirty jokes lately?

Paul Provenza's 2005 fun documentary, The Aristocrats, is the living chronicle of one particular dirty joke. I don't know if the descriptor "dirty" actually does the joke justice. Anyway, the film features on-camera interviews with a gaggle of first-rate comedians; each of whom boasts some filthy or clever variation on a joke that ends with the punchline "...the Aristocrats."

Among those who appear in the film (in quasi-alphabetical order): Jason Alexander, Hank Azaria, Lewis Black, David Brenner, Drew Carey, George Carlin, Carrot Top, Andy Dick, Phyllis Diller, Carrie Fisher, Whoopi Goldberg, Gilbert Gottfried, Eddie Izzard, Richard Lewis, Bill Maher, Howie Mandel, Michael McKean, Larry Miller, Kevin Nealon, Penn & Teller, Emo Phillips, Kevin Pollak, Paul Reiser, Andy Richter, Don Rickles, Chris Rock, Bob Saget, Harry Shearer, Sara Silverman, The Smothers Brothers, Fred Willard, Robin Williams, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Jon Stewart.

Oh, and Billy the Mime...

So yeah, basically this is ninety-or-so-minutes of variations of the same dirty joke. And you know what? The movie is funny as hell. I thought the best two variations on the joke came from the Smothers Brothers - who use their dynamic and brilliant interpersonal chemistry to make the filth fly; and Sara Silverman - who personalizes the story to an uncomfortable degree. Howie Mandel wins the award for filthiest and shortest variation of the joke, while Bob Saget - yes, Bob Saget - must accept the prize for the long-form recounting of the joke. His version is absolutely foul. Gilbert Gottfried also does a stunning, gasp-provoking variation of the joke before a live audience and hits it out of the park, and it's fun to watch Rob Schneider collapse into embarrassed hysterics nearby.

Why, even big-boned Eric Cartman tells the joke to his South Park buddies, and Billy the Mime acts out (silently...) a very *ahem* physical version of it...before the curious eyes of bystanders. Amazingly, the repetition of the joke doesn't really get old during the documentary's running time. The film - like the joke itself - is dependent on timing. New elements of the joke come in at precisely the right time to keep things from getting dull. Provenza had a good editor (or team of editors...) and it shows.

George Carlin may be the film's most valuable player, for he deconstructs and dissects the joke in loving detail and explains each component of the piece. He explains why each piece of the joke's puzzle is important, and what it accomplishes. It's sort of a critical analysis of a piece of shit joke. Yet, in all honesty (and to my surprise), Penn and Teller describe the nature of the joke - and indeed the film - best. The "aristocrat" joke, they suggest, is one in which the singer, not the song is important. The personal traits that each comedian brings to his or her performance is ultimately more important than the punchline; which comedian Larry Miller admits is a tad on the weak side.

Ultimately, the joke featured in The Aristocrats serves as a Rorschach Test of sorts. For the joke to work, the middle section (which involves a family vaudeville act...) must be heavily improvised. Basically, something really disgusting must happen in that middle piece of the joke. What qualifies as "disgusting?" Good question. That's the rub! The answer, I suppose, is that it depends entirely on individual personality. Some comedians go for bodily-function humor (fecal matter, vomit, urination, cum...) while others leap headlong into sexual dysfunction - incest, skull-fucking, bestiality....you name it.

Do you know the joke? This was the variation I heard:

An agent returns to his office after a two-tequila lunch to find a little man in a tuxedo waiting there for him. The agent is pissed off that the fellow is in his office, and quickly sizes him up. He's got a bad comb-over, but he's impeccably dressed.

"What can I do for you?" the agent asks, hoping to get this guy out of his office ASAP. He has more important things to do than book a new talent today...

"I want to show you my act," the man responds gingerly.

"All right, shoot," suggests the agent, already thinking about phone calls he needs to make before the end of the day.

The man nods, sensing the agent's ennui, and goes to the door. He opens the door, puts his fingers in his mouth...and whistles. In no time flat, his family dashes into the office...which is now seeming awfully cramped.

The agent looks around at the bunch. There are two kids, a ten year-old boy and his six-year old sister. There's a well-dressed woman who's clearly the man's wife and the mother of the brood. And then there's a stooped old man with a walker - the patriarch and grandfather of the clan, no doubt.

"I'm waiting..." the agent says after a long moment of silence, resisting the urge to check his watch.

The man makes eye contact with each family member, and there's a feeling of anticipation in the room for an instant. They seem to be counting together in their heads, ticking off the seconds before they begin their routine.

Then, the man unceremoniously grabs his wife. He slaps her across the face, punches her in the gut, tears open her blouse and throws her to the floor. Then, with a grandiose gesture and a smile to his audience, he unzips his zipper, and...

Well, anyway..you get the idea. You didn't really think I was going to tell THAT joke on my blog, did you?

See the movie. It's called...The Aristrocrats.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Interview: horror film scholar Florent Christol

Florent Christol is a horror film scholar, one who works and writes in Montpellier, in the south of France. He's had terrific, richly-researched and rigorously-argued articles published in French film journals including Simulacres and CinemAction, and is currently working on a dissertation on the subject of the carnavalesque in horror films.

Flo and his lovely and sweet girlfriend Tara dropped by my house yesterday to hang out and screen the rough cut of the inaugural episode of my series, The House Between. I sequestered Florent in my office for a time to catch up with his numerous (and impressive...) writing activities...

MUIR: Update me a little bit about your work in these French film journals...

FLORENT: I've written two pieces on Tobe Hooper. One is about the way Tobe Hooper uses Psycho by Hitchcock in different forms. I wanted to work on that because so many people have seen that with Brian De Palma, but I thought Hooper used Psycho in an interesting way. I would say he dismembers that film, taking several shots and putting them back together. He uses Psycho as a puzzle.

My second piece was on the carnavalesque in the Tobe Hooper film. Of course, you can see that in The Funhouse, which is set in a carnival. But I wanted to see why - from the start - that was something important for him. That led me to the topic of my dissertation, which is about how the American horror film is a wonderful place to highlight the carnavelsque culture, which started in Europe. The Puritans, when they arrived in America, banned carnavelsque holidays. They thought they were too transgressive, like Christmas originally...which was more about drinking and not really celebrating the birth of the Christ.

So these transgressive rituals were banned, and when something is banned or repressed it returns. Freud has talked about the return of the repressed, and Robin Wood wrote his famous piece about the return of the repressed in the American horror film.

However, my interest is not really psycho-analysis, but more anthropological and sociological. So in my dissertation, I start at the beginning and see how the first horror films - like Freaks or the Frankenstein series by James Whale can be seen through a carnavalesque lens with this kind of monster, this transgressive menace, that comes from outside and is a chaotic force, a bit like carnival. And when it leaves, order can be settled once again.

When you get to the sixties and the seventies and especially in the eighties with the slasher film, the "party" is basically the main theme of the film. Movies like Killer Party or Slumber Party Massacre or Killer Clowns or Clownhouse by Victor Salva. So, there are lots of things to discuss.

MUIR: If you had to pick one film to embody your thesis...

FLORENT: It would be The Funhouse. Hooper summarizes it wonderfully - and visually - what I would like to show and prove, if I can say that. Basically, there is this wonderful moment when the monster who wears the Frankenstein mask...suddenly people realize there's also a monster underneath. A monster is hidden behind another monster, and I think that what Tobe Hooper wants to show here is how the original Frankenstein films were already wondering about what to do with the carnavalesque. The answer at that time was "let's burn it."

The menace in the original Frankenstein is isolated in the body of the monster, and it can easily be evacuated. It's not the same thing in the sixties and seventies because of all the historical changes in America. People realized that chaos was basically everywhere, and not just from outside...from Europe, for instance. The carnival in The Funhouse is a wonderful space to demonstrate these kind of things. It's an exercise almost in deconstruction, because it deconstructs the American horror film as a carnavlesque thing, as something which hides the real horror, which is everywhere. There is this game between the mask and the illusion, and on the other side something which is real; which is the presence of death.

Hollywood cinema has always tried to hide the fact that death was here, and the fact that death is present in The Funhouse is like the most horrifying thing you can think about. Normally a funhouse is meant to exorcise death. You go through a funhouse like you go through a horror film, and when you leave, you're alive. But if you go in and you're dead in the end...there's something very wrong. And I think that Tobe Hooper understood that.

MUIR: So you - like me - are a huge admirer of Tobe Hooper...

FLORENT: I really like him. I just finished watching Mortuary, which is his last released film, I believe. Lots of people are disappointed because Tobe Hooper has done some not-very-great movies recently, but I thought this one was pretty good. It reminded me of another favorite Hooper film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I am also trying to write something on that film right now.

MUIR: Does Mortuary feature his typical theme of having two villains working in conjunction; one with an acceptable face and one with an unacceptable face?

FLORENT: I think the theme is more in the George Romero living dead vein. Also, there is the theme of contamination, and people turn into zombies. Which I love...

Apart from that, I've published a paper on Jacques Tourneur, who is both a French and American director. He directed some very famous film noirs in the 1940s, and some famous horror/fantasy films, like I Walked with A Zombie or the original Cat People...not the remake. Also, Curse of the Demon. Once again, I use the carnavalesque theory.

MUIR
: This is your piece, "Tourneur et le carnavelsque: une poetique ruinee?" Tell me about it.

FLORENT: The interesting thing about his films is that they take place a few years after the original Universal classics, wherein the monsters are always evacuated in the end, thanks to the wonderful special effects by Jack Pierce and other people. But with Jacques Tourneur, he was working with a low budget, and his producer, Val Lewton...they didn't have any money. So they couldn't really show the monster, because there was no Jack Pierce to provide great make-up. They didn't have the money to make a credible or interesting monster, so he went ahead with the suggestive approach.

Many people theorize that it's always scarier when you don't see the monster. I'm not sure I really agree with that. A monster can be very wonderful...we all remember the monster in Alien or Aliens. Any kind of great director will do a great job whatever the case. What's interesting is the result of what happens when you don't see the monster. With Jacques Tourneur what I wanted to show is the fact that the monster cannot be seen and therefore cannot be evacuated, cannot be gotten rid of. Therefore it contaminates the entire film. The monster is everywhere, because he's not in a specific place. There are monstrous spaces in his films, where metamorphosis can happen.

What's interesting in Jacques Tourneur movie is that some people (meaning critics) don't think there are monsters at all. Maybe there are no monsters. Maybe it's psychological. For me, the monster is the film itself. It's not a monstrous figure, it's the movie. The style is grotesque, the way he edits the film...there are lots of things that can be linked to the carnavalesque aesthetic. Once again, this is proof that the American horror film is grappling with this cultural legacy - the carnival - which was rejected from the very beginning; which always comes back. Either with the monster, as an isolated figure, or as the film itself; a monstrous body.

MUIR: Where can readers find this paper?

FLORENT: This is in CinemaAction. It was published a few months ago. The issue is interesting...

MUIR: All right, buddy, time for the lightning round of the interview. This is the idea: Horror films are being destroyed at a rapid rate. You're trying to save them, but here's the rub. You can only save one film from each director. I'll name a director, you tell me which film you save. Okay?

FLORENT: Okay.

MUIR: John Carpenter?

FLORENT: Halloween.

MUIR: Post-1985?

FLORENT: That's tougher. I would say In The Mouth of Madness.

MUIR:
Wes Craven?

FLORENT: It's between The Hills Have Eyes and the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, but I think I'd have to choose Nightmare. Seeing Johnny Depp get killed is always fun.

MUIR: Sam Raimi?

FLORENT: That's tricky. Probably the sequel to The Evil Dead.

MUIR: So let me get this right, you'd pick comedy over balls-to-the-wall horror?

FLORENT: Yeah, I'm afraid so. It's my taste for the carnavalesque.

MUIR: David Cronenberg?

FLORENT: I would go ahead with The Brood.

MUIR: Tobe Hooper. You just get one.

FLORENT: Although I think his most interesting film is Texas Chainsaw II, I would go ahead with The Funhouse.

MUIR: You wouldn't save Lifeforce?

FLORENT: Maybe. For Mathilda May...

MUIR: Larry Cohen?

FLORENT: He's very underrated. This guy has created so many interesting films. His trilogy of It's Alive is very interesting, but I think his best movie is God Told Me To.

MUIR: Here's a curveball. William Girdler?

FLORENT: Grizzly. Definitely.

MUIR: Hitchcock?

FLORENT: Psycho.

MUIR: De Palma?

FLORENT: That's tough. I like Sisters, but I'm not sure that...

MUIR: I'd pick Dressed to Kill.

FLORENT: I could have said Dressed to Kill, but you just said it. So I would probably pick Obsession.

MUIR: David Fincher?

FLORENT: I'd pick Alien 3. It's the first film I saw by Fincher, and I think it's a great film.

MUIR: Now, I heard you've done some acting recently. Is that true? (Editor's note: Florent plays Sange, the villain of The House Between's sixth episode, "Trashed.")

FLORENT: No. I would say I've done some anti-acting in what is otherwise a wonderful program. I was invited by this person who is interviewing me right now...

MUIR...conflict of interest...

FLORENT: Read his books. I encourage you to read them.

MUIR: Thank you.

FLORENT: No, I had a great time doing the show. I can't wait to see the results. I think it's going to be a masterpiece.

MUIR: You are brilliant at playing a very evil man...

FLORENT: It's the French touch...

MUIR: Did you have a hard time, saying all this brutal - almost hardcore - dialogue to people you'd never met?

FLORENT: That's right. I tried to be as natural as possible. I'm a very mean guy in everyday life. So it wasn't that hard for me.

MUIR: That's totally not true. How did you like abusing the other actors?

FLORENT: I had the time of my life. I can't wait to do it again. In the remake or the sequel. I think that the most enjoyable part was being surrounded by really nice people. All of them are really into the stuff I like, horror and sci-fi. It was just a very wonderful human experience.

MUIR: Okay, if we're back to horror films being destroyed. What's the one title you'd save from the 21st century?

FLORENT: That's a hard question. The one that had the most impact on me, which terrified me...was the American version of The Ring. I know many people prefer the original, but I thought the American version was very well done. The topic itself is not that original, but the treatment was fascinating. I was disappointed by the sequel.

MUIR: It missed the mark a bit. It was a bit dreary, wasn't it? What are your thoughts on The Descent?

FLORENT: I thought The Descent was really good. Maybe because I've read so many things about it, I wasn't as surprised. I had seen pictures in magazines of the monsters. I was disappointed because I'd already seen the face of the "bad guy." But objectively, I think it's a great film. I'd like to see Dog Soldiers, the first film by Neill Marshall. I'm ready to see The Descent again because it comes out this Friday on the American screen. I'm going to take my girlfriend...

MUIR: Flo, thank you so much for your time. Best of luck with all your future endeavors. Can't wait to cut together your episode of The House Between, and I look forward to the completion of your thesis on the carnavalesque in the American horror film.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

TV REVIEW: Rome

Rome...if you want to. Rome...around the world.

These days, it appears that HBO is eating the other major TV networks for breakfast. I mean, this is the channel that offers the satiric Entourage, the Spanish-language serial killer thriller, Epitafios, as well as three of the best comedies on television (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Extras, The Comeback...). HBO is also the only channel bolstering scorching period pieces such as the Western Deadwood and this series, the lush and sumptuous Rome.

One of the best elements of Rome, if you forgive me for stating this so bluntly, is that it's not only extremely dramatic and compelling; it's also a rampant, over-the-top sex fest. Everybody is having sex with everyone here...and wow, like who wouldn't enjoy seeing that? ! Let's see, there's sex used as a weapon, as a power-play (between Cleopatra and Caesar); hot lesbian sex (Servilla and Octavia), incestuous sex (Octavia and Octavius), good old-fashioned married sex (mmm...married sex....) between Niobe and Vorenus, slave/master sex involving Pullo and his girl, and inter-class sex between the scheming noble woman, Atia and her underling, Timon. It would be tempting to say that there's so much sex going on in this series that you'll forget the details of the complex plot, but that's not likely. Rome is brilliantly scripted and the sex (often involving such lovely women as Kama Sutra's Indira Varma and Sliver's Polly Walker...) is only one piece of the impressive tapestry.

Rome is the story of Julius Caesar's rise to power. The series opens in Gaul, where Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) has been conquering barbarians for years and is ready to make a triumphant journey home. Meanwhile, back in Rome, Pompey (Hellbound's Dr. Channard, Kenneth Cranham) and many of the Senators fear that Julius has become so popular with the common man that he will seize power and turn the Republic into an Empire. Their fears are justified, and before long, Caesar crosses the Rubicon to take his place as Rome's only pro-counsel. The series follows the conflict between Pompey and Caesar from Rome to Greece to Egypt, and there are a few splendid battle sequences, though actual warfare is not the series' point. To the contrary, social warfare is the order of the day, as Caesar's family, led by the scheming Atia, seeks to dominate Roman city life at the expense of...everybody else.

What's truly exciting about Rome, besides the sex and the incredible production design (and by the way -- you feel that you are really there, living in that time) is that the series often adopts the viewpoint of two average joes, two low-ranking Roman soldiers trying to make their way in the cruel world. Vorenus and Pullo are these Roman "everymen," and their experiences contrast effectively with those of consuls, queens, senators and nobles. Vorenus and Pullo keep the series grounded, and illuminate what daily life must have been like in Rome all those years ago. They're also funny as hell, going from battlefield to business; traveling from land to land; being shipwrecked and even having interludes with Cleopatra.

Rome will be back for a second season; and I'm still working my way through the first season. At this point, Caesar has mastered all of Egypt (and romanced the manipulative Cleopatra), vanquished his Roman enemies (Cato and Scipio) and now stands astride the world.

How long before the tide turns? Only the producers and writers on this series know for sure. But I'll definitely be tuning in. I heard that HBO is canceling Rome after the second season, to which I can only say: Et tu, HBO? Sometimes even smart channels do stupid things, I guess...

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

TV REVIEW: The Comeback

Did anybody watch this show on HBO when it aired last August? I know I didn't; but now it's back on HBO on Demand and I gave it a cautious screening yesterday. I ended up watched six episodes in a clip and staying up too late.

I've never been a huge Lisa Kudrow fan because I never understood why Friends was so damn popular while at the same time being so damn unfunny, but - no bull - this actress is amazing in this series. Truly, her performance is Emmy-worthy, even if the series has been cancelled. Her work in The Comeback is really a revelation.

For those of you who haven't watched, The Comeback is the tale of Valerie Cherish (Kudrow), once the star of a bad 1980s-1990s sitcom called "I'm It." The show ran for 97 episodes and then was dumped after audience backlash over a Rodney King joke that came too soon after the L.A. riots. It was either that, or the fact that a chimp was added to the cast in the last season...

Now, thirteen years after "I'm It," Cherish is back, simultaneously starring in a reality show called "The Comeback" and a new sitcom called "Room and Bored." Only problem is, the sitcom has suffered through a drastic re-imagining after the pilot, and instead of playing a smart condo-owner who also happens to be an architect, Valerie has been reduced to playing Aunt Sassy, an over-the-hill bitter lady whose fashion-sense runs to pastel jogging suits. Her co-stars are all horny twenty-somethings, and so Valerie is - well - out of place. Her catchphrase is "Note to self: I don't need to see that!" The sequence in which Valerie rehearses this phrase (while simultaneously eating half a chocolate cake), is wicked fun.

The Comeback is filmed via the auspices of the mockumentary format popularized by Christopher Guest and TV series such as The Office. So Valerie spends an inordinate amount of time talking to the cameras, and her life unfolds cinema-verite-style, before our very eyes. It's a slow-motion train wreck, and extremely funny.

In the pilot for instance, Valerie attempts to make a touching confession before her personal "video diary" camera set up in her bathroom. However, while she makes art before the camera, her husband Mark - just feet away - is (loudly) using the toilet. That might be low humor, but heck, it's funny.

In another episode, "Valerie Demands Dignity," Valerie is disturbed to learn (from Entertainment Weekly...) that reality tv is dead and so her producers have decided to couple her show with a new series about a midget; called "The Littlest Assistant." The sparks fly when this little person attempts to spice up Valerie's life for ratings.

In case you hadn't guessed, The Comeback is a blistering indictment of all things Hollywood. From insipid sitcoms to seedy reality shows, to star-sized egos. On that basis alone, it's a lot of fun. I especially enjoyed some of the clips of other TV shows airing on Valerie's network. There's a game show called "Take That" in which spouses earn points and win money by literally bludgeoning each other with shovels and two-by-fours. Husbands get $200,000 dollars for a blow to the wife's head...

Another show, "The Search for America's Next Great Porn Star" has a gag in it that I probably shouldn't write about. Let's just say it involves a group of aspirants running up a flight of stairs (trying to get to a bucket...) while holding some creamy material in their mouths. Whoever makes it without spitting up first is the winner of this particular contest.

I don't know why The Comeback isn't coming back. It's raw, witty and true. The comedy is carefully observed, and there's a sadness about the whole enterprise because Cherish - like David Brent - doesn't realize what a pill she is. The Comeback is a perfect companion piece for Entourage, so I don't know why HBO dumped it.

August column up at Far Sector

This month's JKM column at the E-Zine Far Sector is now posted! Check it out. The subject is the advent of independent TV, and my own spearhead into that venture, The House Between.

Here's a sample:

I suspect that independent and enterprising artists will very soon be fashioning their own Internet series. I predict these projects will be highly individual, curious, spiky and strange…and not at all like the homogenized entertainment we’ve grown accustomed to in the boob tube.

I have evidence, in fact, that this is happening because—hopefully—I’m on the vanguard. To wit: not long ago, I scripted, produced, cast, directed and edited my very own science fiction “series” called The House Between. It will be streamed online in late 2006 or early 2007.

Joe Maddrey, a producer on the Discovery Channel series A Haunting, joined me for this super low-budget venture and together with a small crew and a cast of five actors, we toiled to create something new and original. And, forgive me if this sounds like a Frank Sinatra song (by way of Sid Vicious…), but…hell…we did it our way.

By that I simply mean that we steered our own ship, without committee, without interference. Our production team was sequestered in an empty old house during the shooting schedule. Over the span of seven very, very long days we shot seven original half-hour scripts. As you might guess from the title, the premise concerns a mysterious, Spartan house where five strangers awaken to find themselves trapped. Like the Sartre play, there are no exits, and worse…no one can fathom the reason behind this unusual captivity..."


To read more, head on over to Far Sector!


Cult-Movie Review: The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972)

I post this review today as a shout-out to a beloved horror film celebrating a restoration and release today, in Texarkana: The Legend o...