Monday, April 30, 2007

GameCulture Journal Issue # 3

Hey everybody, the third issue of this new academic journal covering the history and milieu of the video game has just been published. GameCulture Journal # 3 is now available for download at this link, and it's terrific.

Included in Issue # 3, which deals explicitly with the science of the video game, are a number of fascinating pieces. Co-editor Kevin Flanagan has written "Scared of Science: Mad Rationality in the Video Game," and co-editor Bobby Schweizer gives us "Better Games Through Science? How a Fluff Piece in Nintendo Power Magazine is Detrimental to the Game Culture and Nintendo's Wii Ad Campaign."

Finally, two chaps named "Muir" have pieces included here. Christopher Muir (no relation...) offers "Representations of Soft Science in SimCity and SimAnt," and hey, I've got an article here too! Mine concerns the social response to the Atari VCS in the early 1980s, and is called "Culture Wars Episode One: The Atari Menace."

Check it out!

Reader Pop Art # 4

Now here's something truly special! It's either pop art or commercial camp, but either way, it arrives here courtesy of my favorite tin-can collector (!), The House Between's Arlo, Jim Blanton. Jim - a movie buff and scholar (he gave me a copy of Michael Mann's The Keep while I was writing Horror FIlms of the 1980s...not to mention Street Trash and Hell of the Living Dead) - has penned for us today a wonderful treatise about the glories of the movie poster for...Megaforce (1982). Deeds, not words...

Jim writes:

Perhaps a controversial choice, but Megaforce remains one of the most prominently remembered posters of my misspent movie going youth in the 80’s. For anyone who didn’t come of age in that decade Megaforce is probably a tad puzzling, but if you were an adolescent boy in 1982 you were bombarded with this image on the back of every comic book/genre magazine you read that glorious summer. Yes, the good folks at 20th Century Fox wanted to be sure that all of us pre-teen boys would sign on for the first of Ace Hunter’s sure-to-be-many adventures. Consequently, no expense was spared in convincing us we had never come across a hero like this fellow . . . boy were they right!

Whoever had the bright idea to cast Barry Bostwick as the tough-as-nails leader of a clandestine military strike force must have been seriously impaired during the audition process. One look at Bostwick in his far-too-tight spandex uniform, not to mention his ever-present baby blue headband, and it was game, set, and match for Monsieur Hunter. He may have been a suitable Brad in Rocky Horror, but he certainly didn’t fit the bill of a Rambo-esque superhero.

And then there’s the sultry image of Persis Khambatta. There’s no mystery as to why she appears this way on the poster, but not in the film. Someone at marketing got a look at Bostwick and knew right away they had to assure moviegoers that Ace Hunter was 100% a ladies’ man. No better way than to have the lovely Khambatta on his arm in saucy evening wear.

Okay, we’re clear on who the leads are in the picture (for better or worse), but what else is going on? Well, you have random explosions and a host of interesting vehicles leaping off the page, with an arching banner that proclaims “deeds not words!” If this doesn’t scream pure cheese, I don’t know what does. Deeds not words? Deeds not words?!? Pretty bold talk for a movie that features defiantly wooden performances from practically everyone involved.

And speaking of those involved, moving on down the poster we find quite a roster of ne’er do wells. It’s a veritable who’s who of Z-grade 80’s action stars. Beyond the aforementioned Bostwick you have Michael Beck (putting the final nails in the coffin lid following Xanadu), Edward Mulhare (aka Devin from Knight Rider), and the coup de grace . . . “Henry Silva as Guerera.” And as an added bonus (not listed on the poster) you even get Evan Kim from The Kentucky Fried Movie to drive home the point that Megaforce accepts members from all nations (although the ranks look to be mostly from the Midwestern United States).

As we near the bottom, we get a few final pieces of crucial, technical information. Firstly, the film was helmed by Hal Needham. Unfortunately this was Stroker Ace era Needham, rather than Smokey and the Bandit era Needham. Secondly, we learn that Needham utilized a process called Introvision to produce certain sequences in the film. From what I can deduce, Introvision is code for really crappy blue screen effects. Truly, you should seek this one out just to witness perhaps the most uncalled for blue screen sequences in motion picture history! The grand finale is the stuff of legend.

So with all this having been said, why does the Megaforce poster rate as one of the greatest pieces of film advertising/pop art ever conceived? Because my friends it is honest . . . with a vengeance. The information is all there in the poster for you to see – nothing is hidden. Indeed, the filmmakers are telling you in no uncertain terms that this is Megaforce – deal with it! If you were foolish enough to pay good money to waltz into a theater to see an action film starring Barry Bostwick, directed by Hal Needham, featuring Introvision (particularly in the same summer that you could pop into the auditorium next door and see Blade Runner, The Thing, Star Trek 2, Conan, Poltergeist, Tron, etc.) then you were getting exactly what you deserved!

(Note: In the interest of full disclosure the author feels it necessary to confess to not only seeing Megaforce in the theater that summer, but to owning a complete set of the Matchbox vehicles and the Atari video game . . . deeds not words baby!)

Friday, April 27, 2007


A sinister telepath named Sange (Florent Christol) from Theresa's (Alicia A. Wood) past arrives via faulty transit on a secret mission to kill one of the denizens of the "house at the end of the universe." Meanwhile, Travis (Lee Hansen) takes matters into his own hands when Arlo (Jim Blanton) won't clean up the increasingly chaotic house, specifically his collection of tin cans. Finally, Sange's influence spurs a revelation that changes everything for Astrid (Kim Breeding), Bill (Tony Mercer) and the other captives in the house. Produced by Joseph Maddrey for the Lulu Show LLC. Written and directed by John Kenneth Muir.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The House Between Episode # 6 ("Trashed") Director's Notes

Tomorrow, the second-to-last episode of The House Between's first season, "Trashed" goes live. Before that happens, I wanted to write these notes about the creation, making, shooting and editing of the show.

When I first conceived The House Between, a central metaphor was the notion of the mysterious house as "Earth," the place we all live...and share. One of the first questions I then asked was: what do you do with all the trash? If these people can't leave the house (like we can't escape Earth...yet), how do they accommodate the garbage that human beings so casually but monumentally generate? As the story "Trashed" opens, we see that matters in the house between are getting kind of...smelly. The kitchen is a mess, and trash is an issue. Once I had that notion, the idea of something being trashed kept coming up in my writing. Our villain, Sange, arrives via a faulty transit and his body is "trashed" in the process. He tells a story about something even more frightening...about an act that "trashes" the foundations of reality itself. Voila - I had an episode!

I don't want to go into too many details about the storyline, but as you can likely tell from the preview last week (and the teaser called "Violator" posted some time ago...), Sange - the intruder in the house - makes life difficult for our dramatis personae. In more specific terms "Sange" is a telepath from the same psychic "astronaut" program that Theresa graduated from.

And I guess that leads us to another one of the core ideas I wanted to get across in this story. If "Mirrored" was the tale that sort of broke down Theresa's armor and revealed the psychic's vulnerable side, the die is cast here, and she is forced into the middle of a situation where she must take sides. On one hand is Sange, and on the other is her ad hoc family in the house. It's a battle of families, and the family unit is a big metaphor for me on The House Between. Here, Sange represents the family of origin, sort of, the place where Theresa grew up and still feels the pull of old responsibilities. But the others in the house represent the family she has come to join in the course of her life. In a situation like this, which family do you choose? The one you came from, or the one you're with now? That's a big question for a lot of adults, I think, and certainly the answer varies by circumstance and situation.

However, you'll notice that the character of Sange often says absolutely terrible, sexist, demeaning things to Theresa. I saw this behavior as not merely "Black Hat-ism," meaning that Sange is a nasty villain, but as an acknowledgment that sometimes, for some people, there are unpleasant traits in brothers, fathers, or moms from the family of origin. Someone you love might be a racist; a homophobe, anti-Semitic. How do you continue to get along with that person when their behavior is just so blatantly unacceptable? We find our ways, and that's sort of the notion I wanted to get across. You know: what happens when your brother meets your friends, and they don't get along? I don't think that after this episode, Theresa can rightly claim she's not a part of the house between "family" matter how much she denies it. She's down in the trenches...with the rest of us unevolved humans.

In terms of genre, I think you'll detect perhaps a resonance of The Terminator here -- the notion of an intruder showing up with a mission to kill somebody, in this case, the mysterious "Draftsman." I must also note, lines of dialogue from "Space Seed," Aliens, and The Blair Witch Project (!) all rear their familiar heads at various points in the episode. Voiced by Sange, Travis and Arlo respectively.

We shot "Trashed" on Friday, June 9, 2006, and our cast of regulars was joined by guest star - and horror film scholar - Florent Christol, as Sange. I must say, Flo had an interesting effect on all the ladies in the cast and crew. They all melted like butter upon hearing his mellifluous French accent. If anyone quibbles with this assessment, I have Exhibit A: ENDLESS footage of the actresses smiling, laughing, flubbing lines, and so forth, during their scenes with Flo. Truly, Flo was a great sport about coming in and playing a heavy (with lots of dialogue...), and even getting heavily made-up for his transit "wounds." Flo showed up, had to mouth sexual taunts at Astrid, was tied to a staircase (!) and then had his face melted. All in a day's work!

And that's where my spfx genius Rob Floyd came in. He did some absolutely beautiful make-up for Sange's transit injuries. Really spectacular, accomplished stuff. Rob is always coming up with great gags and stunts, and "Trashed" was no exception. Between special effects and fight scenes (and regular cast make-up...), Rob had his hands full on this episode and did an awesome job.

This was also the episode in which Tony Mercer (Bill) had a killer monologue. Seriously, it was a difficult, involved chunk of dialogue (chunk meaning about six pages...). At one point, I sent Kathryn, my wife (and a therapist...) to check on Tony while he was rehearshing to make sure the script hadn't driven him to the point of insanity. This was after about a half-hour in which Tony had gone into an endless repeating loop of the speech. But Tony's preparation paid off, and he carried off the scene with his typical brilliance and commitment. Why isn't this guy in Hollywood movies yet?

And then, digging into my repository of memories (the ones I wish I could suppress...), there was the scene between Tony, Lee and Kim that took 21 takes. Now, to be fair, I should clarify. It wasn't that these three were messing up a lot or anything. Occasionally, it was me, and people watching the scene who would screw it up...from laughing so hard. The scene begins with Lee (Travis) tossing a pair of garbage bags onto the second floor hallway floor, and every time Lee did it, he'd do it a different way, or with a funny expression, and various spectators would crack up. This is actually one of my favorite scenes in the show, watching these three do that scene. Just wait till the blooper reel...

I thought "Visited" was our special effects show (that's the one with the creepy-crawly Outdwellers) but "Trashed" takes the cake. It's my own mini-Phantom Menace, I guess, as there's more than forty separate optical special effects in this installment. You'll notice about twenty-five - the rest are actually effects-within-effects if that makes sense (meaning more than one optical per shot...). This level of effects integration has made editing a bear, to say the least, but oddly rewarding and challenging. Every time I compose a new special effects shot, my computer crashes and I have to re-boot, so this has been time-consuming.

The original cut of "Trashed" came in at over 35 minutes, and had to be pared down dramatically. This means that the episode actually has several deleted scenes. Other episodes feature deleted moments, or moments we didn't get to shoot (but which are in the script...), but whole scenes are gone from "Trashed" and I hate that, but if they didn't move the story along, they were trimmed.

In particular, Lee Hansen, Rick Coulter (DP) and myself shot a secret scene one morning that is just a beautiful character moment for Travis; and furthers nicely the dynamics of the Travis-Astrid-Bill triangle. I liked it a lot - especially because none of the other actors knew about it, and because it fit so well into the larger Travis story arc. I also like this moment because it shows you what Travis is up to when people aren't paying attention...and that's kind of his "shtick' in "Trashed," messing with people for the hell of it, particularly Arlo. much as I like the scene, it just didn't really work well in "Trashed," and kind of diverted attention away from the central plot. Lee has such personal magnetism and presence as Travis, that the scene played like a set-up for a pay-off that never came. Everyone would be waiting all episode to see what would come of this scoundrel-like behavior.

Another loss I truly mourn is the John Muir version of the horror movie cliche about the evil killer who makes one last attempt to complete his mission before being dispatched. Seriously...these shots are like two of my favorites on the entire show. I had the camera on the floor and was lurching it towards Flo while he crawled for his prey. Again -- great shot, but it didn't fit particularly well once the scene was cut together. Damn! This one will see the light of day on the special extended director's remix.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy "Trashed" when it premieres tomorrow. Until then, enjoy the deleted scene with Travis. That rascal.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Reader Pop Art # 3

Today's pop art selection comes from one of my best buddies, who comments frequently here on the blog under the handle Joey Bishop Jr. He's offered the readership another excellent work of art to consider: the iconic (and amusing) poster imagery of the 1985 Dan O'Bannon film, Return of the Living Dead. I must admit I'm tickled over this choice...I think we must be separated at birth...

Anyway, he writes:

This is one of my favorites. There is just so much going on here that it immediately pulls you in. Assume for a moment that we all know nothing about this film. Then look at the poster with fresh eyes.

Even the casual movie fan knows what a zombie is. But on this poster, they have mohawks, and wear leather jackets! Hell, one even has a padlock thru his ear. This is the first big obvious clue that something new is going on here.

Secondly, the humor aspect is addressed in a novel way. How is the title presented? By one of the freshly risen zombies apparently spray-painting it on his own tombstone.

A good tagline can also help make a film, and this one presents it in a bold, right in your face font. No screwing about, this film is all about having a good time.

Finally, the last aspect I love about it is the background. I feel this is where the horror aspect becomes quite clear. Very subtly presented past the three lead ghouls, who obviously grab a ton of attention, are a host of others. There is nothing funny or humorous about these. The are skeletal, lurking shades in the dark. They are all business and very dangerous. As Burt in the film says "...they'll kill you and eat you if they catch you!"

I miss posters like this. They had an original concept, as well as someone sitting down taking the time to draw or paint it, and giving it personality. Small details as the razor blade necklace, or the pins on Mohawk's jacket are great touches.

Starting in the late 90's thru the early 00's, we had a run of identical genre posters. Maybe you remember what I mean. The poster would show whatever teenyboppers were hot on UPN or the WB this week, in a silvery river looking smear kind of thing that ran across the poster. This "smear" would sometimes either be superimposed onto something like a knife blade, or have the threat of the film looming over it. For example, take Urban Legend Final Cut, or Halloween Resurrection. Look at those and then see how many other similar posters immediately come to mind. All they were were a paycheck to someone who took Photoshop for Beginners. It showed that the plot, or the monster, or whatever a true genre fan was looking for was an afterthought, as long as "the masses" knew they got to see Neve Campbell at 8 bucks a pop.

But I digress. Punk zombies, vandalism, and an offer to party???

Just be sure to send more paramedics.

I totally agree. I think "Back from the Grave and Ready to Party" is one of the cleverest and most amusing ad-lines of all time. It really captures the thrust of the movie. But there's more here too. As I write in Horror Films of the 1980s, Return of the Living Dead "ably reflects the punk nihilism of the age" and "the enduring fear of nuclear apocalypse."

I enjoy the fact that this film focuses on a culture of death music and death imagery (with characters named Trash, Suicide, Scum, etc.). These 1980s young adults fetishize death ("Do you ever fantasize about being killed?") and live on an ugly landscape of urban blight and decay ("I like it; it's a statement," one character says of the industrial park/modern wasteland where the action occurs). The film's punk scoring, with music like "Party Time" over the resurrection of the dead and "The Surfing Dead" played over a siege, adds to the film's sense of absurd existential angst. In essence, to "party" is the only thing to live for in a world where the government is going to nuke you in the end...

This poster beautifully captures a period in American culture (the apocalypse mentality of the 1980s) both in terms of politics, music and film; just as it cannily captures the movie's go-for-broke, imaginative sensibilities. I know it's heresy to say so, but Return of the Living Dead is THE zombie movie that captures the eighties (the way Romero's Night and Dawn reflect perfectly the 60s and 70s.) Return was a big hit in theaters, and you gotta much of that success originated from this daring, original poster? The movie was great - a masterpiece even - yet perhaps it was the poster that got bodies in the auditorium...

Don't forget, mail me at my website and send me your pop art suggestions, with reasons why your choice is valuable to you. I'm really enjoying your submissions and want to see more!

Reader Pop Art # 2

Hey everybody, we continue our gaze at pop art today with another beautiful reader selection. This choice comes from erudite and amazing Kim Breeding, a skilled artist in her own right. She has given us a cover rendering from the first installment of the new Labyrinth manga.

She writes:

"The maddening Escher-esque staircases are echoed here from the movie's big climax, both behind Jareth himself and also in the collar around poor Toby's neck; he is dressed up as a worthy successor to the throne of the Goblin King, but his confusion is clear in his portrayal here.

Besides the collar, the crown seems a bit too big and heavy for the boy's head. What is the huge disc above and behind Jareth? Is it a religious halo? We are perhaps meant to think so, except that it is not a source of light, but of darkness. The ball he is holding, also from the movie, recalls the sphere that many a monarch in old paintings is seen to be holding, though in the other hand was usually a scepter or sword (where IS Jareth's other hand? tee hee) so together with the halo, we are meant to see that even though Toby is wearing a crown, Jareth is still the reigning monarch.

The castle looming in the background recalls the image from the movie when Sarah first enters the magical land and sees the impossible task before her. This is the beginning of Toby's impossible task. In the movie, Jareth was in love with Sarah and tried to make her his queen; now, that plot foiled, he turns to the little brother, to make him his heir. One could argue for thinly veiled homo undertones with that, but I think that's too obvious..."

This is a fascinating choice, with uniquely interesting resonances. Especially because David Bowie played the character in the film version and is, after some fashion, a work of pop art himself. The former Ziggy Stardust is an immediately recognizable signifier as an alien or "other" (given his starring role in such films as The Man Who Fell to Earth). Oftentimes, what Bowie's personhood or presence represents to artists is not merely "alien-ness" but rather the very human and specific quality of androgyny. Kim's joke about thinly veiled homosexual undertones in this work of art is spot on in the sense that Bowie is infamous for his aura of sexual mystery (if not homosexuality). Did Bowie really sleep with Mick Jagger (Angela Bowie reportedly once found them naked in bed together...)? Perhaps that's not the immediate issue here since this isn't Bowie per se but rather an original depiction of Jareth - a character he originated. Still, it relates back to Bowie. The apparent androgyny of this villainous character (right down to hair-style and delicate eyes...) indicates in the frame the idea of danger. Or certainly mystery. Our knowledge of Bowie adds to that interpretation, I believe

Thanks Kim for sending this art along! And readers, don't forget to send more selections. I want to see the pop art that has influenced and impressed you!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Reader Pop Art # 1

Our first reader-chosen pop art selection arrives on the blog courtesy of Dr. Howard Margolin, the host of Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction. Thanks for starting us off in great shape, Howard!

He writes:

This cover always struck me as one of the finest DC ever turned out. Drawn by the incomparable Neal Adams, it has the same background color as his classic "Superman Breaks Free" from issue 233, and redone later as a Power Records cover and the cover of Action 485, but this is the opposite side of Superman. The shading on Superman's costume as he leans forward enhances the effect of his skin turning green as he dies of Kryptonite Poisoning. Also, remember that this was before the era of multi-layered computer coloring, so the interplay of light and shadow (e.g. the light glinting off his shoulders) was particularly effective. Plus, his statement, "I'm taking you with me," given his vow never to take a life, was shocking to me at the time. Can't say I recall the story at this point, but this cover is forever etched in my memory.

When I study this cover, first-and-foremost I see an expression of rage - which isn't usual for Superman. His fists are coiled, balled up in anger. Notice too how the dialogue balloon on the right side of the cover is jagged and sharp, emphasizing the rage inherent in the Man of Steel's words ("I'M TAKING YOU WITH ME - all caps!). Also, as the cover is laid out, there seems to be a source of light (like a sun or something...) behind Superman, I'd guess at shoulder level. An intense light...gradually getting less intense as it moves away from him. By featuring it behind him, and in that position, it makes Superman the fulcrum of intensity in the composition. As though his anger is creating light - energy - itself. I think the feeling Howard describes - shock - is exactly what the cover intends to convey; the notion that Superman is mad as hell and about to kill someone. Everything in this cover, the jagged balloon, the intense light behind him, the all-caps, the balled fists, convey this notion. Also, the reflection of green on Superman's face tends to make him look even more murderous and abnormal, which is important to the idea that the universe portrayed here is disordered, wrong (hence, shocking or surprising). On a very basic level, this is also a look at idealized masculinity turned inexplicably angry and violent.

Don't forget, I want to see your selections of great pop art and feature 'em on the blog! Send your images and your feelings about the art to my e-mail at

Friday, April 20, 2007

The House Between Episode # 6 ("Trashed") Preview:

Happy Friday readers! It's time for a preview of the upcoming The House Between episode, # 6: "Trashed."

The episode airs next week, but hopefully this will whet your appetite for the upcoming installment. Crazy stuff is happening now. Really crazy stuff...

Look for my director's notes next week for some behind-the-scenes info on the writing and shooting of "Trashed."

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Pop Art # 1: Space:1999 Lunchbox

On the eve of my blog's two-year anniversary, it's time to commence a series of close-up articles that I've been wanting to write for a very long time. I've featured here retro-toy flashbacks, collectibles of the week, trading card close-ups and so forth, but I want to move to an even deeper level of examination in terms of the genre items I've collected. I want to discuss them in terms of artistic value.

A word of prologue. I come from a family of collectors. My parents collect Maxfield Parrish prints, Roseville pottery, and more. Kathryn, my wife, collects cobalt blue glass. Of course, you've seen my collection of toys, models, action figures and other collectibles. People often ask me why I collect these things - these hunks of plastic and such - and the answer that I come back to is that there is a value in these items beyond nostalgia. Some will see what I'm about to argue here as the ultimate degradation of artistic standards, but I don't agree...

In and of themselves toys, comic-book covers, posters, action-figure cards and the like are often very, very beautiful. I believe wholeheartedly that they qualify as art. If Roman graffiti, scrawled a wall thousands of years ago is art, then why not a trading card? Why not an action figure diorama? There is no good answer, except that stewards of the term "art" are stringent gatekeepers.

Now, I realize that purists will recoil at this description - memorabilia from TV shows and films as art. What I'm talking about here is not "true" art, they will claim, but rather kitsch. Their argument would be that the renderings I admire are inferior, derivative, commercially produced, theatrical and deficient in some manner. I understand their argument, but it's flat-out misconceived...and wrong.

The items I intend to focus on in this series of essays do indeed possess aesthetic value. In simpler terms, they stimulate the spirit and the brain...the essential qualifications of art, and more than that, these items often have "something to say" (another criterion of art). As for these products being derivative (as in derivative of earlier art styles...), I can only respond by answering in this fashion: what isn't derivative? Please, tell me. Search long enough and deep enough and you'll see that every work of art has an antecedent. That's how art is created. The artist takes inspiration from other work, then builds on it, synthesizes different styles...and arrives at something new. It's still derivative, in some sense, however. Even if it's a rejection of a previous school of art, it's still derivative because dislike is what fostered the new art. See?

The next hurdle we cross here is one of this toy/memorabilia art being "commercially produced." This is perhaps the most ludicrous argument for disqualifying something as art. For centuries, painters and sculptors have accepted commissions - been paid - by patrons to produce art for audiences. Sometimes the patron is the Church. Sometimes it is a head of state. Sometimes it is just a very rich aristocrat. What is the difference, then, when a painter or artist takes a job for the licensor of merchandise for a television show or movie? The difference here is all substance.

As far as being deficient...well, the elitists can make any claims they want, but in my heart of hearts I know that in four hundred years, scholars and art historians will be gazing at Star Trek and Star Wars the way we gaze today at Shakespeare. Or Greek myth. I won't live (dammit!) long enough to see my prophecy fulfilled...but I believe I'm right. Similarly, the genre art that's been created in the last thirty years around projects like Star Trek, Star Wars, Space:1999, Battlestar Galactica, The Black Hole, etc., will one day be held up as being of a "school" of art that at times can be profound...even though it was mass marketed and aimed at children. (Also aimed at children: The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, The Hobbit, Harry Potter...anyone want to say they ain't art?)

But enough of the generalities. I want to open this series with a close-up analysis of the Space:1999 King Seeley Thermos Company (copyright 1975 ATV Licensing Limited) lunchbox. This work of art consists of a series of beautifully done artistic renderings from the Gerry/Sylvia Anderson production, Space:1999 (1975-1977).

What does this lunch box have to say to us, today? That's an interesting question, and the answers are legion. On one large rectangular side, of the box we are faced with Dr. Helena Russell (played by Barbara Bain). To the right of her portrait, we see her being clutched by a cyclopean green octopus, while Commander Koenig fires his stun gun at the beast. In terms of imagery, what we're registering here is the repetition of the very story that the episode "Dragon's Domain" references: St. George and the Dragon. The defeat of a monster by a knight or hero.

We're also seeing an intentional repeat of the 1950s sci-fi trope of the hero rescuing the damsel in distress from a green, tentacled space monster or other far-fetched threat. The man (Koenig) - our hero - is in an all-out action pose (much as would Luke Skywalker be in a Star Wars poster), coming to the rescue of his lady.

But the imagery actually cuts deeper, even than such references indicate. Space:1999 has often been referred to as an "odyssey," like Homer's Odyssey. That epic poem is about a man and his crew trying to get home, and thematically, Space:1999 is not far afield from that narrative. The men and women of Moonbase Alpha search for a home in space; not Ithaca but a new Earth. Importantly, The Odyssey features Odysseus's encounter with a cyclops...a monster we see portrayed here.

So, while on one hand we can look at this image and say it is cliched (woman attacked by green space monster!) or claim it is simply derivative, on the other we see it for what it is: the space age re-telling of a basic human myth. In visuals that, while attractive, are also not so horrific that they frighten the intended audience (children).

The images on this lunch box tell us much about the time-period from which this art sprang. Notice the image across the bottom, a "beige," soft, homey interior (on Moonbase Alpha), where various crewmen are at work. In keeping with the disco decade, the 1970s, the haircuts and costumes are unisex, speaking of sexual equality (The era of the ERA).

Furthermore, pay attention to the prominence of the microscope in the composition. Victor Bergman is essentially Moonbase Alpha's "oracle," known for such dialogue as "the line between science and mysticism is just a line." He's a priest, in other words, but his dogma is science, and even his pose (reminiscent, after a fashion, of Auguste Rodin's "Thinker"), highlights his role as "oracle" in the adventure. The promise of science is expressed by that tool, the ' Bergman is reading the runes. Otherwise, we see Sandra Benes looking somewhat more ethnic than on the show, Kano - a black man - and two female technicians in the background. The message of this composition is plain: men and women of all stripe and creed working together on Moonbase Alpha. A promise for the future. Cooperation, not conflict.

When critics and scholars write of Star Trek, they often note the series' sense of optimism about humanity...and the future. And yet, it's the far future we're talking about there. Three hundred years from now and beyond. Space:1999, being a product of the mid-1970s (the time of the Energy Crisis, Watergate, Vietnam, etc.) is not so blatantly optimistic. However, it is what I call "Apollo Age" optimistic. Which is that the design of the ships, even the computer block (with colon) style of the series logo reflects 1970s bread-and-butter optimism about a fast dawning space age. The Space:1999 eagles are not aesthetically-pleasing in the sense of the U.S.S. Enterprise, one might argue, but quite beautiful in the same way that Apollo capsules are: as realistic space craft that "feel" within our reach now. They are utilitarian, and more importantly, evocations of believable space travel. The Eagles boast landing gear like modern space craft (The Enterprise does not), and the design is modular, meaning that different portions can be "subbed" out for different missions, an acknowledgment of the cost of space travel.

Look at the moon buggy on the lunch box: it has wheels, an antenna, bucket seats, headlights. It's something we instantly recognize, only tweaked to be slightly futuristic. As fans, we complained (and rightly!) in Star Trek: Nemesis over that all-terrain vehicle Picard stuck out like a sore-thumb in the advanced world of Star Trek. The design was not artistically true to that particular universe, whereas the moon buggy design is just right for Space:1999.

The image of the Eagle high above the alien (Caldorian) spaceship on the lunchbox is also one that tells us some important things. It reminds us that Space:1999 - again - has one foot in the present, and one i
n the future. In contrast to the modular, lattice-work Eagle, the Caldorian ship (the product of a more technologically advanced circle) is all curves and ellipses. But surrounding it, you'll see, are Alphan light posts. This is a nod to reality, and one of the things that makes Space:1999 so attractive to fans. A "captured" alien ship, or one in for repairs, WOULD have equipment like that around it, no? Space:1999 never scrimped on realism, despite what some critics would have you believe, and this image -- which is not from the series itself, but a compilation of images synthesized for this art work - reflects the contrast between Earth science and Alien science. In one composition, we see the alien ship bracketed by Earth technology, the light posts and the Eagle soaring above. Again, a foot in "future" reality, and a foot in space fantasy. In one specially constructed image.

Aside from featuring the photographic portraits of two very attractive leads (Landau and Bain), this lunchbox captures the imagination of the TV series, sparks images of alien encounters, and speaks in volumes about the possibilities (unfulfilled...) of the Apollo age.

This lunchbox isn't just playtime at recess, or an attempt to "sell" something, it's Space:1999 - the ethos, the aesthetic, the drama, the history - re-packaged in another form. And that my friends, is art.

I hope you'll stick with me as I gaze at other examples of pop art in the genre franchises of years past. There's a lot of real beauty and talent in this venue, and it's about time that it was discussed and debated for what it is. Join me. Let me know what you think. And if there's any comic-book cover or poster that you think resonates powerfully with you in terms of art, bring it up (and send an image!)

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 59: Barbie & Ken Star Trek GiftSet

To celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Star Trek in the year 1996, Mattel released this truly unusual (but interesting...) genre crossover, the Barbie & Ken Star Trek GiftSet. This beautiful, oversized "collector's edition" toy includes our man Ken in gold command uniform, and Barbie in red yeoman's uniform, replete with sixties hoop earrings and an almost Janice Rand-worthy hair-style.

This Mattel toy features an interesting word to the wise in the lower corner of the box rear. Not just that "Barbie doll cannot stand alone" (does that mean she needs Ken after all?), but that "Space instruments are non-working." In other words, the nicely detailed tricorder, phaser and communicator that accompany this set don't actually operate.

My favorite element of the set is the illustration on the back (featured above; center) that shows Barbie and Ken strolling on what appears to be the planet surface from the episode "Obsession.' Any minute now, a vampiric cloud is going to come over one of those rocky outcroppings and drain the white blood cells from them. Quick...grab the anti-matter! But seriously, it's clear someone took some time with this photo: the low-resting mist, the form of the rocks, the color of the all clearly evokes the classic series, circa 1968.

The Barbie and Ken Star Trek GiftSet box is itself a nice gold color (like the command tunic from the series..), and on the back, Mattel has kindly written in descriptions of the various "space instruments" (the ones that don't work). The tricorder is, for instance "a specialized state-of-the-art sensing technology available for specific engineering, scientific and medical applications." The phaser is a "handheld weapon used by Starfleet personnel that can be adjusted to a variety of settings including stun, heat and disruption."

Finally, a nice legend on the bottom of the box celebrates Star Trek's thirtieth birthday, and entreats us to "Join Barbie and Ken" as they "beam aboard" the Enterprise for this anniversary. The legend also notes - correctly - that the Roddenberry series imagines "a constructive future for all mankind." Nice.

I was given this particular toy circa 1997 by some dear friends here in Charlotte, and I've kept it on the shelf ever since, though - unfortunately - the box endured some water damage during our move from Charlotte to Mint Hill in 1999 (A Star Trek crystal ball leaked, alas...) Finally, I also remember (but don't have...) another Barbie crossover set. Am I imagining this, or did Mattel also release in the late 1990s a Mulder/Scully Ken/Barbie set celebrating the X-Files? Boy, what I wouldn't do to see a release of a Barbara Bain/Helena Russell and Martin Landau/Koenig Barbie/Ken set!

Driftwood 2007 & RoboCop

Recently, I had the high honor of serving as judge in a non-fiction competition at Point Loma Nazarene University. I judged a fine selection of student essays, and the results have been published in the Driftwood Creative Arts Magazine, Volume 27 (2006/2007 Edition). The contest winner is Matt Benson, who wrote a very interesting piece entitled "UCR Last Game vs. Idaho." The magazine itself is a lovely work, with essays by contest winners and honorable mentions in categories of fiction, poetry, photography, non-fiction and more. It was a pleasure and honor to be included.

Also, the magazine published a scholarly article I've been developing for some time, about the socio-political predictions/prognostications of the 1987 RoboCop. The article appears in its entirety in Driftwood. It is called "It Saw The Future of America," and here it is:

How many science fiction films can truly be termed prophetic? If Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) had proven accurate, Americans would be speaking Japanese and living side-by-side with humanoid androids by now. If Escape from New York (1981) had anticipated the future correctly, there would have been no 9/11 terrorist disaster...because the Big Apple would have been converted into a giant, maximum security prison in the late 1990s. As is plain from such examples, cinematic musings concerning the future have a funny way of getting it wrong.

However, this isn't so in the unique case of Paul Verhoeven's 1987 film, RoboCop. True, Americans are not today policed by an emotionless cyborg wielding imposing weaponry. However, on the very cusp of the film's twentieth anniversary, the observant viewer can detect how so much of the world RoboCop unhappily predicted in the Age of Reagan has come to pass.

How did a science fiction - nay, superhero - film come to serve as a social critique of the very culture that produced it? In answering that question, it is critical to understand the history and context of RoboCop. During the 1980s, when the film was crafted, many big American cities faced daunting new difficulties. Because of the "trickle down' economic policies of the U.S. Federal Government, termed both "Reaganomics" and "Voodoo Economics" and aptly described by the Christian Science Monitor in December of 1981 as a hodgepodge policy of tight money, deep budget cuts in the social service area, and reductions in taxes for wealthy individuals, it wasn't necessarily "morning in America" as President Reagan boasted. At least not for everyone.

Here are some statistics to back up that assertion. First, the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development was cut from 32.2 billion dollars in 1981 to 7.5 billion dollars in 1987-1988, meaning that government aid was less available for the indigent. Secondly, the number of Americans living under the Federal poverty line rise from 24.5 million to over 32 million in the late eighties. More than two million Americans were homeless by the later part of the decade, though President Reagan asserted that many of them were actually homeless "by choice."

So the poor grew poorer during the balance of the "greed" decade, and the rich grew richer. The middle class also suffered, with home mortgage interest rates teetering at a staggering twelve percent. The bottom echelon of American society was ravaged by street crime, and the yuppies at the top of society - men with names such as Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken - were proven corrupt. In some cases, millions of dollars were "stolen" through insider trading. This "greed is good" era of corruption, the age of characters like the fictional Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) from Wall Street (1987) was also the context of RoboCop.

In 1987, Hollywood responded to the prevailing Zeitgeist and a new breed of superhero film - a genre which universally focuses on social justice - gazed closely at these myriad ills. The result was not only a blockbuster action film, but the creation of a popular character that has not yet disappeared from the pop culture terrain, appearing across the ensuing decades in films, TV series, cartoons, comic books and toy stores.

Described by his corporate owners as "the future of law enforcement," RoboCop was the character's given name. He was a crime fighting cyborg, a hero (and former cop...) who could walk the savage streets of a city in chaos (in this case, Detroit), as well as clean up the board rooms where the decadent rich snorted cocaine, soaked the poor, and went unregulated by winking, toothless, laissez-faire government. Part Charles Bronson (another eighties icon...), part Batman, and part Clint Eastwood, RoboCop was introduced in the 1987 film directed by Dutchman Paul Verhoeven. Peter Weller starred. Shot in thirteen weeks in the summer of 1986, RoboCop was crafted on a budget of just ten million dollars, and Verhoeven was reportedly attracted to the material because of the comedic atmosphere and content of the screenplay. Pat of the satire involved poking fun at American culture and politics, and the course both were taking as the Republican Party increasingly won the war of words (and elections) in the public square. In the end, RoboCop accurately predicted two important facets of our contemporary American life: the corporatization of the culture and the coarsening of the mainstream media.

One pertinent joke in the screenplay by Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner involves a "Lee Iococca Elementary School," an institution whose name equates a failed corporate mogul with a child's role model; on a part with historical figures such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. Another rib-tickler features a mainstream electronic game glorifying nuclear war and based on Milton Bradley's popular game, Battleship. It is named...Nuke 'Em!

The latter joke is particularly funny since RoboCop arrived in theaters shortly after an event in which President Reagan had cavalierly joked about outlawing "Russia forever" and even threatened that "we begin bombing in five minutes." On a related front, Reagan had also asserted that nuclear missiles fired from a submarine could be recalled after launch. That was flat-out wrong.

Therefore, RoboCop's extrapolation of a future America where nuclear bombs were hailed as an acceptable part of the cultural landscape isn't so far-fetched. And today, of course, the press has reported Bush Administration plans to commence a new nuclear regime, one that features a reportedly "safer" breed of bunker busting nukes. It's eighties redux, and RoboCop predicted it.

America's seemingly endless propensity to drive gas-guzzling gigantic automobiles is also satirized in the prescient RoboCop. Commercials depicted in the film advertise for a new vehicle, the 6000 SUX (not SUV, SUX). The 6000 SUX offered a whopping 18 miles to the gallon, meeting it literally "sucked" gas.

Sadly, this is no longer the arena of science fiction either. With little regulation from Washington D.C., Detroit has regularly offering Americans super-sized vehicles that actually do get only 18 miles to the gallon. Fact has caught up with fiction. So much so that President Bush has finally addressed our nation's "addiction" to foreign oil. Still, who will ask us to give up our 6000 SUX?

RoboCop also dramatizes the cutthroat world of corporate one-upmanship. In the film, OCP business men not only vie for stock options and promotions, but actually kill one another to gain seniority in the company. An exaggeration? Perhaps, though today Americans' understand that Big Business and good ethics don't always walk hand-in-hand. In the fallen corporate giant Enron, for example, employees held discussions about the "Death Star," in their efforts to bilk the consumer, a way of literally annihilating opposition. Still, there's no murder charges attached to the company's corruption. Not yet, anyway.

RoboCop also accurately predicted the right-wing's push to destroy the Federal government (to "drown" it, in the conservative parlance). In particular, the movie comments on the relentless push towards the privatization of municipal and government programs, the dismantling of the social safety net. After his narrow re-election victory, Americans saw the effort manifest in President George W. Bush's now stalled drive to privatize Social Security and hand over the trust fund to the mercies of the stock market.

Much of RoboCop revolves around just such a notion, in particular the business conglomerate OCP's funding and administration of the Detroit Police Department "as a business;" an enterprise designed solely to generate profits. Of course, OCP only worries about the bottom line in this venture. Yet a police force should protect and serve the entire community, not merely a particular corporate interest, right ? Yet if the market is to be unfettered and unregulated, a hallmark of the Reagan Revolution and conservatism, who knows where the push towards privatization will ultimately end?

In toto, RoboCop's Detorit is an unregulated world of business run amok, and street criminals and board room executives work hand-in-glove to ruin the life of the American Joe. Ronny Cox portrayed Richard Jones, the Bill-Gates-like businessman who wants to push his pet project, an "urban pacification" droid called the ED 209 into production, despite the fact it is riddled with glitches (Windows Vista, anyone?).

Back in the 1980s, some right-wing media watchdogs (like the Moral Majority) decried the level of violence on screen in films like RoboCop, but even the blood and guts proved relevant to Verhoeven's indictment of eighties morals. Just two years earlier, Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) depicted similar levels of horrific violence in a non-fantasy setting, but cloaked the horrifying bloodshed under the patriotic fabric of the U.S. flag and nationalistic pride, thus escaping criticism from the right. Those that condemned RoboCop for its gore missed an important and telling point: its violence was actually meaningful because it satirized the violence deemed acceptable in our mainstream entertainment.

Today, violence in the media is worse than ever. During the opening stages of the Iraq War, for instance, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC all broadcast on American television the bullet-ridden corpses of Saddam Hussein's dead sons. Again, this was done with the blessing of the Bush Administration and an act cloaked in patriotism. Transmitting images of dead bodies is apparently deemed okay by the same government that strenuously objects to Janet Jackson' wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl. Thus RoboCop's violence soaked world, one with murder in board rooms and private homes, reflects our new reality.

Gazing at it twenty years later, one can determine how RoboCop got just about every detail of the "future" right. It did so by imagining a nightmare America where the Reagan Revolution never ended. Today, we seldom get movies with such careful and thorough social criticism embedded in their cinematic DNA, least of all in a mainstream "entertainment." Why? Because the same big corporation that lobby our politicians for favors also control the news media...and the entertainment - movie - conglomerates.

Welcome to the future...

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

New McFarland Releases - April

Here's what's new at McFarland this month in the film and TV world. You'll notice there's a book by a *familiar* author from this blog too! But that's not all, there's a new book from an authority in the field of television reference, Vincent Terrace, and a new biography of Dr. Victor Bergman himself, the great Barry Morse.

Film Clowns of the Depression:

The 1930s are routinely considered sound film’s greatest comedy era. Though this golden age encompassed various genres of laughter, clown comedy is the most basic type. This work examines the Depression decade’s most popular type of comedy—the clown, or personality comedian. Focusing upon the Depression era, the study filters its analysis through twelve memorable pictures. Each merits an individual chapter, in which it is critiqued. The films are deemed microcosmic representatives of the comic world and discussed in this context.While some of the comedians in this text have generated a great deal of previous analysis, funnymen like Joe E. Brown and Eddie Cantor are all but forgotten. Nevertheless, they were comedy legends in their time, and their legacy, as showcased in these movies, merits rediscovery by today’s connoisseur of comedy. Even this book’s more familiar figures, such as Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, are often simply relegated to being recognizable pop culture icons whose work has been neglected in recent years. This book attempts to address these oversights and to re-expose the brilliance and ingenuity with which the screen clowns contributed a comic resiliency that was desperately needed during the Depression and can still be greatly appreciated today. The films discussed are City Lights (1931, Chaplin), The Kid From Spain (1932, Cantor), She Done Him Wrong (1933, Mae West), Duck Soup (1933, Marx Brothers), Sons of the Desert (1933, Laurel and Hardy), Judge Priest (1934, Will Rogers), It’s a Gift (1934, W.C. Fields), Alibi Ike (1935, Brown), A Night at the Opera (1935, Marx Brothers), Modern Times (1936, Chaplin), Way Out West (1937, Laurel and Hardy), and The Cat and the Canary (1939, Bob Hope).

The Soundtracks of Woody Allen:

This comprehensive guide covers all of the music used in Woody Allen’s films from Take the Money and Run (1969) to Match Point (2005). Each film receives scene-by-scene analysis with a focus on how Allen utilized music.

Remember with Advantages:
His resume of roles includes Macbeth, Cyrano de Bergerac, Ebenezer Scrooge and Oedipus Rex. His career has encompassed theatre and television in England, Canada and the United States. With a gift for developing offbeat characters, Barry Morse has had a prolific acting career, and the story of his life is a veritable history of 20th century theatre from the days before World War II through the early 21st century.In this memoir Morse traces his life and career, including his years at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, his radio jobs with the BBC, his 60-year marriage to actress Sydney Sturgess and their years together in the Court Players, his roles on television shows (The Fugitive, Space: 1999), and his acquaintance with literary lights (George Bernard Shaw) and screen stars (Robert Mitchum and Peter Cushing). Photographs from the Morse family collection are included.

Horror Films of the 1980s:
John Kenneth Muir is back! His Horror Films of the 1970s was named an Outstanding Reference Book by the American Library Association, and likewise a Booklist Editors’ Choice. This time, Muir surveys 300 films from the 1980s. From backwards psychos (Just Before Dawn) and yuppie-baiting giant rats (Of Unknown Origin), to horror franchises like Friday the 13th and Hellraiser, as well as nearly forgotten obscurities such as The Children and The Boogens, Muir is our informative guide through 10 macabre years of silver screen terrors.Muir introduces the scope of the decade’s horrors, and offers a history drawing parallels between current events and the nightmares unfolding on cinema screens. Each of the 300 films is discussed with detailed credits, a brief synopsis, a critical commentary, and where applicable, notes on the film’s legacy beyond the 80s. Also included is the author’s ranking of the 15 best horror films of the 80s.

Canadian Television Programming Made for the United States Market:
At the 1939 World’s Fair and the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), RCA introduced and promoted a novelty known as television. Two decades later, this technology was well on its way to permeating virtually every home in America and Canada as well, spawning a growing, thriving industry in the process. Canada’s two official languages (English and French), easy transborder reception of U.S. broadcast television stations, and an overall television market approximately one tenth the size of the United States historically impeded the growth of Canada’s television production sector. This situation led Canadian producers, directors, writers, performers, and other creative and technical personnel to increasingly turn their eyes—and their talent—to the international market. Canadians who had played a significant role in America’s entertainment industry since the silent era, turned to their southern neighbor as the most natural market for their creative endeavors. With a mix of practicality, adaptability and entertainment ingenuity, Canadians became responsible for an ever-increasing percentage of American television productions.This volume traces the history of Canadian involvement in America’s television production industry and looks at the genres, time slots and viewing areas of the first Canadian television productions to appear on U.S. airwaves as well as the challenges that producers had to overcome to take their programming into American prime time. The book also discusses the reasons Canadian television producers have turned to a foreign market over their domestic one. The main focus, however, is the factors which led to an independent television production sector in Toronto, Ontario, and the Ontario–based companies that have successfully competed in the U.S. marketplace. Alliance Atlantis Communications is given particular attention as one of Ontario’s most successful production companies. Economic and political influences as well as current and future prospects of independent production companies are discussed. Appendices provide a chronology of Canadian television production from 1926 to 2004 and a list of Canadian–produced programs sold to the U.S. market. A list of acronyms and abbreviations and an index are also included.

Encyclopedia of Television Subjects, Themes and Settings:
Over the course of 80 years television has produced countless programs, many of which fit a particular profile. Did you know, for example, some programs are devoted to ghosts, genies, angels and even mermaids? Color broadcasting was first tested in 1941? Live models were used to advertise lingerie as early as 1950? Or that nudity (although accidental) occurred on TV long before cable was even thought possible? These are just a few of the many facts and firsts that can be found within the 145 entries included.Appropriate for fans and scholars, and bursting with obscure facts, this work traces the evolution of specific topics from 1925 through the 2005-2006 season. Entries include such diverse themes as adolescence, adult film actresses on TV, bars, espionage, gays, immigrants, lawyers, transsexuals and truckers, as well as locations like Canada, Hawaii, New York and Los Angeles. Each entry is arranged as a timeline, clearly displaying how television’s treatment of the subject has changed through the years. Each entry is as complete as possible and contains series, pilot, special and experimental program information. Whether just a fan of television and eager to know more about the medium or a scholar seeking hard-to-find facts and information, this book traces the history of specific topics from television’s infancy to its changes in the early twenty-first century

Universal Horrors:

Revised and updated since its first publication in 1990, this acclaimed critical survey covers the classic chillers produced by Universal Studios during the Golden Age of Hollywood Horror, 1931 through 1946.Trekking boldly through haunts and horrors from The Frankenstein Monster, The Wolf Man, Count Dracula, and The Invisible Man, to The Mummy, Paula the Ape Woman, The Creeper, and The Inner Sanctum, the authors offer a definitive study of the 86 films produced during this era and present a general overview of the period. Coverage of the films includes complete cast lists, credits, storyline, behind-the-scenes information, production history, critical analysis, and commentary from the cast and crew (much of it drawn from interviews by Tom Weaver, whom USA Today calls “the king of the monster hunters”). Unique to this edition are a new selection of photographs and poster reproductions and an appendix listing additional films of interest.

Booking Hawaii Five-O:
On September 26, 1968, Hawaii Five-O premiered on CBS. The show’s exotic locale and quality writing and acting made it a fixture in the network’s line-up for the next 12 years. Today the detective series continues to be very popular in syndication.The show’s history is covered first, focusing on its development and its stars. Complete casts and credits for all regulars are provided for each season; the episode guide gives the title, original air date, director, producer, guest stars, a detailed synopsis of each show, and information on Honolulu residents who
appeared in it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week:

"Mr. McGee, don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry..."

-Dr. David Banner (Bill Bixby), The Incredible Hulk.

The rest of the opening of that classic series went like this: "Dr. David Banner - physician, scientist - searching for a way to tap into the hidden strengths that all humans have. Then, an accidental overdose of gamma radiation alters his body chemistry. Now, when David Banner grows angry or outraged, a startling metamorphosis occurs."

"The creature is driven by rage and pursued by an investigative reporter."

"The creature is wanted for a murder he didn't commit. David Banner is believed to be dead and he must let the world think he is dead. Until...he can find a way to control the raging spirit within him..."

Monday, April 16, 2007


Back by popular demand! In the fifth webisode of the sci-fi series, THE HOUSE BETWEEN, a new danger emerges when provisions dwindle...and a shortage of food is imminent in the hermetically-sealed house. In an effort to communicate with their invisible warden or caretaker, psychic Theresa (Alicia A. Wood) suggests a seance. Unfortunately, the seance has drastic repercussions, landing a mysterious mirror in the house; one that has profound impact on Astrid (Kim Breeding), Arlo (Jim Blanton), Travis (Lee Hansen), Bill Clark (Tony Mercer) and even Theresa herself. Written and directed by John Kenneth Muir. Produced for the Lulu Show LLC by Joseph Maddrey.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


In the fifth webisode of the sci-fi series, THE HOUSE BETWEEN, a new danger emerges when provisions dwindle...and a shortage of food is imminent in the hermetically-sealed house. In an effort to communicate with their invisible caretaker or warden, Theresa (Alicia A. Wood) suggests a seance. Unfortunately, the seance has drastic repercussions, landing a mysterious mirror in the house; one that has profound impact on Astrid (Kim Breeding), Arlo (Jim Blanton), Travis (Lee Hansen), Bill (Tony Mercer) and Theresa herself. Written and directed by John Kenneth Muir. Produced for the Lulu Show LLC by Joseph Maddrey

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The House Between Episode # 5 ("Mirrored") Director's Notes.

This was The House Between episode that almost wasn't.

Basically - in some weird fashion - The House Between first season is a story - a mystery - consisting of three movements. "Arrived" and "Settled" comprise one block of character time and an introduction to the series. Occurring sometime later, episodes three and four - "Positioned" and "Visited" - form a second block. Finally, the concluding episodes you haven't seen yet - "Trashed" and "Departed?" - represent the third and climactic component of the year's story arc. Now, if I had the luxury of 24 episodes (which I'd really, really like...), the same development would have occurred across two dozen shows, not a half-dozen. But that's another story. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you don't make a TV show with the budget and time you want; but the budget and time you have.

So anyway, that leaves part 5 of the season, "Mirrored." The story you almost never saw. And if you ask a lot of the production team, perhaps the best script of the bunch. And the one everybody had the best time filming, I think. But more on that in a minute.

Some background: basically, the original plan had been to shoot six stories in seven days. Saner heads than I suggested six episodes...and a back-up day for re-shoots in case of disaster. But I wanted to go for broke; go for seven stories. "Mirrored" therefore, was written as that final optional episode, a standalone tale to fit in the middle of the continuity, that - if we didn't get to it - well, the story wouldn't really suffer all that much. Reading this explanation, I guess one could conclude it's somehow disposable.

But you won't say that once you've seen it. That's for sure. "Mirrored" is so filled with great character moments and pieces of the overall mystery, that I can't imagine the series without it. A lot in Year Two builds on things you see (or don't see...) in this story.

My inspiration for "Mirrored" is - as some commenters guessed - a classic Star Trek episode. But interestingly, it's not the episode "Mirror, Mirror" that this episode riffs on. Nope. Instead, it's an homage to my very favorite of all Star Trek episodes: D.C. Fontana's stirring and brilliant "This Side of Paradise." I guess I'm not a conventional Star Trek fan in that my favorite episode doesn't concern Romulans or Klingons or phaser battles...but rather a very personal journey for the characters, particularly Mr. Spock (though Captain Kirk goes through quite a lot too, in the show).

So anyway, back to shooting "Mirrored." By Day Five, we were so confident of our progress that everyone decided - more or less together, if I remember correctly, to shoot the episode in sequential order. We knew were going to get all the shows done, and it just seemed right. So, we tackled the script, and the cast jumped in with a re-energized level of engagement and excitement that you will see; that practically jumps from the screen. This isn't to say the cast wasn't great every day, only that "Mirrored" offered a fresh set of opportunities. You see, I had provided each actor a sort of secret "information' sheet about their characters. These forms discussed history, relationships, career, family, background and other data. The thing is, however, not all of this information gets to the screen when the scripts focus on, essentially, "the crisis of the week." "Mirrored" was different, however, because it brought to the surface many of these facets for all the characters. You'll see Astrid and Theresa and Travis and Arlo and Bill as you've never seen them before here. They're consistent with the other episodes, but showcasing new layers. And I think that's why I love the episode so much. And probably the same goes for the cast.

Day Five, shooting "MIrrored" was the only day we had a "closed" set during the shoot. There were some sequences where everybody had to leave the room (even the lighting directors...), leaving only two performers and two camera men. The reason? Some scenes are pretty emotional, pretty raw. And the actors really wanted to concentrate and focus on the work without it being a sort of sideshow.

The day remains special for me as a director because somehow we found the time to elaborate on the script at points, go deeper than we had imagined. For instance, we shot a few extra shots in a Travis/Astrid confrontation that weren't in the script but that just make that scene come to life. And feel so right and true. Also, I came up with a one sentence directing cue for Lee and Kim in a later scene, and boy oh boy did they run with it. It proved the key to a sequence that I think is hysterical. I'm not patting myself on the back; it was just a throwaway notion, and it was these two great actors who just went for broke. I love their moments together in "MIrrored." Kim really "exposes" a lot about Astrid in this episode, and again reveals the depth of her versatility. I've yet to find a scene she can't play (but I'm working on it!!!) And Lee? Well, as Tony Mercer commented after viewing a rough cut of the episode, The House Between can never get enough of Lee Hansen; he can go as "big" as he wants and not risk being over the top. I must say, I also believe Tony pinpointed exactly the right tone for Bill in this episode: he's the rock, the anchor, the steadiness which all the craziness orbits. He's a master of the "slow burn," and he puts that skill to great use here. And Alicia Wood. My god! Watching her in "Mirrored" I think you just fall in love with Theresa...I know I do. She has a gorgeous, fetching smile that Theresa doesn't often show...and it's breathtaking and heartbreaking here. And Jim -- our dependable Arlo - again beautifully navigates the unpredictable nature of his character: naive and innocent one moment, unexpectedly dangerous the next. That's why I love all these performers.

I don't want to go into too much detail about "Mirrored" but there are things about the show I will always love. Things you get to see that you never get to see in other House Between episodes. Yes, this is our sex romp. Yes, this is our funny episode. But it's also a touching one, I believe, an emotional one. I have written here before how "Settled" is the episode that I believe best expresses my core concepts for the series. "Mirrored" is a reflection of "Settled," a spin on the same sort of story, with a comedic bent.

Hope you like it! It's uploading as I type. In the meantime, check out this wiki on The House Between.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Now Available: THEY HUNGER!

Look at this! Fellow North Carolinian and horror author Scott Nicholson, has just seen his sixth genre novel published: They Hunger. And - I love this - Publisher's Weekly calls the book "a vampiric Deliverance."

From the press release
: What happens when an FBI manhunt, an experimental rafting expedition, a deranged killer and primordial blood-sucking creatures collide in the Southern Appalachian wilderness?

Author Scott Nicholson set his tale in a fictionalized version of the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area in the North Carolina mountains, where he often camps and hikes. The Linville River contains some of the most treacherous whitewater in the eastern United States, and Nicholson wondered what would happen if a group was testing out an experimental raft and ran into some interesting problems.

"Hiking in the gorge, I started picturing these primitive vampire creatures swooping down from the cliffs," Nicholson said. "I don't get scared very easily, but the idea made me walk a little faster."

Nicholson also drew on elements of the hunt for Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph. In "They Hunger," a pair of FBI agents close in on Ace Goodall, an abortion clinic bomber who has been hiding out for weeks and suffers from religious delusions. A trip wire at the bomber's camp sets off an explosion that opens crevices in the ancient mountains, exposing the lair of bloodthirsty creatures that have been dormant for centuries.

"All these different characters meet in the worst possible conditions, and not everybody is interested in mutual survival," the author said. "The river is the only escape from the vampires. But when a freak storm erupts, the natural and supernatural worlds collide and humans seem awfully fragile."

Cool, huh? Someone needs to turn this into a movie, NOW! Scott is also a contributor to my Horror Films of the 1980s, offering his insights on horror cinema from the Reagan era, and he's a terrific non-fiction writer too. I've greedily devoured all of his novels, and I can't wait to read They Hunger. The book is available here.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Okay, so, if I wanted to humiliate myself more than usual, I'd be showing some really embarrassing photographs in this post. Let's see, there's the photo of me as a nine year-old kid dressed as a Cylon Centurion from Battlestar Galactica (back in 1978, before Cylons were sexy women with glowing spines). And there's the photo of me from my senior year of high school where I'm dressed up as Mr. Spock, replete with pointed ears, black wig, and phaser. And then there's the photo of me as the evil Michael Myers my sophomore year in college.

Now there's a story there, in that last picture. It was Halloween 1990, and Kathryn couldn't come out to play. So, left to my own devices, I decided at midnight to dress up in my Michael Myers, aka "The Shape" overalls and mask and make my tender way over to the girl's dorm on the other side of the campus, across the lake. Well, I did that, and stood in front of the girl's dorm - immobile - just breathing heavy - for like an hour. It scared a few young nubile co-eds, and then I decided it was time to go home.

So I was walking home, across the bridge separating the girl's side of campus from the boy's side of campus. By this time, I wasn't even trying to be frightening. I felt kind of deflated. My face smelled like sweat and spittle, thanks to that damn William Shatner mask, and I was hot and uncomfortable. So I was totally taken by surprise when I bumped into a young freshman girl jogging on the bridge by light of the full moon.

Let me just say, I scared the absolute crap out of this poor girl. From her perspective, she jogged right into Michael Myers. But you see, it wasn't so much fun after all. She fell down in terror, and almost fell off the bridge. I had to rip my mask off and apologize. I tried to tell her that on Halloween everyone deserves "one good scare," but she wasn't having it. She ran away, into the dark, and I felt like a heel. This almost rivals the time I was stopped by the police carrying a machine gun, but that's a story for another post...

*Sigh.* The good old days.

Anyway, after that long and mostly irrelevant introduction, I'm now focusing on another favorite sci-fi collectible today: the costume!!! Hanging in my closet, I not only have a blue Mr. Spock uniform, but a first season Captain Picard uniform, and - yes - an Admiral Kirk uniform from The Wrath of Khan, replete with blood stain. I keep measuring Joel to see when he'll fit into any one of these...

I don't know what it is about dressing up like your heroes (or nightmares...), but I suppose it has something to do with delving deeper into your favorite fictional world. I will say this: Kathryn looks great in a beehive, Spock uniform and go-go boots...

Whenever I visit conventions, I really dig seeing all the folks in costume: the Klingons, the stormtroopers, the Jedi and so on..

So you don't get to see any of the fun photos, I mentioned above, just a shot of the Simplicity pattern from 1992 (from the 2 hour express collection...) of the Star Trek uniforms; and this book from the era of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, called "Make-Your Own-Costume Book."

If I could have any sci-fi costume in the universe, I'd want either a Commander Koenig outfit from Space:1999, or, perhaps even more so, a Sandman uniform from the movie Logan's Run. And it would have to come complete with one of those "flare" guns to take out runners. Of course at my age, my life clock would be black.

So, how about you? What's your dream sci-fi costume?

Monday, April 09, 2007

TV REVIEW: This American Life

One can only wish that all network "reality" television were this good. This American Life is a Showtime "reality" series that, per episode gazes at - but doesn't exploit - the behavior of unusual individuals who share a common problem/world view. That world view may have positive or negative ramifications for said person, but Ira Glass, our series host (who brings the series to television from NPR ...) is restrained and objective, and even though the series is, at times, howlingly funny, one never senses the host's laughing at anyone. He's just observing.

Each installment of This American Life targets "some theme," according to Glass's voice over narration, and then observes how some unique people relate to that theme. In the first episode, that theme is a "reality check," a splash of cold water on the face in which the subject is unwittingly snapped back to unpleasant reality.

The first story in the episode involves farmers Ralph Fisher and Sandra Reddell who, as the story commences, mourn the untimely loss of their pet, a prized bull named Chance. Now, Chance is a special sort of bull. He's tame, loving (he sleeps in the yard...), and had been a guest star in Hollywood films and even on the Letterman Show. He was a loving and sweet pet; part of the family; and Ralph quickly decided he couldn't do without him. That the pain of life without beloved Chance was simply too great a burden to shoulder.

So, Ralph did what was unthinkable just a few short years ago. He has Chance cloned at Texas A&M. As the episode goes on, viewers are introduced "Second Chance," Chance's unusual progeny. The reality check, however, comes into play when Ralph blithely attempts to act like this new bull is actually the bull he's always loved. In a horrifying moment, the young bull gores his owner, sending Ralph to the hospital with bloody wounds (a testicle is destroyed...). The reality check? This changeling isn't Chance at all; not a docile animal...but a bull like most others...just an animal. The sad and enduring fact we remember from Ralph's folly is that death is permanent. We can't bring back our loved ones, no matter how much we try. In horror and science fiction, we've seen this story played out as Pet Sematary, as one example, but it's a little shocking to see it played for real, in a non-fictional setting. The future has truly arrived, I guess. Finally, what makes this segment so fascinating is the way it charts the intersection of the contemporary American family with modern technology. We watch an "average" guy deal with something from the twilight zone - cloning - and it's a fascinating drama.
The second act of This American Life's first episode is called "The Spy Who Loved Everybody" and it concerns a group called "Improv Everywhere" that plays pranks (the group calls them missions...) on clueless people. The twist is that the pranksters, here termed "agents" want to help people, not hurt them with their missions. In "The Greatest Gig Ever" (mission # 37), the group decides to go give a fledgling, unknown rock group, Ghosts of Pasha, the best reception they've ever seen. The unsuspecting band is thus surprised to discover their new "fan base" at a gig, people who wear "Ghosts of Pasha" T-shirts and know all the lyrics to the band's songs, so they can sing along.

The "reality check" arrives when the group learns, days later, that they've been punk'd. That the response to their music was not authentic; just a trick. Suddenly, the band members are forced to countenance the idea of what it means to be a real band. Is it better be loved unconditionally - as a lie, or simply be unknown? This is another heart wrenching segment, in part because the sensitive leader of the band has lived his life in fear of ridicule, based on an experience with a bully during school. Suddenly, he's the object of a "joke" again. How he responds to this situation is touching, and a re-affirmation of the indomitable human spirit. Are the pranksters kind or wrong-headed? I fall on the wrong-headed side, but you should watch this episode to see how Ghosts of Pasha handles being "punked."

Another episode deals with the notion of "re-inventing your life" and whether it is ever too early, or too late to do that. In "Lights, Camera, Traction" a group of senior citizens dream of making their own short film and getting it into the Sundance Film Festival. The second story involves a grown woman who reads aloud from her diary. The document was written when she was thirteen, and is quite shocking to say the least.

So much of reality television is about dressing people down; about judges criticizing people and making them feel small. So much of reality television is about desperate people humiliating themselves for their fifteen minutes of fame. This American Life represents something totally the opposite. It's an exploration of the bonds and emotions that humans share. There's no finger pointing; just a tugging at the communal heart strings. This isn't a reality show about what separates us, but about what we hold in common.

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...