Friday, August 31, 2007

Halloween '78: R.I.P. ????


Today is August 31st, and that means Rob Zombie's Halloween is officially upon us. I haven't seen the new film yet, and I have no idea if it's a masterpiece or a disaster, but I do know one thing: from this day forward, a certain percentage of the movie-going populace will associate the title Halloween with this remake; not the classic John Carpenter original from 1978.

So, in light of that fact, I decided to devote a little space on the blog today to some of my feelings about the original film; and why it remains such a great horror film.

For me, Halloween is right up there with Hitchcock's Psycho, Romero's Night of the Living Dead and Tobe Hooper's Texas Chain Saw Massacre as one of the most important and influential titles in horror film history.

In terms of cinema history, Halloween almost single-handedly spawned the slasher trend that dominated the late 1970s and early 1980s; a fad that included such films as Friday the 13th (1980), He Knows You're Alone (1980), Mother's Day (1980), Prom Night (1980), New Year's Evil (1980), Terror Train (1980), Graduation Day (1981), Happy Birthday to Me (1981), My Bloody Valentine (1981), The Prowler (1981), Slumber Party Massacre (1982) and on and on.

What most of these films "acquired" from Halloween was simply the notion of a masked, seemingly emotionless and inhuman (and unkillable...) knife-killer, as well as the organizing principle of setting a horror film on a holiday or at a special event (prom for example), and the nature of the victim pool -- usually teenagers.

What many of the films failed to understand, however, about Halloween is that it was legitimately and unceasingly scary, but not particularly gory. It gets a bum rap on that account. Like Chain Saw, there's very little blood on screen in this Carpenter film.

If you watch Halloween, you'll see it's both suspenseful and frightening, but not bloody. Director John Carpenter artfully stages much of the film's action so that Michael Myers remains in the shadows - watching - but not acting or doing. Often times, characters stumble upon the killer's aftermath (places he's been), like the old Myers place...where he's been eating a dog. This approach builds suspense rather then simply relying on gore. The audience doesn't know when Michael "The Shape" Myers will strike, and much of the film's considerable terror arises when that stark white mask emerges suddenly from black nighttime, from the corner of a particular composition, or is observed in the distant background of the frame.

Halloween also took the psychological aspects of the horror genre to a new and very different level from historical antecedents. Whereas Hitchcock's Psycho obsessed on the rational, medical and scientific reasons behind Norman Bates' psychosis in a famously talky coda, Carpenter and co-writer Hill in Halloween deliberately and systematically removed all attempts at rational analysis or psychological jargon. Michael Myers is the bogeyman and can't be diagnosed using the DSM-IV He is purely and simply evil, and even his highly-trained, highly-educated psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) cannot countenance him on a human, rational level. Michael boasts "the darkest eyes; the devil's eyes" and cannot be explained away by science. That's part of what makes this character so eternally scary. Again, I haven't seen Zombie's remake of Halloween, but I understand that his version delves into Myers' abusive childhood. For many reasons, I believe this approach radically mitigates the horror of Michael Myers, but I'm trying to be open to the fact that Zombie is giving us a "new" Halloween, perhaps with a different angle. I respect very much what the director accomplished with The Devil's Rejects. I'm just noting: if you delve into the Bogeyman's personal history - especially as a defenseless child - he can't really be the implacable, inscrutable Bogeyman anymore. His mystery will be gone, explained. Furthermore, sympathy for him will have been generated. That may be more effective in a straight drama, but it's death for a horror movie. You want your audience to be with the final girl to her last breath; not saying things like "'well, Michael was treated so badly, you can't blame him for becoming a monster."

The Michael Myers of the original Halloween is such a potent "force of nature" because he cannot be explained or appeased; he is shot six times at point-blank range in the film and survives. He can catch up with his victims at a brisk walk even though they are running from him. If a victim hits on the idea of closing a window to protect him or herself, Myers has already come through that very window and is waiting to catch the victim. He is forever patient. Simply stated, he is the perfect embodiment of primeval terror, a monster whom we cannot escape no matter how much "educated" man thinks he understands or knows about the universe. I hasten to add, nowhere is it stated in Halloween that Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is actually Michael's younger sister. That's a contrivance added in Halloween II (1981) which diminishes much of the Shape's initial terror. It's an explanation for something that requires no explanation. Michael is scarier when the audience doesn't understand his motives. The sister sub-plot has been adopted as canon in the franchise and the same back-story is being used by Rob Zombie, but frankly, I believe that's a fatal mistake too. If a remake or a re-imagination is a sincere attempt to improve on qualities of an original film and fix mistakes, it doesn't bode well (at least to me), that Zombie didn't eliminate this clumsy explanation for Michael Myers' killing spree. This is a prime example of something that should have been broached and fixed in a re-boot.

The original Halloween is an influential horror film not merely because its precepts and ideas were adopted by a whole school of slasher films but because, first and foremost, it is terrifying. It's also a well-made film that depends on the canny use of film grammar, and an understanding of how to utilize the wide screen. The opening sequence, a sustained point-of-view subjective shot, is a stylistic tour de force, for example. One can also study here how Carpenter manipulates foreground and background components to generate chills and revulsion. At the end of the opening scene (young Michael's murder of his eldest sister in 1963), the camera swoops up and away from Michael with horror and revulsion, his parents frozen in a kind of horror. It's almost as though Michael's butchery is so horrible, so grotesque that the camera itself backs away and then crawls to a stop. This is the kind of theatrical, trenchant film technique that a neo-stylist like Carpenter can create in a heartbeat. I like Zombie, but I will be looking here to see that he understands Halloween's visual tradition too. It's not enough for his remake to re-tell Michael's story; the director must demonstrate that he is a virtuoso in the (now) rare art of screen form and technique reinforcing on-screen content.

For example, one of the all-time great horror movie compositions occurs near the end of the film when Laurie Strode (in focus in the frame's foreground), leans against a door frame and relaxes, believing Myers is dead. Behind her, in the blurry background, Myers bolts upright into a sitting position and turns towards her...on the hunt yet again. The shot is brilliant for the use of depth of field, but also for generating suspense: the audience sees Myers, but Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) does not. We in the audience are suddenly privy to knowledge that our heroine isn't, and so tension is built. This shot has been copied probably a hundred times in horror films since Halloween.

All great art reflects or mirrors the age in which it was created, and Halloween is no exception. The film came out in 1978, not long after Watergate, the Energy Crisis and the end of the Vietnam War. Even a change of political parties and Presidents (from Ford to Carter) didn't seem to be solving the nation's mounting problems. The economy was slipping into recession. Crime rates were high.

I believe Halloween reflects these "malaise days", the then-slowly-dawning idea that our "safe" and "modern" and "rational" society is just an illusion and that we don't truly control our environment, our criminals, or even our economy. Medicine, science, education, and law - even parental protection - are merely comforting (but empty) security blankets and in Halloween these protections are proven inadequate. Nothing can stop Michael Myers. The suburban teen characters in the film are unprepared and unable to conceive of a reality that includes this irrational, inexplicable monster. Despite all the infrastructure bureaucracy designed to make people secure, Michael Myers still kills. He is what we all fear deep down, a new "predator" for a breed of comfortable, pampered, modern Americans; one who can't be reasoned with, dissuaded or ultimately even comprehended.

The suburb of Haddonfield is described in the film as essentially a "slaughterhouse," meaning that Michael will have no problem hunting and killing his prey, who are basically sheep. Why should he have difficulty? We lived (in the 1970s) and also today with the belief that police, the government and the legal system protect us from harm. More than that, we believe we understand the universe and human behavior and psychology. We think we have "conquered" our world.

Michael Myers is terrifying evidence to the contrary. In his original incarnation, he is one of the great movie monsters. He is such a powerful specter, such a terrifying creation that the mere presence of The Shape (and his accompanying theme song, from John Carpenter) electrifies many of the less-than-worthy sequels to the original film. Even the bad sequels possess some sense of energy and terror because we gaze upon that blank white mask and our darkest fears get reflected back. However, for the new Halloween to be a great film, to live up to the heritage of John Carpenter's original, this will not be enough. The re-imagined Halloween must also speak powerfully to a context beyond "killing babysitters." This must be a film not just about Michael Myers, but about how "The Shape" represents our fears today. This is certainly something that is do-able in an age which has seen Americans trade liberty for security on a regular basis, but I don't know yet if Zombie has taken this into account. Hopefully - being a student of horror films - he realizes that a good horror film is scary because of technique; and a great horror movie is scary because it tells us something relevant about ourselves and our culture.

So, the time has come. The Shatner Mask today passes to Rob Zombie. Michael has been a durable movie monster for nearly thirty years. If he remains so for the next thirty depends now on Zombie's interpretation and reading of the Halloween myths.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: District B13 (2004)

The first time I heard about this Euro-Fu action movie was at the Toronto Film Festival in 2005. While I was returning to the airport by bus with Kathryn, the person in the seat ahead of us, a producer, got on her cell phone and telephoned another producer (one who works on the new Battlestar Galactica) and began raving about a low-budget action film she had just seen. Apparently, she had staked out the festival to look for properties either to buy or to emulate, and she was gaga over the French genre film, District B13. It's a movie with no American stars which lasts a scant 85 minutes, and - I can happily now report - it is one hell of an action movie.

A friend of mine (The House Between's Arlo, Jim Blanton) gave me a copy of the DVD recently, and I had the opportunity to watch the film just last night. District B13 is the story of a Parisian ghetto in the near-future year 2010. Barrio B13 is a dangerous place, with no communication or in or out, and heavily-fortified checkpoints at exits and entrances. Armed thugs guard some buildings, and the police are corrupt and getting ready to withdraw all together. The schools and post offices are closed - permanently. "This ain't Monaco, it's Baghdad" reports one gangster. Ruling Barrio 13 is the crime lord Taha (Bibi Naceri), who maintains an army of tattooed, bald strong-men, led by the menacing K-2. He also has a giant, monstrous subordinate he calls "Yeti." Taha keeps much of the populace strung out on drugs and rules with an iron fist.

Then, one day, the French government manages *ahem* to lose a neutron bomb in Barrio 13, one that could wipe out all two million residents, even while conveniently leaving the Barrio's structures (meaning buildings and homes) intact. Even more frightening, the bomb has been activated and is now on a 24-hour countdown to detonation. The government decides to send in one of their best men: a one-man-army named Damien (Cyril Rafaells) who is a "by-the-book" kind of good soldier and who, just recently, took out an entire criminal stronghold (an underground casino) single-handedly. Damien is teamed with a prisoner named Leito (David Belle), a man who grew up in Barrio 13 and knows the lay of the land. Leito's sister, the beautiful Lola (Dany Verissimo) is Taha's prisoner inside the district. Unlikely allies, Damien and Leito have just hours to stop the bomb from destroying the Barrio...

The first shot of District B13 is a great one that lets us know we're in for a good time here, and safely ensconced in the hands of a clever director (Pierre Morel). We see a rat squeak through a hole in the isolation wall of this "shithouse of a city" (even the rats are leaving...) and then the view pans up and up. The camera sweeps over the wall and - to a pulsing soundtrack that reminded me of John Carpenter's glory days - proceeds to a fast-motion, hyperactive tour of the district. We see abandoned cars on the streets; homeless people asleep outside; citizens doing drugs, etc. It's a vision of unremitting urban blight, brought on, the dialogue tells us, by economic woes. Some six million people in the country are unemployed.

Before long, the roving camera has found Leito's apartment, where he is busily destroying a shipment of Taha's drugs. K-2 and other minions arrive and before long, there's an insane, absolutely exhilarating, beautifully choreographed chase scene across the rooftops. This scene is incredibly kinetic, artfully cut and exciting as all hell. And it also made me wonder if the makers of last year's Casino Royale (2006) saw this film when they planned that film's first act construction site chase. As in that film, here there is a lot of running, jumping, swinging (falling...) and rolling. It's a splendid stunt sequence.

And it is promptly topped by the very next action scene: Damien's wholesale decimation of a criminal organization in a casino. It's a virtual ballet of ridiculous (but beautiful) violence and I must confess, this is the scene that really got to me. I started cackling because I realized just how long it had been since I'd seen unpretentious, straight-up action flick.

Which isn't to say that this "near future" epic doesn't boast some deeper meaning between the fight scenes. The film implicitly involves France's not so great economy, and the aforementioned unemployment rate. There's also a line of dialogue about the country's angry youth "burning cars," which recalled for me images we saw here (on TV) of civil unrest in France late in October of 2005, when there was a week of rioting (Oct. 27 - November 2). Of course, this film was made before those particular events, but the idea underlying this dystopian future world is that France has some "issues" with gangs, vandals, youth violence, etc.

The other point the film makes is not one exclusive to France. In case you didn't figure it out from the plot synopsis above, the neutron bomb that ends up in Barrio 13 doesn't really get there by accident. There's a conspiracy by the government to destroy the ghetto, because it is easier to kill two million people than actually solve the problems of bureaucracy, failing infrastructure and creating good jobs. At least according to one official. Yep, it will SAVE THE TAXPAYERS money to kill all the inhabitants, one of our heroes is told directly. My immediate thought on hearing this strangely amoral (and guiltless) explanation was of Hurricane Katrina here in the States, (again, 2005 - after this movie came out), when Republican Representative Richard H. Baker of Baton Rouge (allegedly) told lobbyists: "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did." That's sort of the French Government's policy in District B13, only with a more "hands on" approach.

At eighty-five minutes, District B13 is truly short and sweet. It doesn't wear out its welcome or strike any false notes. It's a near-perfect mix of everything in just the right proportions. It's exciting, it's cheesy, it's got some social commentary, and it's a hell of a lot of fun. I can't put my finger on it, but there's something very eighties about this film. It's a cheesy "future city" movie and it got me thinking about eighties flicks like Future Kill, Blade Runner and Escape from New York.

Friday, August 24, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK #31: Mystery Science Theater 3000: "Manos, The Hands of Fate"

According to a Time Magazine review of the MST3K film in 1996, one of the best things about living in 1990s America was this unique genre comedy series. That's a conclusion I don't disagree with. I'll never forget watching the series for the first time in 1994. It was midnight, and I knew to expect the show (on Comedy Central) and although I understood the premise in theory (a blond guy and two robot puppets mock bad movies...), I had no real idea what awaited.

What was I in for? Brilliance. Utter brilliance. As the snappy theme song reminds us, MST3K is the story of a regular guy named Joel Robinson (Joel Hodgson) who works at Gizmonic Institute. Just another guy in a red jumpsuit. His bosses, Dr. Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) and TV's Frank (Frank Conniff) bonk him on the head and launch him into space on the Satellite of Love to conduct a frightening experiment. They force Joel to endlessly watch bad movies. Joel's only company in this endeavor is the robots he built; foremost among them: wiseacre Crow and neurotic intellectual Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy).

In some fashion, the theme song itself points to the very qualities that make the series so relentlessly smart and so enjoyable. On one level, the theme tells the story of Joel's entrapment and sets up his "sci fi" universe (including the Satellite, the robots, and the experiments), but on another level, it deliberately reminds viewers that this universe is itself a construct, a funny vehicle for jokes. "If you're wondering how he eats and breathes and other science facts," goeth the lyrics, "just repeat to yourself it's just a show. You should really just relax..."

The two-level approach to Mystery Science Theater -- make no mistake -- is what makes this series both smart and funny. The central theme - watching a bad movie with a cadre of funny hecklers as company - requires this two-track approach in the audience's mind. On one hand, the viewer is registering the movie and what's happening on Joel's screen; and on the other, is also reacting to Joel and the Bots as they react to the same movie. The episodes synthesize two distinct experiences: a catalyst (film); and a response to the catalyst (on-screen snark by funny silhouettes); which then causes a reaction in the viewer; generally guffaws. Got it? I hasten to add, there are some folks - mostly of older generations - who never are able to process this essential gimmick; this central core of MST-3K. These are the people who complain, "I can't hear the movie because they're talking through it."

Where so much of what passes for humor in film and television today is dumb, or "extruded in an industrial process," as Harry Shearer once said to me. Mystery Science Theater 3000 by its very design is unwaveringly intelligent; intellectual even. Audiences are expected to keep up; viewers are asked to register an action or scene in a "bad" movie and then process Joel (or later, Mike's) response to the film in real time. That response could come in the form of an allusion to another film or television series; in a reference to politics or culture, or simply in an absurd, surreal connection that Joel or the robots happen to make. It all flies by at warp speed, and the viewer's brain literally dances; synapses sparking as we make connections and laugh along with the show.

By example, there's the series' most infamous episode, "Manos, The Hands of Fate." This is the episode that truly put the series on the map. Why it resonated so deeply with so many is difficult to determine precisely. It's possible that Manos is just such a staggeringly, unbelievably bad film that it generates in audiences a sense of sympathy and camaraderie with Joel and his crew. We bond with the 'bots and Joel here because we simply can't believe our eyes; that we're watching something as truly hideous and awful as this 1966 film (written and directed by an El Paso fertilizer salesman). Even more shocking, I think, is the recognition in Manos that The Mystery Science Theater 3000 format really succeeds beyond the most wild imaginings; in this case, it actually makes a torturous movie not only bearable, but hysterically funny. This is the glorious alchemy of MST3K when it works on all thrusters (which is most of the time).

The episode begins with a short called "Hired," a black-and-white effort from the 1940s about a heavy-set cars salesman who is having bad results with his young recruits. He gets set straight by his Dad, a strange old man who sits on the front porch rambling and occasionally going into a fugue state, and swatting at "invisible flies." Joel and his 'bots deliver a rollicking, real-time masters thesis on comedy, as they mock the Jam Handy short. But what's so fascinating about the humor if one stands back and pays attention to the nature of the jokes, is that the material is not merely scattershot ramblings or outbursts of snark. On the contrary, the jokes tend to arise from the same historical context that the film did. You'll hear references to The Untouchables (1959-1963), a popular early TV series that featured many of the same type of rear-projection "moving automobile" shots as "Hired." You'll listen as the crew quips about a potential customer looking like Adlai Stevenson (democratic Presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956), and so on. Before the short is through, there have been jokes about "naming names" and more explicitly, the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, as well as the preferred business lunch beverage of the era, "martinis." The point, I suppose, is that the jokes relate brilliantly to the events on screen. Even though the episode was produced in the 1990s, the MST-3K team crack jokes that are pertinent to the film's historical time period some forty to fifty years earlier.

The riffs in Manos: The Hands of Fate are not so intimately connected to the film's historical context, but rather a post-modern, tour-de-force 90 minute comedy routine that meditates mostly on the effort's failings in terms of film grammar. It's an extended comment on bad filmmaking. For instance, early in Manos, the director - for some baffling reason - cuts to scene after endless scene of pleasant-looking rural scenery going by the camera. The footage was shot from a fast-moving car, and the moving scenery dissolves into scenes of more moving scenery. Ad infinitum. Here, Joel offers the thought, "let's just pretend we're watching The Trip to Bountiful." He's referring to a 1985 film (adapted from a Horton Foote play), that was set in Texas (like Manos), but which explicitly involved a woman (in the film played by Geraldine Page) returning "home" to a rural setting she remembered from her youth. Without putting too fine a point on it, the joke is simultaneously a.) about Texas, b.) about the long shots of scenery, a staple of both Manos and A Trip to Bountiful, and c.) a joke about the clear quality gulf surrounding the two aforementioned productions. It's a reference, it's a comparison, it's funny.

Before Manos: The Hands of Fate is done, the quipsters on the Satellite of Love have commented on the film's low-budget, particularly the cheap film grain ("Every frame of this movie looks like someone's last known photograph..."), and also the terrible editing, which leaves gaping, lengthy and awkward spells of silence in all the dialogue sequences ("Could someone please break the ice?" Joel demands during one extended moment of nothingness; "Ambiguity is scary," a character voices during another slow point).

The jokes also reference the hideously bad special effects, in particular the botched make-up, which finds an evil character named Torgo saddled with oversized, inflated knee-caps. (Note: they were supposed to be satyr legs, but the actor accidentally wore them backwards). In reference to these comically thick knees, Crow asks: "been hitting the thigh master, Torgo?" And don't even get me started on the "haunting" Torgo theme, an hilariously catchy tune that lurches into action every time Torgo moves.

But the MST3K folks have gone further too, coming to understand even the film's terrible dialogue pitter-patter. For instance, notice in the script how many of the characters (but particularly Torgo) speak in the same annoying pattern. It goes like this: "First thought. Second Thought. Repeat First Thought." An example: "There is no way out of here. It will be dark soon. There is no way out of here." Joel insightfully picks up on this strangely-hypnotic, odd language quirk, and comments on it at points, revealing that these guys aren't just comics bent on spitting out one-liners, but careful observers who have actually paid attention to the dross on screen.

When Manos really, really goes off the rails during a ridiculous and debauched climax, Joel and his bots are our surrogates, registering the distasteful nature of the coda (which involves a little girl dressed up to be the bride of a villain called 'The Master.") In doing so, this triumvirate really represents us: the disappointed/offended movie goer. They always represent us, but are the best version of us: smart, quick on their feet and endlessly funny.

I guess there are a lot of old-school science fiction movie fans who are really angry with MST3K. I've seen the hatred and anger against the show spill out many times by "old schoolers" who grew up with the films being mocked, whether it be This Island Earth (1955) or I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957). It's hard to see one's sacred cows pointed out as such, I suppose, but I'm reminded of the opening lyrics again: "just repeat to yourself it's just a show; you should really just relax." I mean hell, I love Mystery Science Theater 3000 and they even did a Space:1999 compilation film, "Cosmic Princess," so I think the naysayers should probably just lighten up. The humor on this series isn't really mean-spirited. It's snarky, Gen-X humor, but I never feel the jokes come out of hatred. But guilty pleasures are often razed on the show. I guess some folks can't deal with it. They want to like what they like, and can't take a joke.

I don't want to step into the endless Joel/Mike debate, though I picked a Joel episode for today's flashback. Whether you prefer Joel or Mike as host depends greatly, I believe, on which one you encountered first. In terms of style, Joel is sleepy-eyed, a little slow, and more gentle than Mike. Joel is like a daddy to the Bots too. By contrast, Mike's style is harsher and more acerbic, and on many occasions funnier. I don't feel the emotional connection to the bots as much with Mike, but I still love him. I wouldn't want to choose between...I'm just noting the different approaches.

The first MST3K I ever saw was the ludicrous Pod People, a terrible Italian horror film from the 1980s. Since then, MST3K has been a staple. What got me, in particular, was a skit involving a bad rock group, and a gag involving a studio tech who wears an "I'm a Virgin" T-shirt. The show has had me laughing ever since.




Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Exhibit A on the General Suckitude of Remakes

All right, some cat named Rod Lurie (the brainiac behind the one season TV series Commander-in-Chief starring Geena Davis ) is remaking Straw Dogs, the early 1970s rape and revenge, savage cinema classic by Sam Peckinpah. He recently made a series of questionable comments about that utterly brilliant film that are worth highlighting. From Dark Horizons:

"It's sort of a classic film in the sense that it's infamous. It's a good not great film by a great director, and we thought if we modernized it and Americanized it, it's rife for a remake, so we just went for it."

"...I look at 'Straw Dogs' as a very imperfect movie. It's a little bit slow and it's themes are a little bit murky. There are some amazing moments and it's a very satisfying movie, but you sort of look at what can be improved upon now."

"...It was pretty much killed by a two-second moment on screen where his wife is being raped and she smiles. That was the end of that movie. You can be certain that she's not going to be smiling in the rape in my film."

So, this is what it happens when a movie is remade by someone who doesn't understand the original. Should be fantastic, no? One wonders, did Lurie even try to understand those *murky* themes? Or because Peckinpah didn't spoon feed them to him, were they just too hard to get a handle on? And the film was slow? Another brilliant criticism!

It's clear that Lurie has no idea what Peckinpah was doing with the original film and that fact alone should disqualify him from touching the material. I'm not kidding. Straw Dogs isn't a "good" film, it's a four star, great film about manhood, machismo and violence, among other things. It isn't easily digestible, if that's what Lurie is trying to say here, but that's the beauty of it: it's a film you actually have to think about.

Furthermore, Lurie's comment about Americanizing it makes no sense, since the original film concerned an American, Dustin Hoffman's character, who was on a self-imposed exile from the U.S. so he wouldn't have to serve in the Vietnam War. The remainder of the film was about feeling out of place, being a stranger in a strange land. Even his wife views him as out of place in her "home." Americanize that idea and there's no story here.

As for the infamous rape scene -- did you watch the film Mr. Lurie? Yes it's controversial, but the smile that you say killed the movie actually means something. Before simply removing it because you don't understand it, how about considering why a "great" director included such a shocking moment in the film in the first place? But I guess you know better than Peckinpah, right?

My friends, this is a perfect example of why today's remakes suck. Often, they are created by people who have no respect - and in this case, no curiosity - about the source material. But Lurie's comments offer a valuable window into the thought process behind these lousy re-makes and re-imaginations. It takes a certain type of personality - a willful blind arrogance - to look at a magnificent, damn near perfect film like Planet of the Apes, or Straw Dogs, or Halloween, puff-out your chest, and tell the world: "It was good, yeah, but I'm the one who really knows how to tell that story!!!"

Theme Song of the Week # 8: The Phoenix (1981)

Monday, August 13, 2007

Tippie, 1925 - 2007


You are looking at the irrepressible Mealdine Principe, or "Tippie" as her friends always knew her. Here she is in 1944, looking absolutely radiant as a U.S. Army Pin-Up Girl. I always knew her simply as "Granny." She passed away this weekend in Texas.

Some of my best memories of Granny are from my childhood in New Jersey. I remember when I was in second grade and had become obsessed with Star Wars, and she told me all about how much, as a kid, she had loved going to the matinee to watch Buster Crabbe in each serialized installment of the original Flash Gordon.

Over the years, Granny also told me strange tales of UFOs over Texas skies. She was from Big Spring, Texas, where the mysterious Hanger 18 is supposedly located, and was thrilled when a movie was made about the subject in 1980. She was forever a Texan - born and bred - and we shared a playful running joke about Texas over the decades...about how everything there was bigger and better.


Like me, Granny always loved the movies, or at least the movies of her generation .She didn't care too much for the modern cinema, and there's a funny story about her walking out of the theater when we took her to see Good Will Hunting in 1997. Still, if a movie had been released in the golden age of Hollywood - the golden age of Tippie's youth - she could pretty much tell you who the male and female leads were without batting an eye.

I'm glad Granny was able to meet her great-grandson, Joel, at least once, last Thanksgiving. I have a photo of him (at just about a month-and-half old) sitting contentedly on her lap. When he's old enough, I'll be certain to share with him all my tall tales of Texas Tippie...

TV REVIEW: The Dresden Files (2007)

Imagine The X-Files without the scares, Buffy the Vampire Slayer without the wit and Kolchak: The Night Stalker without the charm, quirkiness and individuality and you’ll have a pretty good grasp on the (recently canceled) Sci-Fi Channel’s supernatural series, The Dresden Files. It’s sort of The X-Files for dullards; slow-paced yet simultaneously over-explained and obvious. This is one of those series that is so mediocre and so lacking in interesting characters and story nuance (or even interest) that you can read a book or talk on the phone for whole stretches of an installment and not miss anything important when you return to it. Everything is crushingly obvious…and dull.

Based on a series of novels by Jim Butcher, The Dresden Files is the story of a handsome wizard named Harry (no, not that one!) who basically spends his adult life as a private eye; taking on supernatural cases in Chicago (which was also Kolchak’s turf). Harry’s cases pit him against the likes of werewolves (“Hair of the Dog”), involve him with vampires (“Bad Blood”) and put him in conflict with other malevolent creatures, like skin walkers (“Birds of a Feather.”) For some reason, these moments are never remotely frightening. In “Birds of a Feather” there is a crow-person - a feathered humanoid monster - and it looks more comical than scary. Unlike Buffy the Vampire Slayer, however, it never says anything clever. Because the monsters don't frighten, the episodes as a whole lack a sense of menace and feel rather flat.

Handsome Harry (Paul Blackthorne) is aided in his investigations by a friendly English spirit named Bob (Terrence Mann), who has been cursed to live for all eternity inside his own cracked skull (!) because he once used forbidden black magic, but who also can conveniently materialize in Dresden’s office and serve as this private dick’s Q or armourer, providing Harry with such goodies as “a doom box,” essentially a supernatural explosive device which is handy for defeating evil creatures. Harry also works with lovely Chicago detective Connie Murphy (Valerie Cruz), a hard-boiled cop who is predictably skeptical about magic, but definitely has her romantic sights set on the saturnine Harry.

What’s good about The Dresden Files is the manner in which it attempts to fashion a larger magical world around Harry; a world which includes mediums, a mysterious High Council, and the temptation to use black magic (a big no-no, as you can guess). The mythology of the books is potent, interesting, and complex, but it’s just a minor backdrop in this lugubrious adaptation.

The first Dresden Files episode aired on the Sci-Fi Channel, “Birds of a Feather,” sees Harry helping a little boy who possesses the same magical “Gift” as Harry, and the episode is an occasion to reveal some back story (via flashback) from Harry’s youth in Atlantic City in 1981, including his mother’s gift of a protective “shield” bracelet, and a look at life with his father, a failed magician but a lovable loser. Also, the concept of magic coupled with the film noir or detective format is a good one, if now slightly over-utilized thanks to such efforts as Angel Heart (1987) and Lord of Illusions (1995). By itself, the concept isn’t fresh enough to sustain a series with such weak writing.


Every character relationship on The Dresden Files feels canned and familiar. Dresden is the mystery man with a dark past but a good heart, meaning he’s a cliché. Murphy is the “tough cop” of a million past productions doing the banter-thing with Dresden, and introducing the whole tired milieu of the police procedural. Bob is the most interesting character in the mix, but is used inconsistently by the writers. In one episode, he’s brilliantly and madly creating complex magical formulas out of thin air, literally before the viewer’s eyes (“Birds of a Feather”), but in the next, “The Boone Identity,” he’s a stupid vehicle for exposition, asking questions of Dresden about, of all things, magic (and the reasons Dresden is taking a blood sample; and what it can be used for). Which is he, expert or neophyte? The answer: whatever the script requires.

The story plots are also derivative and crushingly obvious. Take “The Boone Identity” for example. In this installment, Dresden wrangles with a “body jumper” who marshals the ancient relic called The Lock of Anubis to steal bodies and attain immortality. As Harry describes it, the Lock is a sort of “Get out of death free card.” The story begins as Dresden aids a man whose young daughter was killed by a robber and who is now a ghost, desperately trying to tell her mourning father something important about her death. It turns out that the robber stole an Egyptian stone tablet (the aforementioned Lock of Anubis) from her father, and then carjacked one of the richest and most powerful men in Chicago, a fellow named Miller. Miller killed the robber, or so it seems. End of story? What do you think?

So Harry goes to visit Miller to ask him questions about how he killed his carjacker/robber, and Miller – who clearly has something to hide – dismisses Dresden…but doesn’t even show him out of his palatial home. Instead, he conveniently goes to see his visiting masseuse in another room, thus allowing Dresden the opportunity to see an Egyptian tattoo on his neck and shoulders when he strips down. Then, with continued access and no supervision, Dresden wanders around the house a little longer, and finds Miller’s collection of Egyptian artifacts, including a statue of Anubis. Dresden slowly (and I mean slowly…) starts to put together the notion that Miller is actually the robber; that he used the lock of Anubis to switch bodies with a wealthy man.

Forgetting for a moment the fact that genre fans have seen the body switch story a million-and-a-half times, one need ask only one simple question: if you were illicitly stealing bodies (and hoping to do so again the very next day…), would you jeopardize your entire plan and permit a probing detective – one who is clearly suspicious - to walk around your house unattended (and maybe find your relatively unique collection of Ancient Egyptian artifacts while he’s there) – all while you get a massage?! Or, more realistically, would you simply walk Dresden out, lock the door behind him, and go to your massage after he’s gone? It’s amazing that The Dresden Files hinges critical story developments on such contrivances. It’s bad writing, pure and simple. Given even an infinitesimal amount of thought, the writers could have at least had Dresden break in later, rather than being invited in and left to nose around.

Alas, this sort of problem is the norm, not the exception on The Dresden Files. I realize that the show has developed a fanatical and devoted fan base who was sorry to see it go, and one can only guess that such devotion is based on the series’ potential rather than what it actually achieved. Indeed, there are little glimmers of greatness here, in Blackthorne’s performance, in the hints of a “larger” mystical world, in Bob’s back story, and so on. I realize I will anger the faithful with this review (and I am still picking shrapnel out of my ass over my negative reviews of Supernatural and Ghost Whisperer). But the blunt fact of the matter is that if The Dresden Files had aired in 1992, before the world knew The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Millennium, the new Doctor Who and other wondrous genre series of today, it would likely be championed as an excellent genre series. But those other efforts – rife with comedy, horror, pathos, wit and irony - only reveal here what’s totally and completely absent; the essential elements that keep The Dresden Files from feeling truly magical.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 30: Jason of Star Command (1978-1980)

"Danger hides in the stars. This is the world of Jason of Star Command, a space-age soldier of fortune determined to stop the most sinister force in the universe: Dragos, master of the cosmos. Aiding Jason in his battle against evil is a talented team of experts, all working together in the secret section of Space Academy. Jason of Star Command!"

"The time: the distant future. Man has reached the farthest stars, but has also uncovered dark and mysterious galaxies. And as Star Command heads into the unknown, danger lies in wait..."

-Opening Voice-Over Narrations from Jason of Star Command

Created by Arthur H. Nadel, Filmation's live-action venture Jason of Star Command is a sequel of sorts to the Saturday morning series, Space Academy, which ran on CBS in 1977 (and which I've blogged about; check down the page on the right...). Growing up, I was always more a Star Trek kid than a Star Wars kid, and it's funny how these twin Saturday morning, live-action productions from the disco decade reveal the influence of each franchise. Space Academy is a series about a group of cadets exploring the stars and making contact with alien beings. Those alien beings often start out as hostile, but differences are inevitably worked out peaceably. The various episodes are morality plays set against the background of space exploration. It's Star Trek for kids.

Whereas the later series, Jason of Star Command is more clearly influenced by the swashbuckling, action-packed tone of Star Wars. Here, a dashing hero, Jason (Craig Littler) and his compact robot, W1K1 (or "Wiki") battles an evil space tyrant, Dragos (Sid Haig), Jason wears a Han Solo-style black vest and many of Star Wars' bells and whistles are in evidence, meaning flashy laser beams and space explosions. Jason is described as a 'soldier of fortune,' just like Solo was called a 'mercenary,' yet Jason appears the most benevolent, stable and unselfish "soldier of fortune" in the cosmos. (He doesn't hire himself out to competing organizations, and as far as I can tell, doesn't take jobs for money either). But to an eleven year old kid, the handle "soldier of fortune" sounded really, really cool.

Watching the two opening chapters of Jason of Star Command, "Attack of the Dragonship" and "Prisoner of Dragos," it was also clear to me that the serial nature of Jason of Star Command (at least in the first season), as well as the cliffhanger-type climaxes featured there, actually granted the series something in common with an older genre antecedent: Flash Gordon. Even some of the characters are similar in type, the dashing, athletic hero (Jason/Flash), the evil tyrant (Dragos/Ming the Merciless), the scientist (Professor Parsafoot [Charlie Dell]/Dr. Zarkov). That's not to accuse Jason of being a rip-off or anything, only a notation that this Saturday morning series fits into a certain sci-fi tradition, which is more clearly derived from the Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon/Star Wars school than the Star Trek/Forbidden Planet school (which, honestly, I tend to prefer).

Jason of Star Command re-uses Space Academy sets (interiors of the Academy, including the command center), miniatures, and costumes too. The fanfare that accompanies the first appearance of a malevolent alien ship, bent on attacking the Academy, is culled from the Filmation stock library, and was utilized in episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series. These "stock" elements, when combined with new miniatures (like Dragos' impressive dragonship and Jason's Starfire fighters), new sets (Dragos' dungeon, the bridge of his ship, etc.) grant the impression of an elaborate and impressive production. That there are familiar, well-liked actors present in supporting roles (Sid Haig as Dragos, and the late James Doohan as Commander Canarvin) also adds an element of class to what was clearly designed to be a children's program, and an exciting one at that.

The story: Out of the darkness of space, Dragos - "master of the cosmos" - launches a surprise attack on Star Command, the one organization in the galaxy that he feels can prevent his plan for galactic domination. "Attack of the Dragonship" opens with an impressive shot of the Space Academy coming into the firing range of an alien ship. During the surprise attack, Captain Nicole Davidoff (Susan O'Hanlon) is trapped in one section of the Academy, and Jason and his new companion, the miniature droid W1K1, rescue her. He does so by first throwing himself through a doorway (in slow-motion), which - when it shatters - is disappointingly flimsy; looking to be made of balsa wood.

Unfortunately, the second attack from Dragos arrives in short order, and Commander Canarvin, on a planetary expedition, is captured. Jason launches a Star Fire fighter and uses Canarvin's ELS (Emergency Locator Signal) to retrieve him. After Canarvin is safely returned to base (a dangerous space operation utilizing life-support belts), Jason is captured by Dragos and learns that he has sent back not the Academy's beloved commander at all, but a deadly "energy clone" whose mission is to lower the Academy's defense shields, rendering it vulnerable to enemy attack. Worse, Dragos produces an energy clone of Jason, and plans to send him back to the Academy as well. Jason is able to get a message through to Nicole in the nick of time...

When confronted with Dragos, a maniacal, bearded despot sporting a gold helmet, a red cape, black gloves and shoulder pads, Jason is heroically defiant. "Never on all the planets of the galaxy has evil won out over decency and freedom," he declares. "It's a lesson that tyrants like you have yet to learn."

So basically, Jason of Star Command is the old "good vs. evil" in space, with colorful villains, interesting sidekicks like the wind-up toy W1K1, and a hero that we all wanted to be like when we grew up: heroic, decent, and able to pilot a really cool spaceship. There's much here by way of smoke effects, alien costumes (Dragos' minions), and outer space battles, and as a kid I absolutely loved it all. Today, I appreciate the production values (particularly the miniature effects), consider the school which this drama arises from (Flash Gordon), and wonder, truly, how much of this stuff is buried deep in my psyche. I remember watching this series religiously as a kid (I was nine when it aired). But, even back then, this Star Trek kid still preferred Space Academy. Still, I'm grateful to have this series on DVD now (like the recently released Isis and Space Academy, and Land of the Lost), because I will always believe that Saturday morning ventures like those of Filmation and the Kroffts represent the "gateway" to science fiction literature, and more adult films and television. My son Joel is ten months old, too young for any of these shows (and definitely too young for Veronica Mars, according to my wife...). But one day, I will pop these discs in the DVD player, and I hope that they will capture his imagination the way they did mine.

Also, as a friend pointed out to me not long ago, a lot of Jason of Star Command is rather interesting because it seems so much of it got re-purposed into Glen Larson's Buck Rogers in the 25th Century in 1979, a remake of that popular character. There, Buck worked as a secret agent (soldier of fortune?) for the Directorate, much how Jason operates out of Star Command. Both men had robot sidekicks, one named wiki and one named Twiki. Buck's enemy was the Draconian Empire, commanded by an Emperor named Dracos; Jason's enemy was the similarly named Dragos. Both men were accompanied by a competent female officer of high rank, one who could handle herself in a fight, and who wore tight, form-fitting costumes, whether it was Wilma Deering or Nicole Davidoff. Again, this is sort of the Flash Gordon brand, but it's fun to note the numerous similarities. Jason of Star Command and Buck Rogers: this is "where" sci-fi TV was in the late 1970s.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999)

It's a sad testament to the state of contemporary critical analysis (and in particular, film criticism in this country) that a truly remarkable, multi-layered, deeply meaningful film such as Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999) was greeted by film reviewers upon its release not in terms of its place in Kubrick's career; nor in terms of what it actually concerned (or appeared to concern), but merely in terms of the then-"news worthy" Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman celebrity train. I suppose I should lay equal blame on the craven studio marketing campaign that promised this effort (from an intellectual, cinematic maestro...) was going to be the "sexiest film of all time." Perhaps it is a blessing that Kubrick didn't live to see how his final work of art was treated both in the marketplace of commerce and the marketplace of ideas. This is one of those cases in which the audience (mainstream film critics often included) weren't equal (or even near equal...) in terms of intelligence and thoughtfulness to the work of art it was being asked to countenance and consider.

Upon reflection, Eyes Wide Shut, a modernized adaptation of Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler's 1925 sexually-frank novella, Traumnovelle (a.k.a. "Dream Story"), is one of the finest, most symbolic and unique films of the 1990s. To understand the film properly, one should remember the context of the decade in which it was created. The nineties is the era in American modern history of "sex" on display; out in the open; in the national dialogue. This was the era of the Clinton Impeachment over oral sex (as well as the era of jokes about vaginal penetration by cigar). The 1990s was the era of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas scandal, which involved jokes about pubic hair on coke soda cans. From the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" controversy in 1993, another discussion of sex (in this case, homosexuality) debated in the public square, to the ascent of such television as Ally McBeal in the latter part of the decade, sex was overtly the obsession of politics and national dialogue. Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Ellen DeGeneres and her 1997 coming out with the "Puppy" episode of her sitcom, Woody Allen and Soon Yi. Need I continue? One can list dozens of 1990s "news" stories revolving around sex. And importantly, many of these examples involved an unpleasant, seedy side to sex: infidelity in the case of the Commander in Chief; sexual harassment in the case of a then-prospective Supreme Court Nominee, and so forth. Had Clinton been elected with "eyes wide shut," in that Americans voted for him even though it was clear he had a shady side? Had Clarence Thomas ascended to the highest court in the land as Republican Senators with "eyes wide shut" passed him through, with a lifetime appointment? Isn't "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," actually merely a synonym for "Eyes Wide Shut?" It's a textbook example of looking "the other way" at something that is plain as day.


This culture of public sexuality (and not necessarily pleasant sexuality) is the backdrop of Stanley Kubrick's final film. For those of you who don't recall the film's story, it goes something like this. Wealthy physician Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his gorgeous wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman) attend a Christmas party of a wealthy patient, Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). There, Alice is nearly seduced by a strange and creepy European fellow. She rejects his advances on the basis of her marriage to Bill, but on the following evening - when loosened up by a little weed - Alice lashes out at Bill. In the privacy of their bedroom (and garishly-lit bathroom), she tells him a story; about how just a year earlier she had a wild sexual fantasy about a stranger, a naval officer she happened to encounter while vacationing on Cape Cod with Bill and their young daughter, Helena. Alice felt such deep sexual attraction to this sailor, she claims, that she would have given up her husband and her daughter for just one fleeting night of passionate sex with him.

This sexual revelation shocks the button-downed Bill to his core, and he undertakes what amounts to an Orphean odyssey (one of my favorite plot devices, by the way) into the seamy underbelly of the sex trade in Manhattan. His mission: sexual vengeance. Bill nearly goes to bed with a sexy prostitute named Domino, ends up exposed to child exploitation in a costume shop with a gorgeous Lolita (Sobieski), and then finds himself at a creepy, vaguely-Satanic orgy for the super-rich at an isolated country estate. Unfortunately, Bill pays the price for venturing out of his comfortable cocoon and into this dangerous world: his livelihood and family are threatened when he is "outed" at the orgy and his unmasked face is seen (and no doubt remembered...) by the gathered guests. Bill escapes the scene intact, but learns that there was a price exacted for his sexual curiosity. The friend - a piano player named Nick Nightingale - who told him about the orgy (and provided the password: FIDELIO) has been "disappeared," and the beautiful masked woman who rescued him at the orgy has died in what appears to be an arranged "accidental" drug overdose. Ziegler was also present at the orgy and warns Bill to back off; to leave this be, lest repercussions for Harford and Alice grow. Bill acquiesces, but at home, Alice discovers the mask that Bill wore at the orgy, and the truth is out. Bill collapses into tears...


Bill's journey to the place, in the words of a super model he encounters, "where the rainbow ends" is one of dangerous duality. And that's a critical point in any understanding of Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick is delving here into the duality of "fantasy" sex: the illusion and the reality of sexual transgressions. He reveals this duality through a number of devices, not the least of which is the symbol of the "mask." Every character in the film wears one, whether literal or metaphorical. Bill puts on the mask of "Dr. Bill" and flashes his New York Medical Board Identification Card as though he is an F.B.I. agent investigating a case. Whenever Bill needs access to a world far from his own, whether the costume shop or a hotel, he flashes that card and puts on the air of objectivity and distance we have come to expect from doctors; a level of dispassion. We see it when he is with Ziegler too, an almost glacial non-emotionality. Underneath - below the mask - Bill is passionate in the sense that he is "aroused" by Alice's revelation of sexual desire for the sailor. Repeatedly in the film, Kubrick cuts to black-and-white fantasies - Bill's fantasies - of the sailor making passionate love to his wife while she writhes in passion. What Eyes Wide Shut does not make explicitly clear, is whether Bill's arousal is one of "anger," sexual stimulation or "discovery" or all three. When Alice late in the film relates to Bill a nightmare about being "naked" in a "garden" with him; we begin to understand that this is, in a sense, an Adam and Eve story. Bill has been shaken loose from his unquestioning paradise (his belief that his wife is not a sexual creature, driven by sexual desires) and his odyssey is one of "reality;" of being thrown out of the Garden of Eden.


Bill is not the only one who wears a mask in the film. Alice wears a mask too. Her mask is one of female propriety. She is a mother of a child; wife of a respected doctor. She is a professional woman. The mask of propriety - of respectability, one might claim - is shaken loose by her use of marijuana. In a splendid, lengthy dialogue scene with Bill, all of Alice's guilt and anger are released in a tidal wave of raw, emotional bluntness. She's cruel to Bill. Deliberately cruel. What she reveals is that her sexual desire is as "real" as any man's. That, contrary to popular myth, a woman can harbor sexual fantasies about fucking strangers too. Alice wants to hurt Bill, and that's why she tells him the story about the sailor; but like so many people in this repressed country, she is also deeply conflicted about sex. She has a nightmare in which she participates in an orgy, and is quite upset by it. She is unaware that her "dream" (and remember this is a "Dream Story") echoes Bill's waking odyssey.

Other characters in the drama also wear masks to hide what they don't want to see or others to see (eyes wide shut). Nick plays piano at the orgy...with a blind-fold on. Ziegler wears the mask of upright citizen and morally fit member of society when in fact, even during his Christmas party, he is upstairs fucking hookers. The men and women at the orgy all wear masks too: to hide their faces and indulge in their darkest and deepest sexual desires unrepressed by moral code.

A mask reveals one face and hides another - but which is the true face? Every major character in Eyes Wide Shut boasts this duality; this Janus-like quality of seeming to be one thing but actually being something quite different. Commendably, Kubrick utilizes other tools besides masks to express this essential quality of duality. Sexual adventure for lack of a better term, is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, sex with a stranger promises tantalizing pleasure; but on the other hand can be dangerous. In the case of pretty Domino, whom Bill nearly sleeps with, she tests HIV positive. In the case of Milich's underage daughter, intercourse is actually not merely wrong; but illegal, and therefore holds the threat of police intervention. In the case of the strange and disturbing orgy, Bill's participation at the event almost threatens everything he holds dear, from his career to his relationship with his wife. "FIDELIO" is the password (fidelity) at the orgy, and it is also, in a sense, Bill's constant reminder - even in the midst of his "arousal" over Alice's revelation - not to stray too far into the unknown. The surface appearance of Domino, the Milich daughter and the orgy is not the whole truth. There is the troubling "underneath." Just scrape the surface a little, and it is there (which, I contend, makes this film a Freudian exercise if there ever was one).

Alice gives Bill the "apple" and throws him out of marital paradise, so it is appropriate that much of Eyes Wide Shut is about Bill's dawning sexual awareness of self. It is highly unusual (but it makes a point...) that virtually every major character in the film relates to Bill sexually -- on a sexual level. He goes to visit Marion, a patient whose father has just died, and she makes a pass at him. He walks down a Manhattan street alone at night and is gay-bashed by a group of drunk blue collars guy, who make specific reference about having anal sex with him. Later, he is propositioned by a prostitute, but it is clear that Domino doesn't merely view Bill as "a John" or "business." She invites him back to her apartment for goodness' sake. How many prostitutes street walkers want a client to have that level of familiarity? She imagines pleasures with him, it is clear, and is disappointed when he is called away. Milich's daughter also relates to Bill sexually, whispering something naughty (and unheard by the audience) in his ear. Even in situations which are clearly not sexual, Bill is treated as a sexual object. For instance, when he goes to a hotel to inquire about Nick's disappearance, the gay hotel clerk (Alan Cumming) comes onto him. I believe that these events - basically everyone wanting to have sex with Bill - represent Kubrick's attempts to demonstrate the absolute availability of sexual encounters, if Bill should care to pursue them. He does not, and why he does not, I believe, is one of the issues raised (obliquely) by the film. Why is Bill faithful? As always, the glory of a Kubrick film is that he leaves such space wide open for individual interpretation, and the film can be read a number of ways.

The other way Kubrick deals with duality involves the film's deliberate blurring of the line between fantasy and reality; between dream and waking life. Alice has a dream about being at an orgy and Bill attends an orgy in waking. Alice reveals her sexual fantasy of being with that sailor, and that "dream" almost instantly becomes a sort of running stag film in Bill's mind;it is VERY real to him. Bill wants to feel sexual temptation like Alice felt, and suddenly everyone and their brother and sister is coming onto him. Is this real? Imagined? Fantasy? Ego? Finally, there's no good way to parse the disturbing orgy sequence, which plays out as some kind of arcane religious ritual, as anything but Bill's mind reclaiming power over his id before he is resigned to eternal damnation. The orgy is a dark place; a warning to his mind to go back (to not have sex with Domino or Marion) lest he lose that which he values, his marriage. Again, the literal and metaphorical gateway is that word fidelio. Fidelity is what restores him. Yes, the orgy represents temptation, but it is also so over-the-top, so sinister that his presence there and the repercussions, snap him back to reality (and to his priorities, which in this case involve protecting his family).

Much of Eyes Wide Shut, I believe, also utilizes the metaphor of physical nudity to express the idea of being emotionally naked or emotionally exposed. Alice experiences a nightmare in which she is naked and it disturbs her. The first shot of the film is a rear-view of Alice completely nude (and it is a spectacular shot), but her back remains to the camera, meaning we don't have access to her face, or thus what she is thinking. Later, when we do see her face, it is in a mirror (again with the duality), and I interpret her expression (as Bill attempts to kiss her...) as one of either disappointment or boredom. Bill also steadfastly refuses to be "naked" in the film, always wearing that physician's mask of dispassion and distance. He is told, at one point during the orgy, to "remove his clothes" or it will be "done" for him. That's sort of the narrative drive of the film in a simple thought: Bill coming at last in touch with his emotions and drive (and sexuality) and not hiding it, not burying it under layers of professional propriety. The catharsis in the film, and I don't think many critics or viewers understood this, occurs when Alice confronts Bill - literally - with his mask. She lays out the mask before him and he bursts into helpless tears, with no choice remaining but to confront the truth; his id - about sexual temptation, about his sexual odyssey - everything. Indeed, one might read the film in this way: It's the story of a woman very unhappily married to a passionless man who just "cruises" (pun intended) through life never really feeling much. A European stranger, a man of Hungarian accent who could very be Dracula (ad who represents foreign eroticism), attempts to seduce his wife, and the husband is not roused to jealousy. He does nothing. Feels nothing. So, angry at the lack of passion, the lack of jealousy, this woman reveals a story that challenges the husband's very manhood. In response, the sexual impulse in the husband (Bill) is consequently re-awakened. After several attempts to channel it (with prostitutes, at an orgy), he "morally" comes home to wife and, as the final scene suggests, finally - in Alice's terms - "fucks" his wife. It was apparently a long time coming. Read in this manner, the film is a defense of marriage or monogamy. All sorts of obstacles and temptations are put before a married couple (super models, orgies, prostitutes, Lolitas, and men with European accents...) but the couple ends up together, relieving the sexual tension with one another, in a "healthy" and "safe" coupling.

Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream? Is there some reason to believe that Eyes Wide Shut (a title which suggests REM sleep, or dreaming) is but a phantasm of slumber? Is it but a dream itself? The film could be read that way too. If this odyssey is Bill's dream, his sexual fantasy, then that certainly explains why everybody comes onto him. We're all the heroes of our own sexual fantasies, aren't we? To express that this is a dream world, Kubrick puts up almost subliminal messages as clues to the audience. When Bill meets Domino the streetwalker, behind him two words are seen in neon: EROS and HOTEL - both of which seem to be leading him one way (to a tryst). In her apartment, a book title is obvious. More accurately, it's placement is obvious so we can read it: Introducing Sociology. Sociology, of course, is the study of human interaction, and that's the name of the game in this film...the most intimate of human interactions. Finally, after Bill escapes the dangerous orgy, he reads a newspaper and the headline blares, not coincidentally: LUCKY TO BE ALIVE! I suggest that given Kubrick's obsessive methodology in creating a film and composing shots (deciding what is seen in each and very frame), none of this can possibly be accidental or coincidental. Ditto the napkin - in full insert shot - that reads, importantly FIDELIO. EROS (love), Sociology (human interaction)m Sex and Danger: Lucky to be Alive (in the age of AIDS), and FIDELIO (faithful to a spouse). These are core components of the film, no?


Eyes Wide Shut is a cold, deliberate, hypnotic film; like many of Kubrick's ventures. But it is visually and intellectually haunting. I own it on DVD because I'm a Kubrick fan, but also because I'm a horror movie fan, and in many important ways, this film shares something in common with the horror genre. The primary narrative (with so many gaps in logic) when coupled with the symbolic imagery creates a kind of half-rational, half-recognizable dream or nightmare world. A minimalist score (a haunting, repetitive piano) underscores the horror, and occasionally Kubrick makes us stare right into the heart of darkness when he provides first-person subjective shots of the masked denizens at that creepy, creepy orgy. These people look like monsters, like vultures as they stare blankly at the camera (and thus us). They are the id let loose, the ugliness of desire run rampant, without restraint or morality.

Kubrick, though obsessed with realism in terms of lighting and set design, comes from a period in film history when directors could be more expressive; more artificial and less naturalistic. I suspect this is why modern audiences may not take to the film easily. It seems slow to us because it consists of long, elaborate shots that chart space (think of those hotel corridors in The Shining, and you know what I mean.) Characters dreamily repeat themselves many times in the film, speaking in a kind of sing-songy, rote fashion. I see all of this as integral parts of the film's lyrical, trance-like mood, but it is not *technically* realistic. But this is art, not reality tv, so deal with it. Unfortunately, the tide of history is against Kubrick and this film tradition: as a culture we are demanding more and more grittiness and "realism" from our entertainment, and letting go of artifice and theatricality. Quick, fragmentary editing has replaced long shots that chart a film's inner space and geography. I submit that, given film's relationship to dreaming (with eyes wide open), this is a mistake. Film can be like a dream or a nightmare, and we risk sacrificing subtext and symbolism if everything we see must be accepted as "literal" truth.


In the final analysis, it doesn't matter how you choose to interpret this film. It could be a "dream story," a sexual fantasy, a passion play defending marriage, a story about the double edged sword of sexual encounters (tantalizing AND dangerous), or an Orphean tale of a hero reclaiming his bride after traveling a stygian underworld. Perhaps, by contrast, it is a sexual Garden of Eden story, about a man pushed out of marital bliss by "knowledge" of his wife's fantasies. In the end...no matter. What's great - and rewarding as a viewer - is that Kubrick has offered a rich, complex film about which we can speculate and interpret so much. He has done the work of the artist. He has "created." Now you decide.

Monday, August 06, 2007

McFarland Film/TV Books for August

A number of interesting titles from McFarland this month. I've already got The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (about Doctor Who) on hand in my office, and look forward to reading and reviewing it when I get a break from my current book deadline (September 1). I'm also interested in the one on video games from the 1970s and early 1980s.

Anime Intersections
This text examines the artistic development of anime, from its origins as a subset of the Japanese film industry to its modern-day status, as one of the most popular forms of animation worldwide. Chapter One provides a discussion of the history of anime and the separate phases of the artistic process involved in creating a traditional anime film. The main body of the text comprises nine chapters, each of which is devoted to a detailed analysis of a chosen production and explores the technical and thematic developments pioneered in works such as Ninja Scroll, Perfect Blue, and Howl’s Moving Castle. The final chapter examines the impact of the medium within Western contexts, focusing on changing perceptions of anime and on the medium’s frequent appearances within Western pop culture and the fine arts. A complete bibliography and filmography are included.

The Body in Hollywood Slapstick
Because they rely heavily on physical comedy, many Hollywood slapstick films can be understood as comic meditations on the place and nature of the human body. Focusing on the works of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy, among others, this book examines ways that the body represents or interacts with the mind, setting, voice and machines in slapstick films. Also covered are female performances in slapstick and brutality and suffering in the slapstick tradition.







The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
The long-running BBC science fiction program Doctor Who has garnered an intense and extremely loyal fan base since its 1963 debut. This work examines the influences of psychology, literature, pop culture, and the social sciences on Doctor Who storylines and characters. Topics explored include how such issues as class, gender, and sexual attraction factor into the relationships between the Doctor and his companions; whether the Doctor suffers from multiple personality disorder or other psychological afflictions; and the role of the Doctor’s native culture in shaping his sense of identity.





Reading Brokeback Mountain
This collection offers 15 critical essays on Annie Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain” and its controversial film adaptation by screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana and director Ang Lee. Each essay explores the short story, the film, and the sociocultural phenomenon that followed the release of the motion picture in December 2005.This anthology includes selections from traditional perspectives and from postmodern angles, including women’s studies, gender studies, queer studies, sexuality studies, ethnic studies, and American studies. Many of the essays focus primarily on the film, its critical reception, its stars, its director, its soundtrack, and its cultural implications.



Fantasy Fiction into Film
This work examines the symbolism of fantasy fiction, literal and figurative representation in fantastic film adaptations, and the imaginative differences between page and screen. Essays focus on movies adapted from various types of fantasy fiction—novels, short stories and graphic novels—and study the transformation and literal translation from text to film in the Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Howl’s Moving Castle, Finding Neverland, The Wizard of Oz, Wicked and Practical Magic.







Classic Home Video Games, 1972–1984
This work gazes at obscure video games of the 1970s and early 1980s, covering virtually every official United States release for programmable home game consoles of the pre–Nintendo NES era. Included are the following systems: Adventure Vision, APF MP1000, Arcadia 2001, Astrocade, Atari 2600, Atari 5200, Atari 7800, ColecoVision, Fairchild Channel F, Intellivision, Microvision, Odyssey, Odyssey2, RCA Studio II, Telstar Arcade, and Vectrex.Organized alphabetically by console brand, each chapter includes a history and description of the game system, followed by substantive, encyclopedia-style entries for every game released for that console, regardless of when the game was produced. Each video game entry includes publisher/developer information and the release year, along with a detailed description and, frequently, the author’s critique. A glossary provides a helpful guide to the classic video game genres and terms referenced throughout the work. An appendix lists a number of “homebrew” titles that have been created by fans and amateur programmers and are available for download or purchase.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Trek Film 101

Leonard Nimoy is on board to reprise the role of Mr. Spock in the upcoming Star Trek XI and it looks like director J.J. Abrams is intent on bringing back William Shatner as Captain Kirk, if he can find a way to do so meaningfully. Given this optimistic bit of news about the franchise, I thought I would post all six movie trailers from Youtube, and also pose six questions about Star Trek film franchise history (in honor of the six Star Trek films featuring the original cast). I'd like to read your responses in the comments and see if we longtime Trek-perts are on the same page (or close to the same page...) about Trek filmdom. Based on your answers, maybe we can together intuit what we'd like to see in terms of tone, story etc. for Star Trek XI.


1. What is the best Star Trek film?
2. What is your favorite Star Trek film?
3. Which is the most underrated Star Trek film?
4. Which is the most cinematic Star Trek film?
5. Which Star Trek film best captures the aura or feeling of the series?
6. Which Star Trek film do you watch the least (even if you don't consider it the worst)?


My answers (but don't let it prejudice you...).
1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
2. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
3. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
4. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
5. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
6. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Based on my answers, I guess I'd like to see an "adventure" film with a great villain like The Wrath of Khan, featuring the intelligence, intrigue and political commentary of The Undiscovered Country. Cinematically, I'd like the film to have the scope and grandeur of The Motion Picture, with some of the jaunty, esprit de corps and character emotionality of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Finally - though I appreciate humor - in the long run I prefer my Star Treks to be serious business, set in space or on other worlds (not Earth, past or present), and boasting situationally-appropriate humor but not prevalent humor. There - that's my perfect recipe for a Star Trek movie. What's yours?


And now, the movie trailers...