Thursday, November 29, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK #39: Darkroom (1981): "Siege of August 31"

"You're in a house. Maybe your own. Maybe one you've never seen before. You feel it. Something evil. You run. But there's no escape. Nowhere to turn. You feel something beckoning you. Drawing you into the terror that awaits you in...the darkroom."
-James Coburn's opening narration to Darkroom, a 1981-1982 horror anthology

On Friday nights in 1981, the place for avid horror fans was the Darkroom, a creepy ABC anthology that ran for seven hour-long episodes before cancellation. Produced by Christopher Crowe and executive story consultant Jeffrey Bloom, Darkroom was very much a series in the spirit of Rod Serling's Night Gallery. Each 60-minute story featured one or more macabre tale, usually with a supernatural bent and some diabolical twist ending. Not available on DVD today, this is one of those fondly remembered horror shows that hasn't seen the light of day in a long time. In the 1990s it sometimes appeared on the USA Network or the Sci-Fi Channel.

The series' opening montage was a work of art in its own right. A camera positioned low-to-the-ground - and likely a steadicam - races at warp speed through an entirely empty but ornate, gothic-style Victorian house. The camera whips down the stairs, cruises across long empty spaces, and rockets about to the baritone words of James Coburn's narration (above), until it stops at the imposing door of...the Darkroom. Perhaps this sequence was inspired by Stanley Kubrick's similar charting of inner space via steadicam in The Shining (1981), but I also wondered while re-watching this sequence if some part of it played into my earliest, formative imaginations and psychic gestalt on The House Between: a ghostly, empty house with - as the narration establishes "nowhere to turn." Anyway, it's a damn good opening sequence.

The trademark Darkroom episode, perhaps the most heavily publicized and most eagerly anticipated of the short run, was a special effects extravaganza entitled "Siege of August 31" which involved a Vietnam veteran and southern farmer named Neil (played by Ronny Cox) locked in combat with toy soldiers (and toy vehicles, including a helicopter) made animate.

The final confrontation, an impressive collage of rear projection, blue screen and miniature effects, occurs in a barn by black of night as the veteran adorns his uniform and literally returns to the war that haunts his dreams. The specifics of the tale involve Neil bringing home to his son Ben two toy play sets of "Company B" -- American soldiers. As the ten year old boy is forced to attend military school by his demanding father, the toy soldiers begin speaking to the boy, telling him about the atrocities committed by American military men in Vietnam. Neil thinks the boy is trying to spite him, since there is no way young Ben could possibly know about his wartime experiences. The last straw is when Neil stumbles upon a toy Vietnam destroyed in flames. Neil's wife (Gail Strickland) begs Neil to let the boy stay home and not attend the school but the father refuses to relent. In fact, he decides to send the boy the very next day. It is that night that Neil meets his destiny in the barn, fighting a toy army and air force.

Based on a short story by Davis Grubb, and written for television by Peter S. Fischer, "Siege of August 31" is directed by Peter Crane. Watching it today, one gets a sense of how deeply conflicted the story is, a reflection of how ambiguous the Vietnam War experience was for the nation, I suppose. On the one hand, Neil (Cox) is portrayed as a veteran who was wounded in war (he lost a leg...) and who wants what is best for his son. He wants Ben to be more than him, more than "just a dumb old dirt farmer." The best he ever felt, he claims, was as as a soldier. "I felt like I counted as something. Like I had something to give." His wife is not so pleased about the whole military academy thing. She doesn't want Ben to be a soldier.. "They got your leg," she tells Neil. "You want them to get your son too?"

On the other hand, Neil is depicted in deliberately unflattering, villainous terms as well. He strikes his wife across the face not once but twice, and is merciless - nay, actually vicious - with Ben, his son. He refuses to relent in his quest to send the boy off to a military academy against his will. Which leaves the toys no alternative, I suppose, but to intervene and stop him. In the end, Neil is a casualty of this personal and very odd war, and his wife eulogizes him. "He was a good man, a fine man," she tells Ben. "[That was] before he went off to war. He used to laugh all the time."

So, on one hand, "Siege of August 31" is an anti-war statement, commenting on atrocities committed under orders (the same mantra used by the Nazis tried for war crimes...), but on the other it wants to support the troops, saying that they did what they had to do. Basically, the story doesn't make a lot of narrative sense, especially since the teleplay explicitly states that Neil did not participate in the particular atrocities depicted by the toys. In fact, he has to phone his colonel to ask about that particular village. So, as a soldier, is he responsible for what the other soldiers do? Is he responsible for being part of a corrupt system? Is that the real "villain" of the piece, the government that sends men to war in the first place?

This is not a small question, and even more pertinent today given the situation in Iraq. Perhaps I'm being pedantic in demanding the story pick a definitive side in what is a complicated issue, but the story is less than it should because it never decides what the point here is. Had Rod Serling been writing, he would have picked a side, either choosing the soldiers and coming down on the side of nationalism, or - much more likely - making the Neil character someone who has to pay for his bad deeds. As it is, the story is diffident instead of forceful. I mean, if it is the system at fault, then both the animate toys and Neil are collateral damage. Why are they fighting each other and not Washington D.C.?

Yet "Siege of August 31" remains incredibly memorable because of that great special effects denouement (which was trumpeted in commercials and previews for the series). One suspects that the battle between Cox and the toy army is the show's real raison d'etre, and truth be told, the special effects hold up pretty damn well today. As a signature episode of Darkroom, the episode is a nostalgic blast, but one wishes that the producers had decided to tell the story in more convincing and clear-headed terms. Instead, the series wants to play things both ways. Neil is both a victim and an aggressor, and that makes the role of the vengeful toys that much harder to ferret out. Ultimately, in the end - during that great spfx battle - you don't know who to cheer for. And for the story to work well, you really, really should. Instead, you're kind of left feeling sorry for everybody. Ben has no father because the toys killed him. Neil was brought down by his blind patriotism and learned nothing. And what force brought the toys to life? Hmmm...

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

TV REVIEW: Mad Men (Season One; AMC)

I hope you'll forgive the lateness of this review. Having a year-old baby to look after means that some programs (and films...) remain in my DVR queue longer than I'd like. At any rate, I've now watched every compelling episode of this summer series right up to the finale and all I can say Mad Men, a dramatic series from former Sopranos’ writer Matthew Weiner, is surely one of the best efforts on television, summer, winter or fall.

Set in early 1960, sometime before the Kennedy-Nixon election (which plays an important part in later episodes), this is the story of “life” (and work..) at Sterling Cooper Advertising, a high-powered Madison Avenue advertising firm. With lavish visuals and meticulous attention to detail, this unexpectedly riveting period piece paints a picture of life in corporate America as it once was (and how many Republicans would once again like it to be...).

The audience’s entrée into the world of Mad Men comes from the character of young Peggy (Moss), a female secretary recently hired by Sterling Cooper. In the series premiere, the audience is escorted alongside Peggy on a tour of the office. Ensconced on her desk is an electric typewriter and a rotary phone, and her boss in the secretarial pool, Joan (Hendricks) encouragingly suggests Peggy not be “afraid” of all that intimidating technology. Such a quip not only rings true for the characters but suggests the double layers of meaning inherent in this show. To the contemporary viewer – in the age of I-Pods and I-Phones - these over sized, clattering devices look antiquated and so the comment feels ironic or humorous; yet in the world of 1960, these characters are justifiably proud of this state-of-the-art instrumentation.

Later in the same show, Peggy meets the women who control the phone lines – the operators (who are relegated to a tiny rectangular room dominated by large machinery) that connect calls for the ad men - and she is instructed to be nice to them, lest they don’t connect her calls for her boss. That’s how the last secretary got fired, in point of fact: she couldn’t get her boss’s calls connected anymore. Who could imagine doing business that way today?

Mad Men beautifully and artistically depicts the business world of nearly fifty years ago. It is a world of cigarettes and constant smoking, non-stop martinis, and the utter, unquestionable sexual and professional dominance of the white man, the World War II generation. That final piece is what comes across loud and clear here: the manner in which the advertising men rule the roost both at home and on the job. Women truly are second-class citizens, staying at home, caring for children and tending house, while those who do go to work are treated like sexual opportunities. Minorities aren't in good shape, either. They’re waiters or elevator operators and don’t even rate on the hierarchy; they’re invisible, nothing more than wallpaper. And don’t get me started about the way that divorced women are regarded and treated...

This background detail is critically important to Mad Men, which focuses primarily on two white men of different ages and their end-of-season collision. The first character in this rat race is Don Draper (Jon Hamm), an extraordinary war veteran and ad-man who is afraid he is no longer at the top of his game. The name "Draper" sounds a lot like "dapper," and that's one thing Don surely is: all hat and no cattle, so-to-speak because - as we soon learn - his life story is actually as manufactured as his ad campaigns. Don is married to a beautiful but anxious young woman whose hands often shake, Betty (January Jones), and Don is having an affair with an artist in the city. Later in the run of episodes, he has a second extra-marital affair. He’s a cold fish too, skipping out on his young daughter’s birthday party because he can no longer stand the social niceties. This is after boozing it up all day.

Don’s competitor at the firm is the young lion, Peter Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) an up-and-comer brimming with arrogance. He’s an immediate thorn in Draper’s side, though in one episode, “New Amsterdam” the audience sees how Campbell is also trapped, saddled with a grasping, condescending wife and a rich family that has certain "expectations" for him. Campbell is desperate to be seen as a legitimate talent (and in one episode he takes up writing to prove he is as talented as one of his peers), and even more desperate to climb the corporate ladder. As the season ends, he resorts to blackmailing Draper, with unusual results.

The reason to watch Mad Men is not just that the characters and drama are entirely fascinating. They are, but what Weiner has so commendably done here is opened a time-capsule to reveal to audiences just how much America has changed in the past-half century. This is no longer a country where pregnant women smoke and drink. This is no longer a world where going to see a psychologist holds such a dramatic stigma. Instead, the series takes place at the very end of that bygone era, a moving into the world of “Camelot,” which then gives way to the British invasion in music (The Beatles), the controversial Vietnam War, and the Kennedy assassination. Understandably, many people consider this era (of Mad Men) the end of innocence, but what Mad Men depicts is not innocence; just a different world, and an extinct one: a Boy’s Business Club. Many of us tend to wish for simpler times, or to look at the past with nostalgic eyes, but Mad Men dramatically slaps off any such rose-colored glasses. If you were a white man, heck yeah this world was great. If not...tough luck.

As drama, and as an artifact of “another world,” but one that comments rather successfully on ours, this is one of the most fascinating TV series of the year. It has been renewed for a second season, and I’m looking forward to season two next summer.

Monday, November 26, 2007

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 70: Mr. Spock Decanter (Grenadier, 1979)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture on December 7, 1979, the Grenadier Spirits Company unveiled this fascinating and unusual franchise collectible, a "beautifully handcrafted ceramic bust" of the half-Vulcan science officer played by Leonard Nimoy.

According to the literature on the packaging, this Grenadier Original "has captured in each handpainted figurine the uncanny likeness of our favorite Vulcan using only the finest quality porcelain."

And if that's not enough, each Mr. Spock decanter is filled with "Cielo" Liqueur(!) and, according to the back of the box "will be an eye-catching addition for every fan's showcase." The Cielo is 48 proof, in case you were interested, and there's 750 ml. What, no Romulan Ale? Or Tranya?

The back of the box, which features a nice head-onillustration of the classic NCC-1701 (after two-and-half-years in dry dock...) also includes some background on the series and film. "Since its creation, Star Trek has spawned millions of fans and hundreds of fan clubs, publications and conventions," it says in part. Then there's some info on Nimoy, noting he was nominated for three successive Emmys for his portrayal of this beloved character.

I picked up one of these Grenadier Spock decanters mint-in-box back at a huge antiques show in Maryland back in 1990, and was pleased to find it. I always enjoy some of the weirder Star Trek items (for instance, the Star Trek V: The Final Frontier marshmallow dispenser...), though I'm sure Mr. Spock would raise an eyebrow at an alcohol decanter molded in his image. That this item is from Star Trek: The Motion Picture and features the science-officer in a uniform he was only seen in once also makes it a pretty cool example of series memorabilia.

Finally, I have to wonder...will I be adding a Zachary Quinto Mr. Spock decanter to my collection come next Christmas?

Monday, November 19, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: Spider-Man 3 (2007)

Watching Spider-Man 3, a big summer blockbuster, I had to wonder if director Sam Raimi hadn't, at least in some sense, fallen victim to his own well as audience expectations. The talented director who got his start nearly 25-years ago with the gonzo, ingenious Evil Dead has already crafted three of the most entertaining superhero films ever made (the two earlier Spider-Man films, plus 1990's Darkman). Therefore, to witness a Spider-Man movie that aims high but just treads water is somehow disappointing, especially coming from Raimi. When - in all fairness - a Fantastic Four film of this quality would be a huge revelation. Imagine if Ghost Rider, Catwoman, Elektra, The Hulk or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen had been this good. Fan-Boys (and girls...) would be celebrating.

Yet given Raimi's over sized talent and the extremely high bar set by the earlier Spider-Man films, Spider-Man 3 smells a little bit like a letdown. Not a huge stinking, throw-out-your-action-figures letdown (like, say, X3), but a letdown nonetheless. It is pleasant to watch, often diverting, now-and-then amusing, and occasionally inspired but also more often than not a victim to the law of sequelitis called "diminishing returns." There's something a little stale and familiar about the whole thing. It's a perfect movie to watch this Thanksgiving, not because it is a turkey, but because it feels overstuffed.

There was a good story here somewhere, buried beneath all the spectacle and digital effects, and one wonders how much Raimi had to succumb to studio calls to make this flick bigger and more spectacular than the other films in the franchise, a choice that severely damages what is good about the film. Specifically, Spider-Man 3's heart rests in the right place: in the growing (and difficult) relationship between Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and Harry Osborn (James Franco). It's a love triangle of sorts, but more than that too: the friendship between Harry and Peter has turned to hatred over the death of Harry's father, the original Green Goblin. I believe a fine, exciting Spider-Man film could have been produced telling the story of this triangle, and Harry's fall and redemption. I mean, Harry is our "New Goblin." We don't require any more villains than he; and the character deserves that spotlight given his prominence in the love triangle.

But instead - and disappointingly - the movie must provide two additional villains to get in all those CGI effects. So we get the origin story and crime spree of the Sandman (Thomas Haden-Church) a small-time criminal made a super villain. We find out in this film that he is the real murderer of Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), but that he was just trying to save his sick daughter. This is all something of a shaggy dog story since the audience never learns if his daughter is cured or not. Not even one line of dialogue is provided on this front. Instead, the movie simply sees the Sandman robbing armored cars and the like to get money for his daughter's operation. Then, at the end of the film, Spider-Man doesn't vanquish him. After soliciting Peter's forgiveness for the death of Ben, the Sandman just flies away between skyscrapers. Gee -- if he wanted to make more money to save his daughter, maybe he could sell the story of Spider-Man's true identity since Spider-Man fights him sans mask...

And then there's the film's other super villain, Venom, played for a short while by a snarky Topher Grace. I admit it, it would be hard to remove the Venom subplot from the film, because it grants Spider-Man 3 it's overarching metaphor and symbolism: anger and revenge personified. Basically, Venom is a "symbiote" that amplifies the tendencies of the host, especially aggression. Peter Parker is exposed to the black goop from space (which conveniently lands in the park just feet from Peter and Mary Jane...), and lets the "dark side" of his personality take over. He becomes consumed with hatred and anger. Aunt May says of such anger, "it's like a can take you over. Before you know it, it turns you ugly."

The first film boasted a metaphor about puberty/adolescence (Peter learning how to shoot those icky webs...); the second film had symbolism about impotence and lack of confidence (Peter was unsuccessfully in school, career and love, and occasionally couldn't fire those webs..), so it is natural and right that the third film would find a metaphor involving the latest dilemma of the characters. But long periods of this film go by where the space symbiote hangs out (literally) in Peter's apartment, waiting to strike...and not striking. The film has to cycle through all the various plot strands and villains before it lands substantively on the concept of Peter going dark.

Which was done, as superhero fans will note, in much the same fashion in Superman III (1983). Back then, exposure to Richard Pryor's synthetic kryptonite concoction split Superman into two people; one good and one dark. Spider-Man goes through similar paces here, though for some reason, Peter's exposure causes him to act like an extra from Saturday Night Fever (1977). Yeah, suddenly he's a disco dancer "strutting" like a greasy John Travolta. This sequence goes on and on and feels so out-of-sync with the rest of the movie that it's almost jaw-dropping in its pure awfulness. Again, my feeling is that Raimi is a victim of his own success. Everybody loved the "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" musical interlude from Spider-Man 2; and we all know sequels have to run the same paces...only bigger and better. Thus we get an extended dork musical interlude in Spider-Man 3.

So Spider-Man 3 is a tad on the schmaltzy, over sentimental side, and don't even get me started on the bizarre, poorly-timed "revelation" scene from Harry's man-servant which just happens to set everything on the right course for a rapprochement between friends., Still, there are glories to be found here. It's great to have the original cast back together (even Dafoe and Robertson!), and Bruce Campbell and J.K. Simmons' get to do some inspired comedic shtick in their supporting roles.

But best of all is that the wacky Raimi sensibility has been retained in terms of action sequences. Raimi is the undisputed master at piling on unexpected elements in an action sequence so that it becomes more involving than just your average neighborhood wrestling match. I remember in Spider-Man 2 how he unexpectedly incorporated Aunt May into a fight sequence with Doc Ock. Here, he surprises again, finding a way to invest an early battle sequence between skyscrapers with real interest and tension. In particular, the previous scene involves Aunt May giving Peter the wedding ring she has kept on her finger for nearly fifty years, as he plans to propose to Mary Jane. There is a lovely monologue from the always-impressive Rosemary Harris about how Ben proposed to her all those years ago. It's a fine, emotional moment...a genuinely heartfelt one.

Then, in the very next scene, Peter is ambushed by Harry on his way home, scooped into the air, and battered. In the tussle, that valuable family heirloom goes flying down towards street level far below the fighting friends. Instead of being a simple slug match between super titans, the ensuing fight sequence finds Peter struggling to keep track of the falling ring while simultaneously evading attacks from Harry. Although the CG still looks lame to me (sorry...), my emotions were fully engaged because the previous scene - with that great acting and dialogue - resonated. That ring is important, we know - essentially a Hitchcockian McGuffin, because Raimi took the time to set up the importance to the characters. Most directors don't understand this notion. They stage fights straight on, with no focal point to make fisticuffs and flying anything more than special effects spectacles. Raimi wisely provides the audience a focal point, and then - in his unpredictable, stylish way - raises the stakes again and again. He goes over the top in his tweaking of us, but we forgive him his trespasses because we are fully invested in the theatricality and importance of the moment.

And frankly, I think the idea of raising the stakes explains some of the problems in this not-bad/not-great threequel. Raimi doesn't get to raise the stakes often enough, or stick closely and authentically enough to the emotional subject matter of the story, the Harry-Mary Jane-Peter triangle. Instead the film is all tricked up with new villains and new special effects...but somehow, the heart of the hero (and the heart of the story) gets sacrificed. The movie feels overcrowded and diffuse instead of tense and focused.

I'm a huge Raimi fan (heck, I wrote a book about the guy in 2004...), but I think it's a good decision for him to leave the franchise. He's been on the Spider-Man beat since before he directed The Gift in 2000. That's a long time to be devoted to one property. Now the franchise needs fresh blood, and Raimi needs a new challenge. I'd love to see him do The Shadow, or Thor, or some other superhero, because his understanding of the genre is pretty-much unequaled. But it is very, very difficult to bring something new to a familiar franchise on the seventh year, in the third film, especially when you have to satisfy all marketing and corporate corners. If Raimi wants to leave superheroes behind all together, he should direct The Hobbit, since Peter Jackson has built a career on imitating Raimi's camera moves anyway. Unlike his disciple, however, Raimi boasts a sense of pace and discipline...his films are rarely self-indulgent like Jackson's highly-praised but inferior spectacles.

In short, I don't think Spider-Man 3 destroys or damages the franchise too terribly -- it's still head and shoulders (in my opinion...) above superhero franchises like Fantastic Four, X-Men and I'd also include the inconsistent Batman series. The biggest problem is that Raimi has wowed us the previous two times at bat, and this time he hits a double instead of a home run.

And we got used to the home runs.

Friday, November 16, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK #38: The Twilight Zone: "Walking Distance"

There are probably more than seventy-five episodes of Rod Serling's classic series The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) worth remembering in one of these cult tv flashbacks. And I intend - over the years - to get to many of 'em! There's William Shatner spying a gremlin on the wing of an airliner in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," or my personal Shatner fave: "Nick of Time," a second season Zone which sees the Shat waging a psychological war with a bobble-head Devil on a dime-store fortune-telling machine. God, I love that episode even more than the gremlin one, maybe because the true subject nature (like the best episodes of the series), is human nature and especially the pitfalls of our nature that trap so many of us.

And then there's "Time Enough At Last," with Burgess Meredith as a dedicated book reader who survives a nuclear holocaust only to...

Or the one about the woman in the bus station who spies her double... but no one believes her until more doubles start showing up...

Or the episode about the woman in bandages, getting plastic surgery, and we don't see her face (or the face of her surgeon...) until the denouement...

Well, you know, don't you? The funny thing about The Twilight Zone is that there are 156 episodes of this classic anthology series, but during the yearly marathons on Sci-Fi, the same fifty or so episodes get rerun. The one with "Talky Tina," or the woman (Agnes Moorehead) in the remote cabin with little spacemen chasing her ("The Invaders'), or the one about a very special alien cookbook ("To Serve Man.") These episodes are all timeless and terrific and worthy of broadcast from here to eternity.

But there are other eminently worthy wonders in this land of imagination too; ones that don't quite bite with scalding irony, or sting with surprise and O'Henry twists. Instead, these installments tug at the heart strings and evidence a deep melancholy. Which brings us to my selection today: "Walking Distance," by Rod Serling. It originally aired in 1959...nearly fifty years ago, during The Twilight Zone's first season on CBS.

This is the story of 36 year old "vice president of media" Martin Sloan (Gig Young), a successful but overworked businessman. He feels like he's been at a "dead run" for a long time, and has grown tired. Martin makes an unexpected stop at a rural gas station one day, only to realize that he's within walking distance of his hometown, "Homewood." It's a place he hasn't visited in over twenty years. While his car is serviced at the station, Martin walks down a dusty road (and we watch him go down that long path in a clever shot utilizing a mirror...), and straight into the Twilight Zone.

For that old town - a place of ice cream sodas, merry-go-rounds, games of marbles, Sundays in the parks and band concerts - hasn't changed a whit in two decades. It still costs a dime for a chocolate ice cream soda with three scoops. Martin wanders the streets and begins to remember a time in his life when things were simpler; slower...happier. He remembers a time when he was eleven years old carving his initials onto a gazebo in the park.

Then, wonder of wonders, Martin spies himself as a teenager carving those initials. He has returned the past. He has traveled back 25 years. Excited, Martin runs to his house and sees his Mom and Dad; both long dead in the present. He pleads with them, telling them he's their son. However, they fear he's a crazed man, a lunatic escaped from an asylum. Determined, the adult Martin chases down his young self on a merry-go-round, and tries to tell him a very important message. He succeeds only in scaring the teenage version of himself, and the boy falls and injures his knee. It's an injury that both Martins feel simultaneously - since they are one in the same. "I only wanted to tell you that this is a wonderful time of life for you," the elder Martin whispers sadly after the boy has been taken away. "Don't let any of it go by without enjoying it."

Finally, Martin meets his father again at the foot of the merry-go-round...and his Dad knows who he really is now (Martin dropped his wallet). His father is loving but stern, and tells the elder Martin he must return to the present. "There's no room. There's no place," he tells him. "...maybe there's only one summer for every customer..." Giving the kind of advice only a Daddy can give, Martin's father also suggests "You've been looking behind you, Martin. Try looking ahead."

As Serling's closing narration makes plain, "Walking Distance" is about the fact that no matter how hard we try, we can't go home again. The past is sometimes so close to us that we feel we can reach out and touch it, that it is merely "walking distance" from here. A scent, a turn of a phrase, a photograph, a song, even a retro-toy flashback(!) can spur images of a past that we have left behind...yet not forgotten. And many people, like Martin Sloan, experience that "errant wish" as Serling describes it, that a "man might not have to become older," might never have to outgrow the merry-go-rounds of his youth.

"Walking Distance" is a beautifully-shot episode of The Twilight Zone, as well as an emotional journey that speaks to human truth. At the center of the story is the merry-go-round as metaphor. Life is indeed like a merry-go-round, we understand: we climb on, it starts to spin, and it feels like we can't easily get off....not without jumping. The episode plays with that notion artfully as the adult Martin chases down his younger self on the spinning amusement park ride.

The merry-go-round is depicted at a cockeyed angle, spinning ever faster. As Elder Martin nears his prey, the camera adopts a high-angle during the chase. Tellingly, Martin never quite reaches himself, just as a merry-go-round spins and spins, moves and moves, but never actually goes anywhere or reaches any destination. When Martin turns around and goes against the tide of the merry-go-round, time seems to slow down and this descent feels like a reckoning, as past and future finally collide, and Martin must make a choice about where he is going to live, and more importantly, how he is going to live. His world needn't be one of "no more cotton candy," "no more band concerts" but to change it, he has to change how he sees life. I love how the episode culminates around a tender conversation between father and grown son...a conversation that could not occur anywhere but the Twilight Zone, because in reality, the father is long dead. Here, the "fifth dimension" makes room for a son - no longer a kid - to experience the wisdom of his father one last time; when he needs it most. Martin's father is the age of the elder Martin, and one sense in both the performance and the dialogue that his Pop understands too well Martin's desire to return to the past; a past without responsibility or stress.

Rod Serling died young, and much of his work, including "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" on Night Gallery expressed this wistful desire to return to a "simpler" time. "A Stop at Willoughby" on The Twilight Zone is a darker meditation on the same demons haunting "Walking Distance," but there the quest to stop running, to find peace, results only in death, not learning. In some sense, I guess I prefer "Walking Distance" because Martin Sloan does get a second chance to get life right; to change who he is. As sad as it is that the past is gone, there's also an optimistic side: every new day is a chance to recapture what we lost; or find a different kind of happiness. I wonder if Rod Serling - who wrote a whopping 90 episodes of the Twilight Zone's 156 - felt like life was a merry-go-round he couldn't escape, or if - with the help and catharsis of the Twilight Zone - he managed to exorcise the same demons expressed by Martin Sloan in "Walking Distance."

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

This isn't my choice for the greatest science fiction film ever made. For me, that honor goes to another film of the year 1968, Franklin Schaffner's Planet of the Apes. However, objectivity requires that I state my bias here and explain a little bit about my decision-making process.. Planet of the Apes is a rip-roaring, exciting, dramatic social allegory about race, war, religious fundamentalism and more, whereas Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey appeals almost entirely to the intellect...and the eyes. The film is lugubrious and steady, the mood...removed, clinical, not exciting by any conventional sense. Another way to put it: Planet of the Apes makes the blood run hot; 2001 -- chills it. So this is a personal preference for me, and yet even in acknowledging my preference as a reviewer, I would easily award 2001: A Space Odyssey the number #2 slot on that "greatest" films list, and today seek to acknowledge some of the elements of the Stanley Kubrick masterpiece that make it such an amazing and rewarding viewing experience.

Going back and watching 2001: A Space Odyssey again today, there are three elements that combine to make it a brilliant and visionary science fiction film. One: director Kubrick visually crafts a sense of "cosmic order," an order to the universe beyond that which humanity perceives, via his understanding and deployment of film language or grammar. Secondly, the film serves as a sometimes-ironic meditation on the development and drawbacks of man's technology (or tools), and thirdly, A Space Odyssey functions indeed as the "amazing experience" I noted above. Today's viewers, perhaps more interested in pace, narrative, characterization and the like may harbor little patience for a cinematic venture that pays such attention to reality, scientific accuracy, and the "details" of a futuristic journey into space. Crudely put, 2001: A Space Odyssey isn't a film that you can just interface with passively. It...happens to you. In many ways, it's like you are a passenger aboard the Discovery One, or the Moonbus, or the Pan Am Clipper with the other characters, You're watching -- almost in real time -- as events occur. If you take the title literally, this is nothing more and nothing less than a chronicle of what life is like in "the space age" of the twenty first century. You aren't going to see space battles, time warps and the like, but you will get a bird's eye view of planet Earth, or an orbital space station...after the stewardess serves lunch.

Stanley Kubrick's film, often billed as "the ultimate trip," tells the story of mankind: from the beginning to the "next step." From the "Dawn of Man," to "Jupiter and the Infinite Beyond," the film charts his development as a species. Watching over mankind (with unknown intent and agenda) are the alien monoliths: black, featureless obelisks that appear almost as signposts in the development or evolution of humanity. In the distant past, a monolith appears on Earth over the home cave of a tribe of primitive apes, and - emitting a strange signal - pushes the apes to grow, change, develop. After contact with the monolith, the apes miraculously develop an understanding of technology, or tools - weaponry.

The next monolith is discovered buried deep inside the crater Tycho, not terribly long after modern man has developed the ability to travel to the moon. The monolith sends a transmission to Jupiter and it is there, in orbital space, that man will have his next rendezvous with the monolith; one that will push forward the species' development again further; evolving mankind into enigmatic "star children."

Taken as given the idea that the monoliths are far more advanced than the race they shepherd, it is crucial for filmmaker Kubrick to craft a sense of overarching order in the universe. He begins doing so from the very first shot of the film. It is a beautiful outer space landscape which depicts Earth's pocked moon in slow descent. Beyond the moon, growing visible, is Earth itself - blue and beautiful. And over the Earth, even more distant, is Sol, our sun - shining brightly. The three bodies are aligned, forming some aspect of geometric progression, a perfect one-two-three. This is the first indication of a cosmic order, but not the last.

We see this kind of geometric staging of heavenly bodies in "The Dawn of Man" sequence as well. There is shot from ground level, gazing up at the imposing monolith. The sun - high in the sky - is intersected by the monolith's apex, and here we have another viewpoint that intimates order: a direct line from the monolith to the heavens above; to the "star" people or aliens.

Late in the film (near the climax), Kubrick's camera depicts a shot of Jupiter and its myriad satellites. Once more, the heavenly bodies are lined up in symmetric, precise sequence, but then - interestingly - a black monolith intersects the line of planets and moons almost perfectly on the horizontal xis, splitting the line in two. It is almost as though we are gazing at an algebraic equation created by the planets' positions. It is at almost exactly at this moment that the "trip" into the Monolith begins, and represents another symbol of Kubrick's obsession with a sense of cosmic order. It is an order beyond mankind's understanding or comprehension since we - unlike Kubrick's omnipotent camera - can never see such a view; never act as "the eyes of the universe," as it were. We travel between worlds; in orbital space, but can we see the stars how God does? Or how the Monoliths do? In all these views, the stars are immaculate and perfect, ordered for eyes not our own.

In charting a cosmic order, Kubrick also splits his film into what I see as three distinct movements. One is natural ("The Dawn of Man"), one is technological ("18 Months Later; aboard the Discovery) and one is spiritual or supernatural, ("Beyond the Infinite"). These are the three stages of existence mankind must travel in order to evolve to the next realm of existence: the star children.

In "The Dawn of Man," Kubrick's locked-down camera reveals a sunny, barren Earth in a succession of beautifully composed static landscape shots (no fewer than eight separate shots). There is life here (and our first indication is the sight of animal bones on a bluff...), but the long, vacant emptiness of the landscape seems to reflect the life and times of the apes. They huddle at night in their cave, afraid of the dark, and by day fight inconclusive battles over territory with a nearby family group. The apes are living beings who possess intelligence, but not true self-awareness or anything beyond rudimentary instinct. The arrival of the monoliths change all that.

By the year 2001, mankind - long gone down the path established by the monolith all those aeon's ago - now dwells in a totally technological world. Whereas "the Dawn of Man" featured a wholly natural world, one of bleak landscapes, wide savannas and rocky outcroppings, everything in the year 2001 is totally and completely artificial. We do not glimpse even an iota of something "natural" (besides man himself, perhaps). Man has utilized "tools' to remake the world around him and in doing so has even left behind that very world. Once he achieves space and lands on the moon (a sign, perhaps, of a technologically advanced world...), he has reached the second threshold desired by the monolith; the threshold which will lead him, finally, to the spiritual world.

The last portion of the film, "Beyond the Infinite," depicts astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) leaving behind his technology (the star ship Discovery and the malfunctioning computer HAL 9000) for the enigmatic black monolith in Jupiter's space. He flies into the monolith and upon intersection point the film cuts to a very long, very odd montage -- a "cosmic trip" -- in which we are treated to a plethora of strange visions. Light seems to swirl by the camera, and then the viewer is left gazing for long periods at otherworldly vistas. Green oceans; mountaintops turned red. High angle views of an orange planetary surface and the like. It is distinctly as though nature (the world of "the Dawn of Man") has literally been inverted in the quest for the spiritual. Here, nature is different; the land is different.

There is no room for technology, either, in this realm and very soon David Bowman finds his pod and space suit gone as he ages (seemingly at warp speed) in an odd Victorian apartment. He spends his days (or minutes, perhaps...) waiting to die so he can achieve the next form of human evolution, which I believe the film suggests is a metaphysical form. People often ask what the Victorian sitting room represents or symbolizes and my best description of it is that it is evolution's antechamber. The body's natural death is apparently a prerequisite for the next stage of human life (otherwise, the monolith could just zap Bowman with a laser beam and send him on his way). Instead, David Bowman must grow old locked in his aging body, let his physicality fail. And in that last moment, when the astronaut is old and infirm, laying in bed, he seeks to touch the Monolith (which re-appears before him). He can't quite grasp the afterlife; can't quite touch the Monolith. But then, when he dies, his body disappears, re-formed into the glowing "star child," a baby with soulful eyes dwelling in a kind of translucent womb. This is the birth of man as a spiritual being, and Kubrick has prepared the viewer for the transition by taking man from nature, to technology, to what lays beyond...if not the dark night of the soul, than the glowing brilliance of spirituality; the soul.


In charting the development of the human race from its natural beginning to its spiritual future, Stanley Kubrick seizes on an irony. The very intelligence brought to humanity by the Monolith - the wherewithal to understand tools and technology - is the very thing that could actually destroy humanity. In "The Dawn of Man" stage of the film, the first "tool" or technology utilized by the apes is a discarded animal bone. It can be used to kill prey during a hunt and therefore assure survival for man (as we see in a montage as a giant beast falls dead after being struck...) or it can be used as a devastating weapon with which to kill enemies and hold on to territory.

The ape armed with the animal bone kills an enemy ape and in a moment of nearly orgasmic delight and triumph, tosses the bone high into the air. Up and up, Kubrick's camera tracks the ascending weapon until - boom - the greatest (and most sweeping) film transition in history. The bone becomes an orbiting satellite in the 21st century. This transition dramatizes in one shot the entire sweep of human history: he has gone from wielding animal bones in the desert to building spaceships and leaving Earth's gravity. The understanding of how to use a tool (and a weapon) has led him to create an entirely technological world around himself.

Which brings us, inevitably, to the HAL 9000, the last word in mellifluous-voiced computers. Like that animal bone in prehistory, HAL is no more than a tool or a device to make life easier for humans. But - also like the prehistoric bone - HAL is dangerous, a weapon. Worse, technology has evolved to such a point now that the "tools" mankind creates can out think him (winning at a Chess game...), and even kill him, as HAL murders the astronauts in suspended animation and cuts the air line of astronaut Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood). The agenda from Kubrick, I believe here, is a word of warning. It might very well be that Kubrick saw this period -- the technological period that precedes the spiritual period - as the era when the human race is in most danger of destroying itself. 2001: A Space Odyssey was produced in the late 1960s during a war that seemed like it was going on forever (Vietnam). It was the era of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation...a time when a push of a single button (the use of technology again...) could rain death upon millions across the planet. HAL is not just Frankenstein's son, a child of a creator turning bad, but the embodiment of the technological age and inherent dangers thereof.

If man can survive his flirtation with deadly machines, with the technology he himself has forged, 2001: A Space Odyssey seems to suggest, than there will be no limits for him in the universe. If he lets go of the things he made, the destructive things, the sky's the limit.

2001: A Space Odyssey runs over two hours, and yet there is barely 45 minutes of dialogue in the entire film. Kubrick tells his tale with beautiful, icily precise visuals, stunning special effects, and - often - classical music. The middle section of the film involves Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) traveling from Earth aboard a Pan Am passenger ship to a rotating space station. After a time on the station, he boards a vessel bound for the moon, and continues his journey. This part of the film serves as a travelogue, a day in the life of a commuter in the 21st century. Some people may find it interesting; others may find it dull, for it is the equivalent of one of us taking a trip across country by plane: sitting in our seat on a 747, going out to the runway, flying to another airport, boarding another plane, and so forth. There's a lot of waiting, phone-call making, and even a bathroom break.

The point of all this, I believe, is two-fold. First, Kubrick has created a drama of the near future, and hopes to dramatize what life is like in that time period. It should seem both familiar and strange at the same time, and it is. These sequences are unerringly realistic. But also, I believe Kubrick's naturalistic approach in this middle-part of the film best sells the "cosmic" order and "danger of technology" elements of the film. Mankind believes he controls the universe, as we see here, in the kitchen-sink depiction of space travel as "routine" and "ordinary." But, it is only the illusion of control, as we understand when we meet HAL later. We don't control our technology; the opposite is true. Also -- remember - we don't create the order in the universe -- it is beyond us; and all those geometrically perfect shots of planets in lines reflect that. This section of the film establishes well the illusion man has built around himself. That bubble of delusion soon gets punctured.

One of the longest and most beautiful portions of 2001: A Space Odyssey arrives in this middle section. It is the docking of the passenger flight on the station. It is a lengthy scene (far lengthier, even, than the Enterprise in drydock sequence in Star Trek: the Motion Picture [1979]) and it is cut and paced to Johann Strauss's waltz, The Blue Danube. This selection of music adds an elegance and pace to the scene, but also connotes almost a sense of whimsy. The two space vessels (the station and the ship), are performing a technological waltz of their own, aren't they? The players aren't even human, but the Blue Danube suggests that this space docking maneuver is...a dance. Emotionally, I think we respond to the use of this music in two ways. One, it is a hypnotic piece of music, and we succumb to its spell. But secondly, it is - after some fashion - a humorous or silly selection...and here I think Kubrick is sneaking in that devilish sense of irony once more. He's scoring the future...with the past. He's reducing a technological marvel to...a dance.

The kitchen sink reality of the middle-portion of the film (the travelogue, let's call it), is heightened by Floyd's tour of the space station. He makes a long distance telephone call to Earth and speaks to his daughter The phone booth he uses is adorned with a Pacific Bell logo. He walks past the station restaurant (a Howard Johnsons) and later we catch a glimpse of the billeting accommodations...A Hilton hotel. Later, en route to the Moon, Floyd has to take a potty break and - in a neat visual gag - must read the rather lengthy directions for operating a "zero gravity toilet."

Once the movie has shifted to the Discovery One, there is still this sense of the routine, of the Earthly norm, only transplanted to outer space. Frank Poole is first depicted jogging around a control room, then watching cable TV (BBC 12) while he eats his dinner from a tray. Again, all these scenes of "the routine" establish that two-fold Kubrick agenda: that we are not the masters of technology but vice versa, and that we are taken in by the illusion that we are the masters of the universe.

Why does HAL go nuts and kill the crew of the Discovery? The answer comes at us, almost invisibly, during Dave's sojourn into the Logic Memory Center to unplug the homicidal computer. A message plays revealing that HAL is the only "person" aboard Discovery who knew about the mission to contact the Monoliths. See? We have now outsourced "need to know" information to our tools...and it has driven them mad. The ultimate misapplication of technology, perhaps. The machines control the mission.

2001: A Space Odyssey is a meticulously-crafted, beautifully rendered cinematic journey. It's a film I can watch any time and become hypnotized by, even if it doesn't punch me on the gut level of Planet of the Apes, The Matrix or Star Wars. Above all, It is a splendid match of director and subject matter. One senses Kubrick behind the scenes, like those enigmatic monoliths, manipulating each and every moment. Almost forty years old, the film is as fresh and gorgeous and as open to possibilities and interpretation as it was when first created in the 1960s. Perhaps it isn't as flashy as later sci-fi epics, but it is surely one of the grandest, most thought-provoking, most carefully (and artfully) constructed visions of mankind and his future ever brought to us in the cinema.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 37: Space: Above and Beyond (1995-1996)

Imagine a "gritty, gutsy" (per TV Guide...) futuristic war drama colored in hues of moody battleship gray. It takes place in deep space following a devastating sneak attack on humanity by an unfathomable and merciless enemy. Our protagonists in the war effort (which we are "losing badly") are young, attractive (but headstrong and angsty...) pilots. Much of the action occurs inside the cockpits of cramped space fighters and in military briefing rooms. The universe depicted by the series is one of murky morality and hard truths which shift in the troublesome and ambiguous sands of wartime. For instance, the specter of torture (here termed "re-education") is brought up in one installment.

You don't think I'm talking about the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, do you?

Instead, the first paragraph of this review describes the Glen Morgan/James Wong sci-fi war drama, Space: Above and Beyond, a mid-nineties-era TV endeavor that aired on the Fox Network for one season (and twenty-three hour-long episodes), and which concerned a squadron of rookie - but committed - soldiers serving in the United States Marine Corps Space Aviator Cavalry aboard a mobile space headquarters; not the Galactica, but the Saratoga.

Set in the year 2063, Space: Above and Beyond sets its stories in the immediate aftermath of a devastating ambush on an Earth Colony ship bound for distant Tellus, ("the furthest any human has ever ventured,") and thus this nearly-forgotten series imagined a futuristic 9/11 scenario...six years before 9/11 (and eight years before the Ron Moore remake of BSG). The enemy in this case was not the Cylon race, but the menacing and mysterious "Chigs," a derogatory slang name which refers to chiggers... fleas which burrow into the skin.

What remains so interesting about Space: Above and Beyond is not merely that the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica co-opted so much from its look, feel and narrative without so much as a "by your command," but rather that the creators' of this cult series seemed to understand - far earlier than most of us - how truly divided Americans were becoming as a people; and how - as bad as it might be - a war effort could conceivably bring us together.

Some context: Space: Above and Beyond premiered just a year after the 1994 "Contract with America" Republican Congress swept the elections, a stinging rebuke to President Clinton and a victory for Nute Gunray...I mean Newt Gingrich. I often recall the 1994 elections as the "revenge of the white man" referendum, because this was the era in recent history in which there was so much complaining in the press about Hilary Clinton's (unelected) role in policy decisions (like health care), as well as lamenting over censorship re-crafted under the new term "political correctness." There was also a mighty backlash against social progress that appeared to the hard-right in America to undercut the white man in favor of women and minorities, specifically programs such as affirmative action. Remember, this was post-Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas America, when the buzz word "sexual harassment" was all the rage. On a personal note, it was around this time that I first heard the name Rush Limbaugh, and began to meet otherwise seemingly-normal people who followed his every rant like he was some kind of cult leader.

Space: Above and Beyond reflects this reality in nineties America by featuring a diverse group of pilots, the men and women who will fight the Chig attackers. In particular, one of the pilots is Lt. Cooper Hawkes (Rodney Rowland), who is part of a new minority in America called a "Tank," a term which is more derogatory slang, this time for "in vitros," citizens who were conceived and born in artificial gestation tanks.

America is still land of the free and home of the brave in 2063, but that doesn't mean that the "in vitro" class can expect total equality. As one character states bluntly in the pilot, "we believe in civil rights for in vitros, but not at the expense of our rights." This is EXACTLY what the debate was in the country at the time: women and African-Americans should have equal rights, as long as we didn't establish any laws that gave them privileges over the white man, some believed. Meanwhile - on the show - racism towards the in vitros still flourishes in the ranks of the space marines, mostly out of ignorance. "Tanks are lazy and don't care about anyone," reports one soldier, relying on an old stereotype. Later, a character registers surprise that "Tanks" actually dream. It's always easier to demonize the enemy (even a domestic one...), when you can somehow render them sub-human. Even the military equipment on hand in the Corps. doesn't fit the "Tanks," and Hawkes has to cut off part of his space helmet to accommodate a common "Tank" birth mark. "They don't make nothing with In Vitros in mind," he laments.

Like the new Battlestar Galactica, everything is kind of dingy and military on Space: Above and Beyond - it's a dirty, used, lived-in universe. But unlike the new BSG, which is often derided as "West Wing in Space" because of its on-the-nose and deadly-serious political agitprop, on Space: Above and Beyond there is actually a sense of humor in evidence. In particular, the series alludes directly to film and television history in several sequences. "I knew we couldn't be alone," says one character, an answer to the Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) ad-line "We are not alone." Early on, another character states "In space, no one can hear you scream...unless it is the battle cry of the United States Marines!," a twist on Alien's (1979's) famous tag. Then there's the guest performance by Lee Ermey in the pilot, reprising his drill sergeant role from Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987), only sans profanity. In another situation, a space satellite blare...the Ramones.

In the second episode of the series, "The Farthest Man from Home," one character, a pilot named Nathan West (Morgan Weisser) watches archival footage (on the History Network) of JFK delivering his landmark speech about going to the moon "not because it is easy...but because it is hard," a rallying cry for progress and common purpose. Yet in the context of Space: Above and Beyond, I think it means something equally important. A society divided by inequalities of race and sex (like the reactionary America of the mid-1990s...) could still come together in the face of a looming threat. The most direct metaphor was likely World War II and Space: Above and Beyond perhaps hoped to suggest a space age Greatest Generation, one that would put politics aside and unite to fight the greatest foe mankind had ever faced. This generation would have boasted - according to the dialogue -"faith in each other; in a better world," - and more so, it would stick together in times of hardship because (according to the second episode) "every life in this war is tied together." Isn't it a shame that a fictional series about a sneak attack predicted the coming-together of a divided free society, but when the sneak attack came on September 11, 2001, our real-life leaders sought only to gain political points and prestige and to deride political opponents as unpatriotic and weak? Space: Above and Beyond depicts how things could be (and how things were in World War II): national shared sacrifice and common purpose as "storm clouds of war gather."

Going back and watching Space: Above and Beyond, I can see how it is a more thoughtful (and prescient) series than I recognized when I first saw it twelve years ago. In fact, the series feels more timely and important now, since so much about our national context has changed in the last twelve years. The only place in which the series has aged badly is the realm of special effects. Since the series was produced in the mid-1990s, very primitive computer generated imagery is utilized for all the combat and outer space sequences, and in looks like a video game. I'm sure the effects were expensive and realistic in their day, but CGI ages worse than miniature work...and faster. Also, some of the green-screening in the episodes I watched is horrendous: you can see the green outline around the main characters during effects shots, and it is a distraction. Despite such shortcomings, Space: Above and Beyond deserves for hosannas, especially from battlestar fans. Nearly a decade before that re-imagination, Morgan and Wong sought to accomplish the same things as the Sci-Fi series. It wasn't always successful; but nor was it always obvious. It's always a little galling (not to mention historically inaccurate...) to hear how the new Battlestar has revitalized televised science fiction by taking the genre away from the Star Trek model. This series did so; and earlier.

A final note that may offend (and I apologize): If Space: Above and Beyond had been lucky enough to air on the Sci-Fi Channel, it might have lasted four seasons too. That's right, I said lucky. You've got to laugh at all those BSG fans who complain - boo-hoo - that the Sci-Fi Channel doesn't know how to handle a "quality" series (Jamie Bamber, j'accuse). Here are the facts: if Battlestar aired anywhere else (the CW, the old WB, UPN, or any of the big four...) it would have lasted half-a-season at best with the ratings of the last three years. Heck, my favorite show, the brilliant but low-rated Veronica Mars drew higher ratings than Battlestar Galactica its last season on the CW...and it got canceled anyway! Fans of BSG should laud the Sci-Fi Channel for sticking with a very lowly-rated program through thick and thin. It wasn't always that way for genre programming; as those who remember Space: Above and Beyond and other one-season wonders could testify.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK #69: Pulsar: The Ultimate Man of Adventure (1976; Mattel)

In 1976, Kenner dominated the toy market with its excellent and diverse line of toys related to The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. Desiring a share of that same market, Ideal produced a 16 inch superheroic figure named Electroman (with an enemy alien called "Zogg"), Mego produced "The Bionic Villain" Dr. Kromedome(!) and not to be left out, Mattel got into the act with an interesting hero of their own called Pulsar, "The Ultimate Man of Adventure."

As advertised on his box, Pulsar stands an impressive "13 1/2 inches tall with space boots and costume. Jacket has emblem on his right breast. Transparent chest exposes "workable" vital organs. Two computer "brain" mission disks & complete instructions included."

Thus, this white-haired hero (with a very serious face...) wears a spiffy black and white uniform with lightning emblem or insignia on his chest. If you remove the velcro wrappings of his suit, you can see all the major organs of Pulsar's chest: lungs, heart, intestines, everything. You can even see his blood flowing around in there. "You activate his vital systems!" screamed the box, advising children to "Push his back, Heart beats! Lungs breathe! Blood flows!" I guess this was competition of sort for Colonel Steve Austin, who had a bionic arm and a bionic eye.

Pulsar also, apparently, could be programed for each mission you sent him on, and you could lift his up face and "insert mission disks" directly into his brain. "He almost comes alive!," said the box. Recommended for ages 5 and up, "no mission is impossible for" Pulsar.

The intrepid Pulsar fanatic could monitor Pulsar in a well-constructed playset (sold separately) called the Life Systems Center. This device allowed you to "program him" for missions, "double-check X-rays", "light-scan his brain", "set all systems," and "activate vital organs." Molded in blue plastic, the Life Systems Center is essentially a very large laboratory wall with three sections. In the left-most section is a body-length X-ray scanner, "screen" and machine (which lights up; batteries not included).

In the middle section, Pulsar is strapped in with a belt, for monitoring, and there are "shoulder braces" and a "brain probe light."

And in the right most section of the Life Systems Center, you have your control panel,which you activate with a large press-key molded in orange, here described as a "remote activator." A wheel allows you to change Pulsar's program from "status check" to "Go*Program A4*Go," to "Backup Program" to "Start Program" to (in red letters) "All Systems Max." There are also programs D10, C8 and B6...whatever they are.
Pulsar's "Pulsatronic system" is monitored and can be keyed with a control dial set on "verge" or "C8" or "0.20." His biologic system can be made to read "verge," "go" or "limit" and his Power Systems also includes several cryptic read-outs. It's all very technical and neat, if you are living in the year of the Bicentennial. Heck - I love it.

Finally, not pictured (because I don't have him...yet...), is Pulsar's dastardly nemesis: Hypnos, "The Ultimate Enemy." Hypnos is a villainous-looking humanoid who has a giant hypno wheel embedded in his chest. Molded in black and purple, he's pretty scary and alien-looking.

I remember seeing "Pulsar The Ultimate Man of Adventure" in toy stores when I was six years old, and passing them up for Six Million Dollar Man and Space:1999 toys, but really, Pulsar is pretty damn cool. I don't exactly what precisely his skill set is, except that he has a transparent chest, but still, he seems like a pretty neat collectible. He didn't have the advantage of his own TV show, so maybe I need to create one. Now I just need to find someone with a see-through torso...

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Theme Song of the Week 12: The Powers of Matthew Star (1983)

Saturday, November 03, 2007

McFarland New Releases

This month, McFarland continues to chart the worlds of film and television reference with an interesting assortment of books. You've got two treatises on superheroes, one focusing on Superman, and one looking at the nexus between superheroes and ancient gods. Then there's a study of Sopranos' creator David Chase. Even game show hosts get their due. Here's a look at the cinema/tv titles this month:

Television Game Show Hosts
This unique work profiles the private lives and careers of 32 American game show hosts, including the originals (e.g., Bill Cullen, Peter Marshall), the classics (e.g., Bob Barker), and the contemporaries (e.g., Regis Philbin). Organized alphabetically by host, each chapter begins with a personal profile including dates and places of birth, family information, and a complete career history. Immediately following is a detailed biography highlighting the most significant developments of each host’s early life and career, complete with successes, failures, and scandals. Frequently, the biography is accompanied by personal interviews with the host and/or his family and closest friends.

Considering David Chase
A compelling and innovative television writer, David Chase has created distinctive programs since the 1970s, each reflecting his edgy humor and psychological realism. These critical essays examine Chase’s television writings, placing particular emphasis on how his past works have shaped and influenced the current cultural phenomenon of HBO’s The Sopranos, and studying Chase’s use of identity, community, and place in defining his on-screen characters. Topics explored include Chase’s constructs of the urban L.A. environment in The Rockford Files, the portrayal of hybridized American archetypes in Northern Exposure, and the interpretation of sexual identity/masculinity in The Sopranos. An appendix containing complete episode guides for The Rockford Files, Northern Exposure, and The Sopranos is also included.

Politics and the American Television Comedy
This work examines the unique and ever-changing relationship between politics and comedy through an analysis of several popular American television programs. Focusing on close readings of the work of Ernie Kovacs, Soupy Sales, and Andy Kaufman, as well as Green Acres and The Gong Show, the author provides a unique glimpse at the often subversive nature of avant-garde television comedy. The crisis in American television during the political unrest of the late 1960s is also studied, as represented by individual analyses of The Monkees, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, and All in the Family. The author also focuses on more contemporary American television, drawing a comparative analysis between the referential postmodernism of The Simpsons and the confrontational absurdity of South Park.

Superheroes and Gods

The work provides a unique study of superheroes and gods in literature, popular culture, and ancient myth. The author selects a number of mythological figures (e.g., Babylonia’s Gilgamesh and Enkidu), ancient gods (e.g., Greece’s Eros and Tartarus), and modern superheroes (e.g., the United States’ Superman and Captain Marvel) and identifies the often striking similarities between each unique category of characters. The author contends that the vast majority of mythological superheroes follow the same archetypal character patterns, regardless of each hero’s unique time period or culture. Each of the first nine chapters examines the heroes and gods of a particular region or country, while the final chapter examines modern descendants of the hero prototype like Batman and Spiderman and several infamous anti-heroes (for example, Dracula and The Hulk).

First introduced in a 1938 comic book, Superman has since become an iconic character in American entertainment. This complete history covers Superman’s appearances in film and television, from the 1941 introduction of the first Superman cartoon to the 2006 live-action film Superman Returns. The book includes several rarely seen photographs of the actors who have brought Superman to life for over seven decades, including Clayton “Bud” Collyer, Kirk Alyn, George Reeves and Christopher Reeve. Multiple appendices provide a complete listing of Superman-related books and websites, along with a comprehensive list of the cast and characters featured in Superman films, television shows, and radio programs since 1941.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 36: Veronica Mars (Season 3)

Conventional wisdom aside, I'd say the best series on TV got even better during its third and regrettably final season. I mention conventional wisdom because the MSM meme on Veronica Mars 3.0 was that it somehow was "less than" the first two seasons; in particular that the shift from the high school setting to the Hearst College locale was somehow detrimental to the series' vibe and authenticity. Also, the format shift from a seasonal mystery to several seasonal mysteries (lasting several episodes a piece) was viewed as a deficit by some critics.

I couldn't disagree more. In fact, going back and watching the third season on DVD, I'd state that this third season - in many ways - is the most confident and self-assured season of Veronica Mars; and that's saying something considering the high bar established by the first two seasons. But let's re-cap before diving in to a discussion of Season 3.

Veronica Mars is a highly-addictive contemporary mystery series is set in and around the town of Neptune in sunny Southern California, a virtual playground for the very rich kids of privilege and wealth. There, cynical, sharp (but sweet...) teenager Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) and her detective father, Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni) work together in his detective agency, solving petty, occasionally sleazy cases about adultery and the like.

But delightfully, this premise is only the starting point for something far richer than a crime drama. Informing each and every mystery featured on the series is a two-pronged social commentary (or more accurately, social observation). One level of the tale focuses obsessively on class warfare, the battle between the haves and the have-nots at Neptune High as Veronica - an outsider - navigates between worlds. She's a woman with no nation, distrusted by the rich and poor alike.

Secondly, Veronica Mars is a colorful, brilliant (and extremely tech savvy.) updating of the film noir genre, replete with femme fatales, a private dick, labyrinthine mysteries, laconic voice over narration and other staples of the form. Noticeably, however, the mysteries featured in the series revolve around a unique central conceit: how 21st century gadgets impact crime and crime solving. Wireless computers, I-Pods, blogs, web pages, cell phones, etcetera, are crucial tools (and crucial clues) in Veronica's universe. Veronica is thus Sam Spade for the Wikipedia generation, and thus she's very true-to-life in an important sense: like many youngsters of her generation, she's "connected. Not to all the people around her, necessarily, but to the vast amounts of information now available for the grabbing...if you know how. Personally, I find this "tech" private eye conceit a welcome change from all the forensic nonsense on TV. This is a show where the detectives still do the detecting.

In the third season, Veronica attends Hearst University. She’s still dating the millionaire bad boy son of a movie star (and convicted murderer) Aaron Echolls, the angst-ridden Logan (Jason Dohring). Veronica also maintains her “Scooby gang” of helpful associates and hangers-on, which this season includes old friend and tech girl Mac (Tina Marjorino ), a kid from the wrong side of the tracks named Eli "Weevil" (Capra), and the loyal and trustworthy Wallace (Percy Daggs). New to the squad this year: Wallace’s dorky roommate, Piz (Chris Lowell). Oh, and there's also Mac's uncomfortably perky roommate, Parker (Julie Gonzalo).

With Veronica out of high school, one might suspect that a critical element of the series format is sacrificed: the central location of the class-warfare subplot. That's true, perhaps, but the third season has pinpointed a good and welcome corollary that shifts the series' debate a bit.

In particular, the Hearst College campus is a hotbed of competing interests and agendas and Veronica very soon finds herself a woman without a nation once more, viewed suspiciously by all those bearing entrenched, closed-minded points of view. In particular, the first run of episodes, from "Welcome Wagon" to "Spit and Eggs," involves the pitched battle between a politically-incorrect fraternity (and by association, the Greek system...), and a group of radicalized, hostile feminists. Now, at first glance, you might expect a series entitled Veronica Mars to reflexively, mindlessly adopt the point of view of the feminists; but Veronica Mars is a post-feminist efort in a glorious and illuminating way. Polarization is the true enemy, the series appears to conclude, and in the course of several exciting episodes, Veronica discovers that although the fraternity jocks are a bunch of neanderthal sexists, the feminists - though different in their concerns and agenda - are really no better. Each side is committed to the humiliation and destruction of the other side. Veronica's only commitment? To the truth. The first several episodes deal persuasively with the idea of parody (or free speech), sexual assault, hypocrisy and more.

For her courageous stand against entrenched agendas, Veronica wins no popularity contests on campus; she doesn't toe to the feminist party line when she helps to prove that a particularly nasty fraternity house was not involved in series of campus rapes. And on the other hand, she gleefully goes after the fraternity system - and those involved - when necessary to find the truth. Veronica's stance points to a fascinating facet about modern America, and one that I've only seen dramatized on Veronica Mars. Which is: no cause is honored when one takes glee in the destruction of an enemy; or more accurately, when one lies, maneuvers, plots and manipulates to see that the enemy - no matter how bad - stumbles and falls. Veronica even comes to realize this herself in one story. In "There's Got to Be a Morning After Pill," she is given a golden opportunity to seek glorious revenge against an enemy named Madison Sinclair, but Veronica chooses an interesting (and new) path.

It isn't merely the competing ideologies of feminism vs brain dead fraternities that are exposed on the third season of Veronica Mars. The series features a great episode about human nature and why it is all to easy for some people to commit torture in "My Big Fat Greek Rush Week," a story that assigns characters roles as either guards or prisoners as part of a sociology class experiment. Another story, "Show Me The Monkey," pits animal rights activists against researchers experimenting on animals. What I like about Veronica Mars is that, not unlike South Park (except without the profanity), the series permits both "polarized" sides to get their say, and then - in the end - with a minimum of preaching or sanctimony, Veronica comes in and devastates both sides with a dose of common sense, logic and clarity. It is...cathartic.

At this point, I can only say this: Veronica Mars for President of the United States. Seriously. If the last fifteen years have proven anything in this country, it is that intense polarization is a dead end for the country. Because what are we left with? Half the country on one side, angry. The other half on the other side, equally angry. And whoever ekes out 51% does a victory lap and gets its way...regardless of the fact that 49% of the people voted against them. Environmentalists versus business, feminists versus sexists, pro-life vs pro-choice. In the end...where does it get us as a people and a country? Veronica Mars deals with this idea in an intelligent fashion. I hate to reduce it to platitudes, but the message seems to be: truth above all.

Watching Veronica Mars' third season this time around, I am reminded not just of the film noir format, nor class warfare, nor snarky teen drama, but rather - surprisingly - the Western genre. In some sense, Veronica Mars -- with that heroic sounding name -- is herself the stranger who rides into town, unattached and unsullied by politics, who seeks and then metes justice for the townspeople. The trappings are all different, of course, but Veronica Mars speaks to the same hunger that superhero films and TV shows often do. It speaks to this deep longing in America - this long-standing myth - of the lone individual who rides into a society and fixes the problems. Unlike Superman or Spider-Man, Veronica doesn't have superpowers, however. Her standing and power and authority arises from the fact that she is a member of "no party or clique" (like my favorite blogger Andrew Sullivan). She is unattached and thus susceptible to...the truth.

Veronica Mars also concerns the love life and personal experiences of the lead character, not merely the mysteries she routinely solves. But the approach on the "home front" is just as intelligent and cleverly written. It is even-handed to the same high degree as the social observation. One thoroughly impressive episode this season, called "Of Vice and Men" thoroughly dissects the male of our species. Yep, men - in all shapes and forms - find themselves under Veronica's microscope in this episode, and her conclusions are witty, fascinating, canny, and I must say, all together fair. How many other series can say the same thing?

Veronica Mars is a character I admire (and love) on a series that is brilliantly-written and well-performed. Television of this quality doesn't come around very often and it's hard to say goodbye...especially after this terrific season. But Veronica...we'll always have Neptune. And Hearst College.

Booklist Likes Horror Films of the 1980s

In time for Halloween, Booklist reviewed Horror Films of the 1980s. Here's a sample of the review:
"The author watched hundreds of films, interviewed talents behind the movies and invited guest reviewers and critics to round out the details...Writing is clear, with a personal but expert tone. The 2-column layout facilitates reading the dense text."

"Can a horror film reference book be pleasurable browsing? This volume does a good job, combining useful information and enjoyable commentaries, and is recommended..."

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...