Friday, July 31, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Untouchables (1987)

Once upon a time, Hollywood blockbusters looked a lot like The Untouchables: lush, stylish, operatic, and daring as hell.

Or, as critic Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times regarding De Palma's 1987 gangster film: "... it's a smashing work. It's vulgar, violent, funny and sometimes breathtakingly beautiful. After this ''Untouchables,'' all other movies dealing with Prohibition Chicago, Al Capone and the lawmen who brought him to justice (for income tax evasion) must look a bit anemic."

Boosted by a coruscating, pulse-pounding score from composer Ennio Morricone, De Palma's The Untouchables is actually much more than a period piece or a typical gangster genre film. Instead, it's the passion-laden story of a burg at war with itself and its ideals...and the valiant heroes who brought peace to that city at the cost of great personal sacrifice.

Now the setting here isn't classic in any sense. It isn't ancient Sparta (like 300), or The Trojan War (as in Troy). But make no mistake, De Palma brings to The Untouchables the same archetypal flourishes we might reasonably expect in any cinematic depiction of those legends. He transforms real historical figures into larger-than-life scoundrels, saints, and angels. As dramatized by De Palma, The Untouchables is nothing less than the Timeless Heroic Poem of Avenger Eliot Ness.

Let's Do Some Good...

Written by award-winning playwright David Mamet, De Palma's The Untouchables is a blend of the popular old TV series (1959-1963) of the same name and the popular 1957 autobiography of Eliot Ness penned by Ness with Oscar Fraley.

The film depicts Chicago of the Prohibition Era as -- importantly -- a "city at war."

The unofficial but acknowledged ruler of Chicago is criminal Al Capone (Robert De Niro), a self-satisfied gangster who has "bought" the loyalty of city cops, district judges, and even the cynical press.

Capone is treated as a celebrity and a king, and has the run of the city. He is a crook and a monster to be certain, but because Capone has so much money, the tyrant is respected and feared. Nobody crosses him. In light of this situation, we might even dare to view De Palma's film as a veiled critique of capitalism, with power going to the highest bidder. And as the film begins, Capone is tightening his grip on the small businesses of Chicago, using fear, intimidation and murder to making certain that he gets a "cut" of everything.

Into this war zone of escalating violence arrives a straight-arrow crusader, the impossibly moral Treasury Agent named Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner). After his first "sting" fails to nab Capone, family man Ness realizes he must work around the corrupt system, and therefore recruits a group of outsiders he can trust to the death. These men include his new mentor, an Irish cop on the beat, Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery), police academy graduate and sharp-shooter Giuseppe Petri (Andy Garcia), and nerdy accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith).

Importantly, not one of these men (especially Ness) declares any fealty to the government's (wrongheaded) policy of Prohibition. On the contrary, what this foursome defends to the death is the very principle that makes America great: the rule of law. This is the meat of Ness's inner crisis: can the rule of law be re-established by violating the law?

Over several tumultuous weeks, Ness puts a dent in Capone's illegal liquor operation in Chicago, but spurs Capone's murderous wrath. The gangster dispatches enforcer Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) to see to it that the four Untouchables are, in fact...quite touchable. Wallace is murdered in an elevator along with a trial witness against Capone. Malone is set up in his own apartment and viciously gunned down.

With his team in tatters, Ness recognizes that his last chance to stop Capone involves indicting the gangster for tax evasion. To accomplish this, however, Ness needs to intercept Capone's accountant at a train station...

Never Stop Fighting Till The Fight is Done

On the surface, the brutal struggle in The Untouchables appears to be one regarding law enforcement, but the movie's tone and visuals make it plain that this is not entirely the case.

On the contrary: this is total war, a fact De Palma makes plain via cross-cutting. Early in the film, he cross-cuts between Capone decrying violence as "not good business" and then a scene involving a little girl murdered in what, essentially, is a terrorist bombing of a local Chicago saloon.

While noting that "there is violence in Chicago" (but not by him, of course), Capone thus wipes out a business that refuses to cow-tow to his demands for protection money. The bombing is a crime, but a crime elevated to guerrilla war tactics (like those seen in the Vietnam War; another De Palma obsession). Another scene, involving Ness's first bust, sees the hero riding astride a vehicle that appears to be a kind of 1930s armored attack truck. It's the visual equivalent of putting a soldier atop a tank at the beginning of battle; a visual recognition that this is, for all intents and purposes, combat.

In constructing a mythic poem, it's crucial that the stakes are high, and that's what De Palma accomplishes in setting the key backgrounds of Chicago in The Untouchables. He makes plain that this isn't simple a matter of putting a criminal away, but of winning a war against a powerful, and heartless opponent. The soul of the city is on the line because Capone has his hooks in everyone. Ness's war is thus virtually an Aristotlean thing: "we make war that we may live in peace."

The spiritual nature of this dramatic war is made evident in one particularly important debate about battle tactics. With the ceiling of a grand cathedral serving as backdrop behind them, Malone and Ness discuss the pathway to victory. "They pull a knife, you pull a gun," suggests Malone. "He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way, and that's how you get Capone!" Again, the tenor of this talk is more akin to war than to crime-fighting.

In addition, Malone notes that "The Lord hates a coward," a sentiment that sounds more appropriate to a conversation in a foxhole (where there are no atheists...) than in a campaign to bring a mere thug to justice. What the audience comes to understand is that Malone is a spiritual man, but one who believes that anything worth fighting for, is worth fighting dirty for. This is a point of view Ness learns much about in the course of the film.

In defining the central struggle of The Untouchables as a real, dirty war, De Palma even recruits the old-fashioned war movie cliche about a man discovering himself in the crucible of combat. During the Western-style scene set in Montana, the bookish, diminutive accountant, Wallace -- a man who has never been in battle -- unexpectedly finds himself, under fire, a paragon of bravery: taking down Capone's men in a daring frontal assault. By contrast, Ness ends this engagement underneath a car...

What Are You Prepared to Do?

If the battle to unseat Capone from his throne of blood is a war, not simply a legal matter, then the men who fight him are great, larger-than-life warriors, and that's part of De Palma's visual vocabulary in The Untouchables as well.

On several occasions, the director composes shots meant to suggest the screen iconography of heroism. Above, I mentioned the interlude set in the wide-open country of Montana. Essentially, this set-piece harks back to the Old West (or at least our Hollywood memories of the Old West) and De Palma presents us with scenes of our stalwart heroes astride horses, carrying rifles and pistols...ready to heroically engage in combat.

The reflexive mental response to these images is to associate the G-Men -- the Untouchables -- with cowboys, or gunslingers...the heroes who single-handedly ride in and bring justice to imperiled frontier towns. Cowboys are part of our shared national mythology, as curator George Slosser, of The Science Fiction and Fantasy Collection at the University of California once observed: "They’re the embodiment of the American myth of the lone, rugged individual who comes into society and cleans it up. We all want to do it, but we don’t know how to do it. We live our everyday lives that don’t allow for this kind of simplistic vision. So we cheer for it."

Failing to discern De Palma's mode in The Untouchables, many film critics complained that a Western-style set-piece in a Chicago crime movie was distinctly out-of-place -- a glaring faux pas. However, if we gaze at De Palma's purpose here as one of elevating the heroes of The Untouchable to mythic, iconic status, it makes perfect sense that the director should mine the visual language of heroes that American generations have shared at the movies.

Outside the Old West-style sequence, De Palma on several occasions provides awe-inspiring group shots of the four crusaders -- shoulder to shoulder -- engaging in battle. They stride down the streets of Chicago, elbow-to-elbow, an "untouchable" line of heroism, approaching the camera...looming larger and larger in frame (and in our psyches).

In another sequence, as The Untouchables successfully take down a branch of Capone's operation in a warehouse, the music and the camera work practically swoon in simultaneous orgasm at the achievement. The camera spins dizzily around the four men, doing a celebratory victory dance or whirl. This is myth making, pure and simple.

Despite his cutthroat methods, Malone is practically elevated to the role of saint in The Untouchables; constantly associated with his belief in Christianity; his attachment to his Rosary beads, and so forth. Ness becomes the designated carrier of "righteousness" after a grieving mother (of the girl killed in the bombing) tasks him with the sacred mission of capturing and incarcerating Capone. Even Ness's wife is treated as a sort of immaculate Madonna figure; forever tolerant; forever supportive, forever accepting of the dangers in her husband's line of work.

It probably goes without saying, but these are not the stock characters of your typical crime-drama, shaded in naturalistic greys, but rather bold, iconic warriors...remembered for feats of great bravery. De Palma's camera-work again and again hammers home this point. For example, Malone is shot a hundred times (by a machine gun at close range!) and still lives long enough to share a crucial piece of information with the mourning Ness. The wise, cunning Malone -- in every way -- is the Obi-Wan Kenobi Elder of The Untouchables, the mentor and man who guides the hero (Ness) on his mythic, Joseph Campbell-style journey.

Oppositely, De Palma's technique is also to depict the villain, Al Capone, in a deeply unflattering light. After Capone murders one of his treacherous henchmen with a baseball bat, De Palma stages a terrific shot: a horrified withdrawal or retraction from the bloody action; an overhead shot that seems to literally recoil in horror as spilled, scarlet blood contaminates Capone's white table linens.

The cross-cutting, mentioned earlier, also serves to create a cause-and-effect feeling in regards to Capone. He states that he is not behind the violence; then we see the brutal violence conducted in his name for ourselves. The sequencing of these scenes makes the viewer aware that Capone is a liar; not to be trusted.

Finally, an effective villain must be powerful and menacing, and so in all of Capone's scenes, De Palma positions the gangster amidst almost unbelievable opulence. In the famous baseball bludgeoning scene, Capone dons a tuxedo to gain the appearance of respectability. Later, we see the crook sitting in an expensive seat at the opera house, crying his eyes out during a movingperformance (a nod to Coppola's gangster films...). Capone's hotel suite is luxuriant to the point of decadence and beyond.

Capone controls the city, and lives amidst absolute wealth, with absolute unchallenged power. This is the mountain that Ness must climb on his journey. He must defeat a man who controls all the channels of power; who possesses vast wealth; and who will use violence; who is deceitful and capricious in his bloody whims. We easily understand all this from De Palma's cross-cutting, production design, and choice of compositions. The script itself (and De Niro's interpretation of the character), seem to suggest some sub-textual resonance of Mussolini, only this is capitalism's Il Duce: a man who has gamed the system through money and intimidation.

The Odessa Steps Re-Framed: Homage, Intertextuality and Commentary

The most impressive scene in De Palma's The Untouchables is one that isn't even in the screenplay. Originally, Ness and Petri were supposed to nab Capone's accountant on a train, and there was to be a rather elaborate car/train chase. When this did not prove feasible from an economic standpoint, De Palma altered the scene to involve the accountant arriving at a train station, and Ness and Petri standing by to intercept him there.

During the attempted capture, there is a shoot-out with Capone's men, and two innocent by-standers are caught in the crossfire: a mother and her baby in a carriage. At one intense point, the carriage topples over the station's vast stone staircase in slow-motion. All around, bullets fly...and the carriage shakes and bumps as it careens to the bottom...

Again, this sequence is likely the demarcation point where some people will "get" and appreciate De Palma, and others will simply insist that he is a particularly gifted "thief." For in concept and execution, the staircase scene of The Untouchables is an intricate homage to Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 propaganda classic, The Battleship Potemkin.

In that film, the famous "Odessa Steps" sequence dramatized a massacre conducted by the Tsarist Regime, set atop a wide staircase. Civilians were brutally murdered in this bloody sequence, as Cossacks killed men, women and children. Famously, a baby carriage was depicted rolling down the staircase.

In original context, the Odessa Steps sequence was meant to demonize the Imperial Regime, to expose the fact that there was no depth to which it would not sink to hold onto to power in Russia. The scene is so famous in cinema history that some people have apparently believed that there was a massacre on the Odessa Steps even though the incident was a fictional one concocted for the film.

Those who accuse De Palma of lifting the Odessa Steps sequence from The Battleship Potemkin should take one extra step -- beyond that of accusation -- and ask themselves why? What purpose does it serve to feature a similar sequence here, in this movie?

On one hand, we can certainly point to the deliberate homage and intertextuality we see throughout De Palma's canon. But furthermore, there's a reflexive quality to this reference in The Untouchables. To wit: the battle for capitalist control of Chicago is occurring, roughly, in the same time period that The Battleship Potemkin was made and distributed (circa 1925 - 1930). In other words, by cutting and shooting a sequence just like the Odessa Steps, De Palma is actually reflecting something that the characters of the time might have themselves conceivably understood or known about.

Much more importantly, however, De Palma has created a thematic relative of Potemkin; a kind of "pop" form of propaganda; a heroic myth elevating the G-Men in stature and deriding a corrupt system and the criminals -- like Capone -- who exploited it (the capitalist equivalent of the Tsarists).

De Palma's point -- captured beautifully in the slow-motion shoot-out -- is that Capone's Regime (like that of the Cossacks...) boasts no moral compunction about the murder of the innocent. It will hold onto control any way it can, as we have seen in the corner saloon bombing and now with the imperiled baby carriage. Ness's task is much more difficult: he must eliminate the entrenched, powerful bad guys (the hench-men of Capone) and defend the innocent simultaneously. Remember how that grieving mother told Ness to get Capone? Well, here Ness lands in an even more urgent variation of that scene: finally in the position to prevent the death of an innocent at the same time that he takes down the guilty.

So, yes, De Palma pays tribute to Eisenstein's shock cutting in the famous staircase battle, but he has done two other important things as well. First, he has raised audience "ire" over Capone's actions in the self-same manner as Eisenstein did in regards to the Tsarists;" exposing" a corrupt regime in the process. And secondly, he has re-purposed the "lifted" sequence so as to make a point about the nature of the all-out battle Ness is fighting.

Amazingly, De Palma crafts an action sequence in the very film language appropriate to the era of his film, the 1920s-1930s. In his review, critic Hal Hinson called the staircase shoot-out scene De Palma's "greatest stunt," only-half impressed, but I suggest that given the context, given the reflexivity, given the re-purposing of a classic sequence for a like thematic purpose, it is much more than a stunt. This is De Palma conceiving and deploying brilliant visuals to chart for audiences the epic nature of the Capone/Ness conflict.

Why does The Untouchables succeed as a grand entertainment and as a work of art? The answer involves our history as a nation. Just over two centuries old, America is still a young country at heart. Because our ancestors arrived from a variety of other countries, the U.S.A. lacks the coherent, long-standing mythology of Greece or Rome, of England or France. In many ways, the short history of America has involved the fashioning of a fresh, new mythology that can serve as the sturdy vehicle to carry our ideals into an unknown future . The Old West -- the era of righteous gunslingers -- is one critical part of that new-fangled mythology. As I wrote in The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television, I believe that superheroes have, to a large degree, replaced the cowboy in this regard.

But nonetheless, in The Untouchables, Brian De Palma takes Ness's G-Men -- who fought for the rule of law in Chicago, -- and elevates them to the same epic stature Americans typically reserve for cowboys, war heroes, or supermen. We don't have an American Robin Hood; or American Three Musketeers. But the heroic, saintly and courageous Untouchables - at least in De Palma's cinematic interpretation -- more than suffice for the film's running time.

A visual exercise in mythbuilding, The Untouchables is De Palma's mainstream masterpiece; a supreme and rousing entertainment that dispenses with the predictable "grittiness" of the gangster drama and audaciously serves us up a symbolic fable in its place.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 85: The Man from Atlantis (1977 - 1978)

The first American network series to be broadcast in China (and one immensely popular there to this day...), The Man From Atlantis is a short-lived superhero series from the mid-1970s; one that fits in with the pop-culture trend I term the Age of "Nostalgia" or of "Americana."

Programs of this era included The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, The Amazing Spider-Man, and even a set of very poor Captain America TV-movies starring Reb Brown (!).

What these many disco decade superhero productions share is a sunshiny overall atmosphere and a total -- even will full -- denial of the vast cynicism of their time period.

Created post-Watergate and post-Vietnam War, these superheroes served as innocent, pure-hearted protectors who always fought for America, defending it from Soviets, space monsters, underwater monsters, name it. And America was always in the right. No matter what. The angst and broodiness we have come to expect post-"Dark Age" (The Dark Knight, The Crow, Blade, etc.) did not yet exist. But the Americana shows -- while charming and good for curiosity viewing -- were also strangely childish and occasionally downright slipshod in terms of production value.

The Man From Atlantis told the story of the last survivor of the lost continent of Atlantis, a web-fingered, young man named Mark Harris (Patrick Duffy). He quickly became a secret agent for the United States. I guess a lot of cases in U.S. intelligence circles occured underwater in the seventies, since Captain Nemo, once revived, also became an operative for our government (see 1978's The Return of Captain Nemo).

Now, as you may know, nearly forty years before The Man from Atlantis, Marvel Comics had already introduced its own Man from Atlantis–style character: Bill Everett’s Prince Namor, otherwise known as the Sub-Mariner.

That's a different guy.

Where Namor was the arrogant grandson of King Thakorr and alternately known as “the Avenging Son of Atlantis” or the “Prince of Blood," Mark Harris was a water-breather of a different stripe. He was a peaceful, even-tempered gentleman who more closely resembled Star Trek's popular Mr. Spock -- a friendly, peaceful resident alien -- than an angry avenger from under the sea. Spock had pointed ears; Harris had webbed fingers.

Patrick Duffy described his heroic character as "extremely, intelligently naive. He’s very quick. He’s unencumbered by hang-ups…. He has a total lack of that kind of ego that stops us from taking a different direction because we hate to admit that the one we took in the first place was wrong. He’s totally open to suggestion." (David Houston, Starlog # 9: "Patrick Duffy: TV's Man From Atlantis," October 1977, page 28).

No. Not exactly “the Prince of Blood” in concept.

Where Namor passionately hated mankind for polluting his home (the seas), Mark Harris was a relaxed, New Age, Zen, groovy kinda guy. The last survivor of Atlantis, Harris had no memory of his background, and had gills instead of lungs, which meant he could remain above water for only twelve hours at a stretch. Harris could also swim incredibly fast, and in a unique dolphin-like motion as well. His signature gait became all the rage at American swimming pools for boys eleven years old and younger.

On The Man From Atlantis, Harris worked with a nice, attractive scientist, Dr. Elizabeth Merrill (Belinda Montgomery); and mid-way through the series he even oined the crew of the Cetacean, an advanced, experimental U.S. government submarine not unlike the starship Enterprise (where, again, Harris was the resident alien). Harris’s unofficial boss at the Foundation for Oceanic Research (the United Federation of Planets?) was C.W. Crawford (Alan Fudge).

Stories featured on The Man from Atlantis were the typical clichés of science fiction and superhero lore so popular at the time. Harris time-traveled to the Old West to take part in a shoot-out in “Shoot Out at Land’s End.” He battled a genie (Pat Morita) who could revert people to their childhood in “Imp.” In one truly over-the-top outing, “The Naked Montague,” Harris traveled into the past to prevent the bloody demises of Shakespeare’s young lovers, Romeo and Juliet! Yep...they weren't fictional after all!

Villains on the series ranged from a deadly giant (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) to a colossal jellyfish ("Man O 'War"), to the recurring “evil genius” Mr. Schubert (portrayed by the rotund Victor Buono -- King Tut on Batman). The tone of the series bordered on camp and director Michael O’Herlihy went on record noting that it was this lack of a consistent (and serious) tone that ultimately hurt The Man From Atlantis with audiences:

"I don’t know if Man from Atlantis was science fiction or what the hell it was..." (Edward Gross, Starlog # 131 "Michael O'Herlihy, Storyteller of Tomorrow & Yesterday," June 1988, page 72).

The first season of The Man from Atlantis ran sporadically on NBC as a series of two-hour movies on Thursday nights. The second season settled down into a regular pattern, airing Tuesday nights in the fall of 1977 and spring of 1978 at 8:00 p.m., competing against the then-powerhouse combination of nostalgia sitcoms Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley on ABC.

Ultimately, The Man from Atlantis got flushed by NBC after the seventeenth and last episode, which aired on June 6, 1978. Star Patrick Duffy re-bounded with a starring role on the CBS soap opera Dallas starting in 1980.

Today, the sort-of-silly, sort-of-charming Man From Atlantis remains a nostalgic favorite for many Generation X-ers, but is not yet available on DVD. Any day now, someone is certain to re-imagine the series...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What I'm Reading Now: Beyond Hammer: British Horror Cinema Since 1970

"The majority of the films analysed within this book share this essential trait: first and foremost they exist to entertain by terrifying their audience but on a deeper level they are written as a response to the era in which the writer and film-maker are living: The Vampire Lovers blatantly communicates the fear of the emergent independent woman whilst The Descent explores the emotional collapse and consequential regression of one such woman; The Wicker Man critiques a society that embraces freedom and sexual liberation through its very opposite, the repressed Christian; whilst Death Line suggests an examination of societal ignorance towards the poor and the impoverished."

- James Rose, Beyond Hammer:British Horror Cinema Since 1970, Columbia University Press, 2009, page 9.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Theme Song of the Week: "A Penny For Your Thoughts" (1997)

Friday, July 24, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Dressed to Kill (1980)

"Suspense-king Hitchcock is dead. Long live the new King, De Palma." - Forbes, December 22, 1980, page 23.

"One might legitimately claim that the jury is still out on the subject of whether films like De Palma's actually induce violence. But can they affect our every actions - say, inhibit the behavior of women, or rouse fears of independence? Dearth of evidence or no, you will never convince me that those aren't exactly the effects of the films of Brian De Palma." - Zina Klapper, Ms. Magazine, "The Latest in De Palma's Shop of Horrors," January 1985 page 33.

The two quotations above (the first in regards to Dressed to Kill; the second to Body Double [1984]) chart the opposite poles of critical reaction to Brian De Palma's edgy 1970s-1980s suspense thrillers.

I won't keep you in suspense about my position in this matter: I firmly believe that De Palma is an immensely talented, extremely intellectual filmmaker, one who skillfully transports audiences into his dream-like, hypnotic worlds and "makes every move count," as critic Pauline Kael suggested.

Kael also wrote, in regards to Dressed to Kill and De Palma, that "his thriller technique, constantly refined, has become insidious, jeweled." ("Master Spy, Master Seducer," The New Yorker. August 4, 1980, page 68). I wholeheartedly concur, and would argue that De Palma's films don't incite violence, hatred of women, or a hatred of anyone for that matter.

Rather, De Palma carefully and deliberately constructs his thrillers on the building blocks of homage; on sturdy Hitchcockian foundations (notably our sexual foibles and manners). Then, as writer Jake Horsley suggests -- "with a wicked glee and wizardry all his own... [he] takes full advantage of the permissiveness of the times." (The Blood Poets: A Cinema of Savagery, 1985-1999, Volume 1, Scarecrow Press, 1999, page 213). In other words...he's having us on; using the latest trends and topics (a Donahue show on transgenders!) as narrative fodder.

As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1980s, I consider De Palma's Dressed to Kill a filmed "dare" of sorts; one that nastily, brazenly, grotesquely "creeps up" to the edge of social responsibility and acceptability, but then -- finally -- backs away with a tease and a knowing wink. Our prurient interest is acknowledged, excited, and ultimately sated...but not, perhaps, in the way we might have intended or hoped for. In the end, we thus feel tantalized, walloped, wowed and most importantly, amused...but not debauched. Zina Klappers of the world aside, you don't leave Dressed to Kill wanting to hurt someone; you leave it feeling invigorated because you've been so thoroughly swept up in the film's narrative.

This is the inveterate De Palma Method; the trademark manner by which he engages the testing the limits and -- on occasion -- vaulting across them. But you know what? A horror movie that doesn't transgress, that doesn't break taboos, isn't worth spit. De Palma's highly formalist thrillers -- and particularly Dressed to Kill -- observe uncomfortable facets of human sexual behavior (male, female, even transgender...), and do so with the intent to manipulate our attention; to manipulate our very sight.

De Palma's game is -- like Hitchcock's -- to play us all "like a piano." To fool or trick us; to make us let down our guard so we can truly be "open" (and susceptible...) to the narrative being vetted. As the percipients countenancing his movies, we believe we're seeing one thing when in fact we're being led in an entirely different direction. If De Palma can achieve that misdirection with extreme, jarring violence, he'll do it in a heartbeat. But gazing across the breadth of his career, he's just as likely to offer a macabre joke, or some other visual gag. Violence, humor, mesmerizing camera movements: these are means to his tricky ends.

Much of Brian De Palma's thriller catalogue -- and certainly Dressed to Kill -- may best be understood by the director's oft-stated maxim, what he calls the inverse of Godard's, that "the camera lies 24 times a second."

If indeed that's his overriding philosophy, consider how efficacious it proves in building a successful movie thriller.

De Palma's movies don't simply feature twist endings; don't merely evidence tricky, winding narratives. No, at a genetic level -- in the language of film grammar itself -- his movies fundamentally trick the eyes. How does he accomplish this feat? Well, in Dressed to Kill, it's literally done with mirrors (particularly in regards to one character, Dr. Elliott). De Palma's nervy compositions also frequently feature enigmatic doubles (or triples...) of prominent characters, barely glimpsed. And his dream sequences arise unannounced in the screenplay...but with distinctive clues originating from the lighting. And De Palma's famous, long, curvy, cornering, unbroken shots -- accompanied by a melodramatic score -- can make us swoon.

De Palma makes audiences get caught up in the moment so much that...well...we misinterpret things. In other words: he has us right where he wants us.

I Borrowed Your Razor...

I hope that if you are reading this review, you've seen Dressed to Kill already (and preferably more than once). Because in fashioning a synopsis and analysis here, I will be spoiling the film's various surprises, and this film very much depends on those surprises. Consider yourself warned.

Anyway, Dressed to Kill is the story of a sexually-frustrated middle-aged wife and mother, Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson).

After a morning appointment with her dispassionate psychiatrist, Dr. Elliott (Caine), Kate visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Once there, she picks up a total stranger and -- after a tense lover's game in the museum's maze-like hallways -- shares a sexual encounter with him in a taxi cab.

After the fling is over, Kate learns (via a letter in her lover's desk from the New York City Department of Health...) that her new partner has contracted a venereal disease. Upset and unnerved, Kate flees his apartment for the elevator, only to recall on descent that she's left behind her wedding ring. Kate heads back to her lover's floor and retrieves the ring. But then Kate is unexpectedly murdered by a razor-wielding Amazon woman: a blonde in sun-glasses and long overcoat.

Kate's young-adult son, Peter (Keith Gordon) attempts to solve his mother's brutal murder with the aid of the only witness to the crime's aftermath: a sexy hooker named Liz Blake (Nancy Allen). Along with a police lieutenant, Marino (Dennis Franz), Peter and Liz come to believe that Dr. Elliott may be protecting the murderer, perhaps one of his psychotic patients. By night -- in the midst of a deluge -- Liz meets with Dr. Elliott in his office, and attempts to get a peek at his appointment book...

Sexual Worth/Emotional Dysfunction

In many critical senses, Dressed to Kill explicitly concerns the sexuality of the dramatis personae. At least three primary characters undergo a process of sexual awakening or development in the course of the drama, and the film's stylistic approach is tailored to each character's particular brand of change/maturity/neurosis.

First we meet Kate Miller, a married woman who longs for sexual excitement and romance in her humdrum marriage. The film's dazzling and erotic opening scene involves Kate masturbating in the shower as she gazes lustfully at the almost-naked body of her husband nearby. But this sexual fantasy almost immediately goes awry. It is literally hijacked by a man in the shower behind her, forcing himself upon her. At first Kate is tantalized, aroused, but then the love-making grows violent, disturbing. She screams...

...and suddenly we're gazing (from a high-angle perspective) down upon Mr. and Mrs. Miller in bed as Kate's husband completes one of his "wham bang" specials...a quickie with plenty of gratification for him, not so much for her. After he has completed the...uh...transaction, Mr. Miller pats Kate absently on the cheek like she's a good dog or something, and moves entirely out of frame. Kate is left center-stage, feeling sexually frustrated and angry. She can't find what she wants...the fantasy aspect of her sex life always gives way to grim, unromantic reality.

This pattern (fantasy giving way to reality) is repeated in Dressed to Kill's central set-piece, set in the Museum. Kate arrives there and sits down on a bench. But when she looks around her, we see that she is not gazing at art so much as the romantic nuances of human behavior. There are young lovers nearby...holding one another affectionately; touching one another in ways that suggest romantic intimacy. In another corner, brazen sexual hunger: a sleazy-looking man comes on to a beautiful blonde in an unsuccessful pick-up attempt.

Importantly, these shots of strangers navigating romance/sex are staged from the outside looking in; from one room into another, showcasing a frame within a frame. This particular perspective grants the compositions a feeling of the intimate, the voyeuristic. They also mirror Dressed to Kill's very first shot: a slow glide around a corner to discover Kate masturbating in the shower. This is important: the approach is one almost literally of "peeking in" from the outside.

These random incidents arouse Kate's sexual yearnings, and soon a man sits down beside her on the bench...a potential lover. Following his arrival, we get several minutes of smiles, awkward glances, self-recriminations, mixed signals...and then a full-throated, fast-paced pursuit that climaxes in the taxi-cab as the stranger pulls off Kate's panties and goes down on her.

It's important to note that this sequence is vetted without any dialogue whatsoever. Instead, the mesmeric set-piece works because of De Palma's skilled shot selection, the facial expressions of the actors, and Pino Donaggio's lush score, which arouses our feelings of romance at the same time Kate becomes aroused. All I can say is that this sequence is pure magic, pure cinema. Kate's passion becomes our passion. We're putty in De Palma's hands.

But in terms of importance, this scene represents the deliberate repetition of the "fantasy" paradigm De Palma has already established (with Mrs. Miller in the shower during the film's opening scene). As before (with the rape...), a fantasy encounter is followed by grim reality. After the sexual liaison, Kate learns her lover has contracted VD and all romance and sexual excitement evaporates.

Instead of mere disappointment however, what follows the sexual fantasy this time around is a wave of shame and guilt. Kate has cheated on her husband for casual sex with a stranger -- violating her vows -- and may now have contracted an STD. De Palma forces us to linger on these feelings of shame, guilt and anxiety by holding on Dickinson in the elevator for an abnormally-long period of time. She's desperate to escape the "scene of the crime," as it were, but can't. Instead, she's confined in the elevator. As before Kate was similarly confined in another cubicle: the shower enclosure.

Then a little girl gets into the elevator with Kate...and just stares at her. Although the child could have no way of knowing the sin Kate has committed, it doesn't matter. The face of "innocence" glares at Kate following her immoral behavior and that staring visage makes the case (visually) for Kate's recriminations . More importantly, this extended time in the elevator (with the girl bearing witness...) forces the audience to reckon with some very important questions that ultimately have no place in the rest of the narrative. How will Kate tell her husband what happened? Does she now have VD?

Much as Hitchcock misdirected the audience by accentuating the importance of the stolen fortune in Psycho (1960), De Palma makes us focus, laser-like, on the fall-out of Kate's affair during this lengthy elevator sequence. And of course, he's leading us astray...

Kate's ring, her marital vows, even the threat of venereal disease are totally meaningless in the larger drama. Kate is suddenly ambushed and murdered by a weird, homicidal assailant. Again, De Palma purposefully echoes the beats of Psycho: particularly the Janet Leigh trick which saw the murder of the film's protagonist (Marion Crane) after the first act. De Palma's variation on this trick is particularly strong, particularly visual, however: he passes the baton of "heroine" directly from Kate to Liz in a single shot: a close-up of their eyes meeting. A lingering look is exchanged between them, and we have our new lead.

Kate's son, Peter, is the second character in the film who undergoes a maturing or sexual awakening. The young man is a technical genius who toils on esoteric scientific contraptions to the exclusion of everything else. In the course of Dressed to Kill, we see him build a computer, operate a self-made "bug" to listen in on private conversations, and even defend Liz with home-produced pepper spray/mace. Peter even designs and constructs his own stop-motion camera to catch the murderer. But -- as his mother realizes -- Peter is still a naive boy. In an early scene, Kate suggests that Peter name his computer contraption "Peter"...a slang term for a penis. She then explicitly tells him not to stay up all night playing with "his Peter."

The sexually repressed Peter doesn't take this advice until after the horrible murder of his mother. Then -- finally-- he has an obsession beyond the care and nurturing of his "Peter." He leaves his bedroom, encounters beautiful Liz (a hooker...)...and even becomes her heroic protector. At film's end, Liz says she's gotten used to having Peter watch her explicit reminder that the action of the film has changed Peter from boy to man.

Peter's ill-fated mother out went in search of sex and romance...and found only death. Peter went in search of truth..conquered repression...and found the sex and romance his mother so desperately sought.

The third sexual awakening in the film involves the film's villain, Dr. Elliott. Elliott is actually a "woman trapped in a man's body," a man waiting to undergo sexual re-assignment surgery. But when aroused (by Kate and Liz, respectively), Elliott takes on the avenging female persona of Bobbi: a psychotic, razor-wielding murderer attempting to preserve her existence. This background is all explained tersely (and graphically) in one of the film's final scenes, yet another echo from Psycho (specifically the oft-criticized coda...). But well before this explanatory ending, De Palma offers us visual and audio tells as to Dr. Elliott's schizoid nature.

Every time Elliott is asked by a woman (again, Kate or Liz), if he wants to have sex, De Palma cuts to a shot of Elliott in a mirror on his desk. The face there -- though Elliott's -- symbolizes the disapproving glare of Bobbi...staring back at her "male" brother. We don't know it (at least consciously) during the film's progress, but these reverse angles are informing us that Dr. Elliott boasts a twisted reflection.

The aural tell is just as interesting as the mirror images. Early in the picture, Dr. Elliott tellingly refers to himself in the third person while noting that he has to "play" secretary in the office today. "The doctor will see you now," he tells Kate. In other words, Elliott isn't always "the doctor." Sometimes he's someone else. Sometimes he's Bobbi.

Elliott's sexual problem is two-fold. One, he is still experiencing the unwanted symptoms of male arousal when in the presence of sexy and willing women. And two, as Bobbi he expresses his sexual emotions in violent, fetishistic terms Look at the way Bobbi "dresses to kill" near the denouement, the long, lustful, purposeful way she unzips a nurse's blouse following one murder. The act of dressing as a woman is one thing Bobbi might be denied if Elliott's manhood reasserts itself; and in this sequence we visually detect the character's obsession with womanhood (but not necessarily hatred of womanhood, as critics argued).

The only character not overtly hung up on sex in some way in Dressed to Kill is Liz (Nancy Allen), ironically a successful, high-class prostitute. And one with a close eye on her stock portfolio to boot. Perhaps because sex is just business and not personal for Liz, she doesn't let it affect her judgment in deleterious ways.

Dressed to Kill's valedictory joke involves this character and her straight-forward, unencumbered view of sex. After Elliott is shot and incarcerated, Liz explains to Peter -- in graphic, explicit terms -- the nature of Elliott's sexual hang-ups. This description occurs in an up-scale restaurant, while horrified patrons listen on all sides. It's almost as though Liz is telling Peter a dirty joke in bad taste; and I suppose that's the point. Dressed to Kill is essentially the same thing: a long, dirty joke evoking passion and criticism on all sides from moral watchdogs...but completely acceptable (and sort of funny...) to any character not hung up on the hows, whos, wheres and whys of sex. People like Liz.

Your Lying Eyes and Ears

Another leitmotif in Dressed to Kill involves that De Palma-ism about the camera lying 24 times a second. Implicit in that statement is a distrust of technology itself. So it's extremely significant that Peter's technology in the film doesn't get to the truth of Elliott's story at all.

A camera is set up outside Elliott's office to snap photographs of patients coming and going (so Liz and Peter can identify the murderer...) but the camera only picks up "Bobbi." The camera can't comprehend what it photographs, so it cannot register that Bobbi is the same person as Dr. Elliott. This mistake sets up the dangerous finale in which Liz comes on to Elliott in his office. She doesn't know it, but she's arousing Bobbi's wrath by arousing Elliott.

Additionally, when Peter listens in on Dr. Elliott talking with Detective Marino at the police station, he hears only those truths that Elliott chooses to share...nothing that reveals the true identity of the murderer. Thus the doctor's "appointment book" becomes a kind of McGuffin...assumed to be all-important by police and witnesses alike, but actually signifying nothing of consequence. Bobbi didn't sign in. She's not a patient. She's...Elliott.

So the camera and the mic designed by Peter lie. And the form of Dressed to Kill echoes that content: De Palma's camera lies too. We constantly confuse Bobbi with her lookalike or doppelganger, Betty Luce -- the detective that Marino has assigned to trail Liz.

In one scene set in Columbus Circle, Liz is pursued by Bobbi and Luce simultaneously, and we can't distinguish between them. In fact, we don't know that we're even looking at two different characters! De Palma then fosters this confusion by arranging a misleading, split-screen montage. An image of Elliott -- listening to a voice mail from Bobbi -- appears on the left of the frame. At the same time, an image of what we take to be Bobbi -- but actually Luce -- appears on the right hand of the screen; spying on Liz.

See how the camera lies? In this sequence, it convinces us that Elliott and Bobbi are two different people when in fact there's a third, mystery personality (Luce). It's not a cheat; it's not a gimmick. We just have incomplete information. It's all adequately explained and makes sense in the end. But while we're in the thick of it, we believe we're seeing one thing but experiencing something else entirely. This is where De Palma truly excels, and we don't know if we should believe our lying eyes.

Think About Where Your Anger is Going...

Like many De Palma movies, Dressed to Kill is all about intertextuality. The references to Psycho are numerous, and as I've laid out above, considerable. From the Janet Leigh trick to the psycho-babble coda to the schizoid nature of the villain, it's easy to identify Psycho as the bedrock foundation and inspiration of the film.

And yet, Dressed to Kill is no simple knock-off. On the contrary, it assimilates the core Psycho components and then builds on top of them. Here, the Norman Bates character doesn't just pretend to be "Mother" by dressing up, but is on the way to actually becoming a woman. Furthermore, he doesn't live alone, in isolation, in some rural backwater.

On the contary, Dressed to Kill makes the schizoid man a respected professional who -- on first blush -- seamlessly operates inside our contemporary, technological, rational society. Madness has thus arrived in the modern city in Dressed to Kill...and it thrives there in anonymity. This isn't Psycho redux. This is Psycho + 1

Again, De Palma finds ways to honor his cherished source material. The film opens in a shower (since Psycho's most famous sequence occurred there...) but then builds to a fever pitch in another distinctive enclosure: an elevator. By starting with Angie Dickinson in the shower, however, Dressed to Kill essentially states that it is beginning where Psycho left off. It's the next step. (And Fincher's Fight Club [1999] is the next iteration of the schizoid drama, but that's a post for another day...)

Dressed to Kill not only quotes from Psycho, but also the Italian giallo tradition. Here we have a film with a mystery component, an operatic score, excessive blood letting, and flamboyant camera movements. Where have you seen that alchemical equation before, Bava or Argento fans? Hitchcock wasn't able to produce Psycho in color, but De Palma makes the most of this advance in movie technology. He uses garish, bright colors in symbolic, effective fashion here. In the elevator death scene, for instance, Angie Dickinson is garbed head-to-toe in immaculate white, a color which is soon spoiled by her spilled blood during the razor attack. The red-against-white image is powerful in almost a primal way, and it works thematically (as in giallo tradition); suggesting the loss of Kate Miller's "purity" after the marriage-wrecking affair.

It became a de rigueur kind of thing in the 1990s, but Dressed to Kill is also highly self-referential. The text it often refers itself. The valedictory restaurant scene I mentioned above -- a comedy of manners -- explains the plot of the movie in linear but subtly funny terms. It also anticipates the reviewer reaction to the film by those (like Klapper) who don't get the joke; casting these critics as horrified restaurant customers, disgusted at the explicit nature of Elliott's tale. But what really repels them is not the movie and not the dirty joke: it's human (sexual) nature.

Dream-like and sensual, Dressed to Kill is a sex fantasy gone awry...a dirty joke captured on celluloid. But De Palma makes it more than that with his daring and audacious visual imagination. The director takes scenes (like the dizzying museum pursuit) that might be brief or perfunctory in the hands of other helmsman and extends them into lengthy, bravura set-pieces that make our hearts quicken. De Palma teases us with nudity (body doubles and all...) but then glances over the specifics of intercourse (conducted entirely off-screen) for a revelation about venereal diseases instead.

After piquing our sexual interest, De Palma leaves us uncomfortable and trapped in an elevator, reflecting on guilt, shame and the idea that fantasies are best fantasies. And then, in true De Palma fashion, he finishes his masterpiece off with a terrifying dream sequence that makes our nerves jangle and our adrenaline pump. Even in closing, he determinedly one-ups Hitchcock: he resets reality/order to normal (with the explanatory psycho-babble), but then knocks it from the perch again with a harrowing scene of death and violence. This is either a prank or an acknowledgment that -- since Hitchcock -- order gets re-established less and less. In life and in movies.

Some critics may gaze at Dressed to Kill and argue that it is nothing but flashy style in the service of depravity. On the contrary, it's a thriller that teases us with our own sexual hang-ups and preconceived notions about sex. Dressed to Kill reminds us not only to be careful what we wish for, but that what we see...isn't always what we get.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Five Most Ludicrous Musical Numbers in Movie History

I recently watched Saturday Night Fever (1977) again and despite the 1970s fashions (or perhaps because of them...), it remains an endlessly entertaining film. In some other quantum reality, perhaps, we're all still emulating Tony Manero: wearing white jackets with lapels down to our shoulders and pants three sizes too tight.

But in this reality, something happened that stamped out forever the glitzy night-time world observed so brilliantly in John Badham's disco classic.

Well, not something...five somethings. They are (in no particular order): Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), The Apple (1980), Can't Stop The Music (1980), Xanadu (1980), and the sequel to Saturday Night Fever, Staying Alive (1983).

Et tu, Travolta?

Simply stated, these films -- all of 1978 -1983 vintage -- remain the most bizarre, garish and lurid movie musicals ever made. It's not just that these films are run-of-the-mill bad, it's that they each elevate badness to a fine art in unique, staggering ways. Believe me, if you haven't seen it, you can't even begin to conceive of The Apple.

And I might as well admit it: I'm unhealthily taken with these cult movies. They whisper to me of a time and place -- nay a world -- of extreme possibilities. Could you imagine the bad luck of seeing Sgt. Pepper in 1978? Then returning -- wounded and vulnerable -- to the theater in 1980, only to reckon with Can't Stop The Music? Then, after years of recovery, catching Staying Alive on the big screen? It's...madness.

Now, I wouldn't recommend you watch all of these films (well, actually, okay, I would...), but for your viewing pleasure, I have compiled the most ludicrous musical numbers from each production for your viewing pleasure today.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

1. "Get Back"

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) stars the Bee Gees. Here, the group sings entirely from the catalogue of the Beatles, an homage turned fromage. The film concerns the evil Mr. Mustard (Frankie Howerd), who plots to steal the magical coronet, drums and other musical instruments of the original Sgt. Pepper, the revered former leader of Heartland U.S.A. The Bee-Gees -- as the Lonely Hearts Club Band --- must retrieve the instruments, and also contend with such personalities as Father Sun (Alice Cooper) and Future Villain (Aerosmith).

In our first selection, Peter Frampton's heroic character, Billy Shears, attempts suicide after the alleged demise of his girlfriend, Strawberry Fields, only to get resurrected by Sgt. Pepper (Billy Preston). Sgt. Pepper then sings "Get Back!" while jazz-ercising and firing lasers out of his fingers.

#2."The Apple"

Set in the distant year of 1994, The Apple is the Golan-Globus epic of Moosejaw denizens and babes-in-the-woods, Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Alphie (George Gilmour), who star in the futuristic equivalent of American Idol called The World Vision Song Contest. After their performance, these innocents are seduced by Mr. Boogalow (Vladek Sheybel), a music/Hollywood agent and Lucifer himself. In the following song, "The Apple," Bibi makes a Faustian deal for fame. If nothing else, this hellish musical number forecasts the production design of "Satan's Alley." The lyrics from "The Apple" suggest "you'll be hypnotized. You'll be victimized." Consider that truth in advertising.

# 3. "Do the Milk Shake."

This number is from the fictionalized Village People bio-pic Can't Stop The Music, starring Steve Gutenberg and Bruce Jenner. The film was directed by Nancy Walker, who was famous for paper towel commercials. Otherwise, I don't really think I should comment on this one. Just ask yourself: knowing what you know about The Village People, what is this musical number really about?

#4. "Xanadu"

All kidding aside, Xanadu (1980) starring Olivia Newton John is really one of my personal guilty pleasures (and it's the only movie on this list I actually saw theatrically.) So I humbly ask you to "open your eyes and hear the magic!" as the movie's marketers suggested; mixing their metaphors with confusing razzle-dazzle. The number I selected from Xanadu is the triumphant denouement, showcasing the opening of a new roller-skating rink/night club. I dare say that this is the only musical number in history featuring Gene Kelly on roller skates, women in spandex, and split screens. And you know what? I love every goddamn minute of it.

#5 "Satan's Alley"

The Apple was just a warm up. Here's a (thin) John Travolta in the closing musical number from Staying Alive. It was supposed to represent a Broadway stage show entitled "Satan's Alley," but just try to imagine the logistics of presenting this number on stage (and without cuts?) It's like a three-ring disco circus. David Denby wrote one my favorite movie reviews ever regarding this film.

He wrote: "This is no ordinary terrible movie; it's a vision of the end. Not the end of the world, which will probably be much quieter than Staying Alive, but the end of movies...As you watch it, the idea of what a movie is - an idea that has lasted more than half-a-century - crumbles before your eyes." (New York Magazine, August 1, 1983, page 54).

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

All's Well That Ends Well: Final Episodes, Cliffhangers and Goodbyes

Approximately a week ago, author and blogger Brad Templeton penned a vast (and widely-linked) essay terming Battlestar Galactica's series finale ("Daybreak") "the worst ending in the history of science fiction on the screen."

His reasoning is sound, not to mention brilliantly expressed, and the author points specifically to three problems. They are: an egregious scientific error, an overall sense of storytelling laziness to resolve important "mysteries" (relying on God and God's powers as the explanation for a multitude of events), and most damningly, poor internal consistency. In that final regard, "Daybreak 1 & 2" don't even track with earlier episodes of the four season series, particularly one important installment set on Kobol.

I suggest you read the entire, meticulous piece for yourself, so you can draw your own conclusions. Personally, I agreed with the author on at least one of his main points. Although I never even registered the Mitochondrial Eve/scientific error (and scientific errors tend not to bother me that much anyway...), I was dumbfounded that audiences were expected to believe "Daybreak's" closing conceit: that a technological race would voluntarily (and in one voice...) give up health care, air conditioning, telephones, and indoor plumbing to live on a primitive planet in close proximity to their sworn enemies (you know, the ones who had attempted their genocide...). I mean, the Colonists had only survived the Genocide because of technology; because of their spaceships. I just don't believe for a second that an advanced people would willingly give it all up. I also disliked the final explanation -- or lack of explanation -- for Starbuck's character. It was a cop-out on a cosmic scale.

Yet I write today not to curse Battlestar Galactica's disappointing finale, but because the essay got me thinking about the ways that other genre series have arrived at their final chapters. It wasn't that long ago, actually, that most series just went off the air without any sort of wrap-up whatsoever.

We never saw the final voyage of the U.S.S. Enterprise's five year mission. Nor did we witness the Alphans discover a new home, or return to Earth. The Searcher never found those "lost tribes" of Earth.

Television audiences never knew if David Vincent stopped the alien invasion of Earth, or if Carl Kolchak finally convinced anybody that there were monsters running around Chicago. Nope. Those TV series just...stopped. The axe of cancellation fell...and that was the end of the story.

On the other hand, some notable series did get to inscribe their last acts, ending with some modest sense of completion (even if dedicated fans were left begging for more....) Now, I'm specifically discussing endings in this essay, folks, so you might consider the descriptions ahead as spoilers. If you don't want to know how a number of sci-fi series ended, then read no further.

"Fall Out"
First off, we have Patrick McGoohan's legendary series about individualism and "The State," called The Prisoner (1968). The 17-episode roster ended with an episode titled "Fall Out." If you've never seen it, there's simply no way to satisfactorily explain it, except to state that, well, it's really bonkers. The imprisoned Number Six (McGoohan) -- after undergoing a trial/psychological test of sorts -- discovers that the Village's leader, Number One, is actually a man in a chimp mask. No scratch that...Number One is actually himself. Then Number Six destroys the Village, flees with a midget, and -- through images repeated from the familiar opening credits montage -- we are led conclude that the whole cycle of imprisonment may be starting over again.

Though bizarre, the ending of "Fall Out" succeeds because it suggests that even outside the walls of the Village, Number Six will always be a "prisoner" in an increasingly de-humanized society determined to catalogue and number citizens. We relate this message to us: we're all prisoners.

Yet "Fall Out" isn't coherent in any traditional storytelling sense, and it actually abandons the tight, "literal" narrative of the earlier episodes for an entirely allegorical finale. Some regular viewers of The Prisoner were actually enraged by the abandonment of the literal for the metaphorical, while others undertook the tough task McGoohan had sought for them: they interpreted the psychedelic, powerful images and found their own answers about the underlying meaning.


Blake's 7 (1978-1981), another British sci-fi series, also featured a rather definitive and downbeat ending, and one much more literal in nature than "Fall Out." I like to call it "The Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid" End. After years of successfully fighting against the tyrannical and powerful Federation, Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) finally leads his gang of rebels into a trap from which they cannot escape.

The last scene of the episode "Blake" (and of the series) involves all the main characters being gunned down in slow-motion by Federation soldiers. Our last view of the cunning Avon sees him offering a strange smile...and raising his own weapon in a futile demonstration of defiance. The screen goes blank and laser fire dominates the soundtrack...

This ending was and remains perfect -- not because of the brutal massacre -- but because of the character-based events leading up to it. Before Avon faces the shock troopers of the Federation, he encounters the idealistic, missing hero of the series, Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas) and -- because of a misinterpretation and poorly chosen words -- ends up killing him in cold blood.

Blake's 7
always concerned character fireworks more than action, and "Blake" is true to that longstanding quality. Blake trusted too much...and died. And Avon trusted too little...and also died. In other words, the same problems that had always plagued these men throughout the series plagued the freedom fighters right through the violent finale. Yes, "Blake" is dark, but any other ending wouldn't have seemed realistic in Blake's 7's cynical universe. Tie-in writers, fans, and producers have toiled ever since "Blake" aired to figure out an acceptable way for the heroes to somehow survive the events of this final episode, but the massacre stands as the final video chapter of Blake's 7. And it remains one of the most mind-blowing series finales in the genre's history.

"All Good Things"

In 1994, after seven successful seasons in syndication, Star Trek: The Next Generation achieved the sense of closure that the Original Series had been denied. It occurred in an adventure called "All Good Things" that recalled the past (and the premiere episode, "Encounter at Farpoint,") had one foot in the present, and even featured a subplot set in the future, twenty-five years down the line.

Although "All Good Things" was mired in tongue-twisting techno-babble, the story -- which saw the Enterprise-D and Picard investigating a mystery in three time periods -- was satisfactorily epic: the entire universe was at stake. The God Entity Q even took Picard back in time to the Dawn of Man in one dynamic scene. But by going returning to the beginning of the series ("Farpoint"), and Q's "Trial of Humanity," "All Good Things" also granted The Next Generation series a nice book-ends quality. Q's trial was finally adjourned...and mankind passed with flying colors.

"The Truth"

The X-Files (1993-2002) ended after nine highly-rated seasons on broadcast television, and unlike other series finale's featured on this list, it's goal was not just to wrap-up character fates, but actually offer the viewer a linear, top-to-bottom explanation of the show's long-standing alien conspiracy and mytharc.

Creator Chris Carter used the occasion of fugitive Fox Mulder's trial to present evidence (and exposition) about the conspiracies that had become part and parcel of 1990s pop culture. Witness testimony, first-hand evidence, and character recollections painted -- for the first time -- a larger, more coherent picture of the X-Files meta-story.

So much of The X-Files also concerned two world views or perspectives in conflict...and in love, exemplified by the believer Mulder (David Duchovny) and the skeptic, Dr. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). Appropriately, "The Truth" reunited this pair, and gave them one last go at the Cigarette-Smoking Man, the enduring villain of The X-Files. Then, in a touching and romantic coda, Mulder and Scully talked about their future....and the planet's. There was even the hint of a sequel since these final moments discussed the date for the alien "colonization: 2012.


When creator Joss Whedon first imagined Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he projected the future of horror's most popular archetype, the "Final Girl:" a woman who could not only defeat the monster, but whom the monsters actually feared. The long-lived WB/UPN series followed the adventures of the heroic Slayer, but even as an admirable female superhero, Buffy was still trained by men (A Watcher), and sent on missions by men (A Watcher Council).

So it was only appropriate in the final episode of the seventh season that Buffy all-but-declared her independence. With the help of Willow's powerful magic, Buffy not only led an army against the forces of the darkness, she "awakened" the female power of would-be female Slayers the globe over, who were suddenly able to harness their "potential."

It was, perhaps the ultimate statement of "Girl Power," which seemed entirely logic given the development of the series, and Whedon's original intent of creating a character who could overcome monster/horror movie cliches. "Chosen" also saw the final destruction of Sunnydale's pesky Hellmouth, the source of all the series' monsters over the years. So not only were viewers inspired...they knew they could sleep safe at night.

Many other series had interesting conclusions too. Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) brought Voyager home in Star Trek: Voyager. Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) grabbed his young daughter Jordan (Brittany Tiplady) out of school and went into hiding with her after Peter Watts' death. And so on and so forth.

Another kind of series ending doesn't really bring closure at all. On the contrary, a number of programs ended on a catastrophic cliffhanger -- one with evil on the ascent -- that was intended to be resolved the following season. When that next season never came, the cliffhanger became the de-facto ending of the whole run. American Gothic (1995) offered one such cliffhanger, with Lucas Buck -- the Devil himself -- finally taking over the soul of his son in the South Carolina town of Trinity. Angel (1999-2005) ended with an unresolved battle against an army of demons in a dark alley' a perfect reflection of the main character's fight against a more powerful foe.

"The Trap"
Sapphire & Steel (1978-1981) was another genre series that went out with a cliffhanging bang. On a seemingly normal mission, our heroic "agents," Sapphire & Steel investigated a strange gas station and diner in a pocket universe of sorts. They quickly learned that the cosmic way-station was a trap sprung for them by an unseen enemy.

The serial and thus the series ended with Sapphire and Steel peering out from their inescapable prison...into infinity itself. This cliffhanger was ultimately resolved in a 21st century audio production, but the time trap stood for years...a chilling reminder of the dangerous, enigmatic nature of the series. It was an ironic capper too: after years of solving temporal riddles, Sapphire and Steel finally walked into a riddle they couldn't figure out, a deliberate reversal of the initial premise.

"The Return"

V: The Series (1985) had a tumultuous run on NBC, with an unusually high degree of cast and character turn over. Ham Tyler (Michael Ironside) and Robin (Blair Tefkin) had been written out mid-season, and Elias (Michael Wright) and Nathan Bates (Lane Smith) had been killed off. These unexpected deaths and surprise departures worked well in a series about a life-and-death Resistance fight against evil, militaristic aliens. The final cliffhanger was no different: it offered abundant surprises. Peace was suddenly declared on Earth, and the Star Child, Elizabeth (Jennifer Cooke), was slated to marry the Leader (unseen on a Visitor spacecraft).

In the episode's final moment, Elizabeth's human boyfriend, Kyle (Jeff Yagher), stowed away on the Leader's ship for the journey back to the distant Visitor home world. But a not-quite vanquished Diana (Jane Badler) revealed she'd planted a bomb aboard the same just waiting to detonate.

V: The Series ended with a long, dramatic pullback (from the viewpoint of the imperiled, departing shuttle...) as Willie (Robert Englund), Donovan (Marc Singer) and Juliet (Faye Grant) watched it lift off. Did Diana kill the Leader and the Star Child? Did Kyle stop the inter-species marriage? We'll never know, but at least V: The Series went out with a dramatic flourish.

How we judge the success or failure of a series finale ultimately depends, I suppose, on how we viewed the series that preceded the ending. Enterprise (2001-2005) had a terrible, insulting finale that randomly killed off a beloved character and ended with the terrible idea that the whole series was a holodeck game for Will Riker. But who -- watching that show -- could have honestly had high expectations for the finale? I know many people believe Battlestar Galactica set the bar high...and that's why "Daybreak" felt so weak. Let's face it: if the producers begin every episode of their series with the line that the bad guys "have a plan," the producers should probably have one too. And that plan should eventually be made clear to audiences. It never was. The mystery of the five Cylons overtook the series' real sense of drama in the last two years, turning Battlestar into what I once termed "a cosmic game of Clue:" a parlor game about guess who "the secret Cylon" was. Everything else became secondary...

But heck, at least the Galactica's crew didn't go down to Earth on flying motorcycles, right? Or encounter invisible cub scouts from space? Which series endings (listed in this essay or not) stick with you as being the best? Or particularly irk you?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Not Truly The Final Frontier, I Trust.

Forty years ago today, Apollo 11 became the first manned spacecraft to land on our only natural satellite, The Moon.

As for me, I was still in the womb, but my father informed me last night at dinner that he and my Mom were in Cedar Grove, New Jersey on July 20, 1969: visiting my grandparents on my mother's side (both now deceased), and glued to the television....along with approximately 500 million others.

In terms of genre entertainment, the Moon landing of July 1969 arrived barely a month after the last new episode of Star Trek ("Turnabout Intruder") aired on NBC.

Nonetheless, NASA's inspiring lunar accomplishment dominated the immediate future of the sci-fi genre on TV. For instance, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's UFO (1970) and Space:1999 (1975-1977) both posited the Moon as stepping stone to the stars.

I don't want to belittle NASA's sincere efforts in the forty years since the Eagle Landed, or the hard work of today's brave astronauts, but we desperately need to get back to space in an exciting way soon; not just to grapple with "flooded toilets."

Why? well, the answers to many enduring problems on Earth no doubt rest out there, in space. A new "space race" could bring forth amazing advances in technology, energy, medicine, transportation...the works.

But perhaps the most important reason for a serious return to space is psychological. There's a certain train of thought out there that the date July 20, 1969 represents the pinnacle of our civilization...and that the near half-century since has been nothing but slow, steady decline from that glorious apex.

I don't believe that for a second. With a little inspiration, and a lot of blood, sweat and tears, Moonbase Alpha could be within reach. Just a decade or so late...

In cosmic terms, that's nothing.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The De Palma Dossier

"The great movies that I remember are the ones that went right into my subconscious, and I don't know why they obsess me, or why I keep thinking about them, or why in a postmodern way I keep trying to recreate them, like Vertigo, for instance. It's just something that's inexplicable. These images have taken seed in your subconscious, and you can't get them the hell out. That's why I think when you make a movie you have to find a way to use that ability that film has to seed the subconscious. There are a few great directors that have been able to do it, and that's why we never forget these movies."

- director Brian De Palma (at the
Le Paradis interview, 2002)

Over the last couple of years on the blog here, we've studied the films of controversial directors whose work continues to be inspirational, influential and (to some...) infuriating, including William Friedkin and John Carpenter.

In the weeks ahead, I'll be turning my gaze to the forty-year career of another oft-misunderstood talent from the formalist school: Brian De Palma. Today, I'm posting this brief, general overview of the artist to provide a bit of background for the forthcoming reviews and analyses.

A native New Jersey-ite, who has been alternatively termed either "The American Godard" or "the New Hitchcock," Brian De Palma is a director renowned for his finely-developed sense of intertextuality.

What that word means in this context is that De Palma often mines the works of other film masters (including Hitchcock, Godard, Kubrick, Antonioni, Wilder, and Eisenstein) for inspiration, and then re-purposes that work as building blocks in his own pictures. He uses those movie inspirations as both visual and thematic "quotations."

The train station staircase action sequence in De Palma's The Untouchables (1987) is a perfect example of the former (a visual allusion). It borrows heavily from -- and then goes way beyond -- the famous Odessa Steps scene in Battleship Potemkin (1925). The footage of Double Indemnity (1944) that opens Femme Fatale (2002) is an example of the latter, a thematic foundation for the noir story that follows; a starting point with which to compare and contrast.

De Palma is a member of the "Movie Brat" generation that includes Lucas, Coppola, Milius, Spielberg, Shrader, and Scorsese. He understands -- like all great film artists -- that "form is created through content" and exerts an auteur's iron control over both. De Palma is regarded, according to New York's David Edelstein, as "one of cinema's most hypnotic stylists, a virtuoso whose multilayered tracking shots can expand your perception of space, time, and motion onscreen."

One commonly deployed De Palma shot is the the split screen -- which is used to represent everything from a fractured psyche to the light-speed cause-and-effect of directed telekinetic energy (in Carrie [1976]). Another is the unbroken tracking shot of remarkable duration (see: Snake Eyes [1998] or The Bonfire of the Vanities [1990]), utilized to preserve or establish for the audience a sense of space/geography and dizzying pace.

Also, De Palma appears obsessed with how we see (and how the camera sees), a fetish which has resulted in the filmmaker's work frequently being labeled "voyeuristic." More specifically, what De Palma's movies focus on is the act of seeing gone wrong; of mistaken sight. Of seeing one thing, but registering it (and therefore interpreting it...) incorrectly.

His cinematic efforts also frequently feature doppelgangers/doubles, intense violence (leavened by a macabre sense of humor...), camera technology as part of plot problem/resolution, dream sequences, and narrative u-turns that precipitously drop the bottom out of long-held audience assumptions about decorum.

De Palma has successfully toiled in a number of genre modes. He has crafted memorable crime dramas (Scarface [1983], The Untouchables [1987], Carlito's Way [1993], Black Dahlia [2006]), war movies (Casualties of War [1987], Redacted [2007]), Hitchcockian-style thrillers (Sisters [1973]), Obsessed [1976], Dressed to Kill [1980], Body Double [1984], Raising Cain [1992]), straight-up horror films (Carrie [1976], The Fury [1978]) and more "mainstream" blockbuster films, such as Mission Impossible (1996).

Like Carpenter, De Palma has often been attacked because of the violent images that appear in his films. He's been called a "misogynist" on more than one occasion (the release of Dressed to Kill; the release of Body Double), and his use of psychology has often been termed "facile" by critics. Recently, De Palma was accused of being unpatriotic for showcasing American troops in Iraq in what was termed "an unfavorable light" in Redacted. Although an acknowledged genius in terms of film style, many unappreciative critics still widely refer to De Palma as a hack.

"I've always been against the establishment from day one," De Palma told one interviewer. "I've never been accepted as that conventional artist. Whatever you say about David Lynch or Martin Scorsese, they are considered major film artists and nobody can argue with that. I've never had that. I've had people say it about me. And I've had people say that I'm a complete hack and you know, derivative and all those catchphrases that people use for me. So I've always been controversial. People hate me or love me."

First on the docket in our De Palma Retrospective, my personal favorite of his Hitchockian oeuvre: Dressed to Kill (1980). I'll post a detailed review on Friday, so if you get a chance, rent it, queue it, buy it, or pull it down off your DVD shelf and get to watching...

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...