Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"All this has happened before, and it will all happen again."

- Walt Disney's Peter Pan (1953).

Theme Song of the Week: She-Wolf of London (1990-1991)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Trailer: Carlito's Way (1993)

CULT TV FLASHBACK #89: She-Wolf of London: "The Juggler" (1990-1991)

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the horror genre experienced a dramatic resurgence on television thanks to syndication (and the successful path blazed by the high-rated Star Trek: The Next Generation).

This TV era gave viewers Friday the 13th: The Series (1987-1991), Freddy's Nightmares (1988-1990), Monsters (1988-1991), Dracula: The Series (1991), and also this relatively obscure one season effort, She-Wolf of London, created by genre icons Tom McLoughlin and Mick Garris.

Forecasting the birth of UPN and the WB in the mid-1990s, She-Wolf of London was designed to be the flagship program of the Hollywood Premiere Network (by Universal Studios), but things didn't work out so well. The hour-long horror series ran on WWOR Channel 9 in New York and KCOP in Los Angeles, but the series' first true national exposure occurred with a prime-time rerun on the Sci-Fi Channel in 1992. By then, of course, She-Wolf was long canceled...

She-Wolf of London invoked the title of the 1946 (Universal) horror film starring June Lockhart, but adopted a totally new premise. The 1990s series involved a beautiful American graduate student in England, Randi Wallace (Kate Hodge), who was bitten by a werewolf and therefore became one herself. The "cursed" Randi sought help with her "condition" from a local professor of mythology, the erudite and initially skeptical Ian Matheson (Neil Dickson). Soon, however, Ian saw Randi's transformation with his own eyes and realized he had to help.

Accordingly, Randi moved into the Matheson family's London bed and breakfast with Ian's "Mum" (Jean Challis), his nosy Aunt Edna (Dorothea Phillips), and a young American cousin, Julian (Scott Fults). Very soon, a (subdued) romance developed between Matheson and Randi. Aunt Edna always wondered what all that howling emanating from the basement was all about...

Each week on She-Wolf of London, Randi and Ian would investigate some mythological "creature of the week" in England. They looked into a bog man ("The Bogman of Leitchmour Heath,"), zombies ("Can't Keep a Dead Man Down,") a succubus ("She Devil"), a diabolical circus ("Big Top She Wolf"), even an insane asylum ("Moonlight Becomes You.")

Created in the style of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1975), She-Wolf of London was an old-fashioned-style series built on the sturdy pillars of character repartee, atmospheric locations...and a cool monster of the week. A few years later, The X-Files would hone, evolve, and literally perfect this style of horror TV storytelling, but She-Wolf remains an interesting missing link in genre history, landing between Kolchak and X-Files.

At the time of broadcast, the series drew mostly positive reviews. Variety noted that "Hodge makes an intelligent character out of the cursed young student, and Dickson gives the professor humor, a shade of early James Mason, and an absurd air...Writers-creators Tom McLoughlin and Mick Garris have the good sense to play Randi's predicament with a semi-straight face." (October 15, 1990, page 79).

One particularly atmospheric She-Wolf of London story was entitled "The Juggler," (by Jim Henshaw; directed by Gerry Mill) and first aired on October 30, 1990....right before Halloween. Here, an ancient Satanic cult sought revenge against a British reverend, Parfrey (John Carlin) after being evicted from the Church of All Saints on All Hallow's eve. The wrathful cult leader thus summoned the (French) mythical creature called the "Bell Ringer" (or Juggler), a demon known to prey on the children of enemies. This Devil Clown thus went after Parfrey's daughter, Liza (Claudia Bryan), in part because she had been given a gold ring which focused the Devil Clown's evil attention upon her.

In the course of the episode, Ian and Randi investigated the Juggler, and young Julian -- who had fallen for Liza -- ended up in mortal danger, wearing the Juggler's ring himself. At the same time, Randi continued to learn about her "wolf" powers, here developing a keen sense of smell, that -- according to Ian -- would "tell her everything" she needed to "know to hunt" down enemies. Naturally, before "The Juggler" is done, that new ability comes in handy in stopping the villain of the week.

Heavy on slow-motion photography, classic architecture (the crypts underneath the church...), Dickensian-style apparitions, and misty, gloom-laden night shooting, the story of "The Juggler," -- the so-called "Devil Clown," -- shows off the solid production values of She-Wolf of London, which were far superior to contemporary American-lensed efforts like Freddy's Nightmares or Monsters. The pace of "The Juggler" is a bit slow and plodding by today's standards, but like most She-Wolf episodes, it nonetheless boasts a palpable love for the classic movies of the genre, and develops in a manner that respectfully pays tribute to them.

After approximately a dozen episodes as She-Wolf of London, the entire series relocated to Los Angeles and became known for the last half-dozen shows as Love & Curses. This continuation featured an increased concentration on romance and humor over the serious horror. Today, both iterations of this syndicated one-season wonder remain unavailable on DVD, but some die-hard fans still remember She-Wolf of London with real devotion.

Friday, August 28, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Carlito's Way (1993)

"The Street is watching. She is watching all the time."

-Carlito (Al Pacino), in Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way (1993)

Al Pacino has portrayed more than his share of cinematic gangsters over the years, from Michael Corleone in Coppola's classic Godfather trilogy to the cocaine-addled Tony Montana in De Palma's own incendiary (and brilliant...) Scarface (1983).

Yet it is Pacino's Carlito Brigante, in Carlito's Way (1993), whom I personally find the most haunting. Perhaps that's because Montana was but a despicable thug who spiraled into utter madness and self-destructive violence. And the powerful Corleone was a man who had everything...but nonetheless permitted his paranoia, secrecy and quest for legitimacy to destroy the things (and people) he valued most.

Or perhaps it is because, of all of these flawed individuals -- Carlito Brigante remains the one man who came nearest to authentic redemption; to escape. To a throwing off of the role destiny had so cruelly carved out for him.

Viewing De Palma's Carlito's Way again last evening, I realized that my enduring identification with Carlito or "Charlie" was no mere accident or happenstance. Director Brian De Palma has fashioned not simply another crime drama nor film noir here, but rather -- as he did in the example of The Untouchables (1987) -- a film of authentic mythic quality: a modern day variation on the Greek Tragedy, specifically as that term is defined by Aristotle in The Poetics.

And -- since this is De Palma we're talking about -- the director vets his tragedy with dynamic, canny and meaningful imagery. Consider that Carlito Brigante dwells in a world of illusions and dreams -- the world where he miraculously "gets out" and "escapes to paradise." Accordingly, in many important shots, De Palma utilizes reflections in mirrors to indicate that Carlito is no longer entirely part of the sleazy world he inhabits...but rather the world he dreams about. He is half-in and half-out of "the Street," and as we see, that's not a good place to dwell. Not until the end -- and his tragic death -- is escape actually tangible for Carlito; is paradise a colorful, living thing where he can, finally, truly, let down.

Once more, I appear to be in a small (if vocal...) minority in my appreciation for a sterling De Palma film. Regarding Carlito's Way, Rolling Stone complained, for instance, that "there's a secondhand feel to the way this gangster movie delivers the goods."
The Washington Post lamented: "Watching "Carlito's Way," all you can think is, "Brian, why aren't you over this gangsters and guns and blood stuff yet?"

Imagine -- just imagine for one second -- a film critic suggesting the same thing to director Martin Scorsese after Mean Streets, Good Fellas and Casino. Come on Marty, what's with all the gangsters, huh? Grow up, Scorsese, why don't you?

In my opinion, many critics missed the boat with Carlito's Way. If viewed within the framework of Greek Tragedy -- the film emerges as one of the best and most affecting gangster films ever produced. It concerns, literally, the full breadth of a gangster's "way." And how that "way" -- ultimately -- proves a fatal trap.

This Dream of Mine is So Close I Can Touch It
In accordance with film noir tradition, Carlito's Way commences with a voice-over narration. It is spoken by Carlito himself (Pacino) -- our main character -- as he flashes back from his death bed (a paramedic's stretcher rolling through Grand Central Station...) to describe for the audience how he came to his untimely demise.

The legendary Latino gangster reflects on the final year of his life: 1975. He was unexpectedly released from a prison sentence of thirty years duration due to prosecutorial malfeasance. His feisty, corrupt lawyer, David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn), was the man who arranged his freedom. And because Kleinfeld "saved" him in this fashion, Carlito feels he owes the slick attorney a huge debt.

Yet after five years in prison, Carlito no longer desires to return to the mean streets of the city as an "assassin" and "purveyor of Narcotics." He has gone straight...retired, and wants to chart a new, clean path. Among other things, he re-establishes his relationship with an aspiring dancer: the beautiful and sexy Gail (Penelope Anne Miller).

But fate has plans for Carlito. Soon after Brigante's release, David asks Carlito to oversee one of his floundering investments, a disco club called "El Paraiso," where the owner, Ron Saso is skimming money. Meanwhile, another thug -- the up-and-coming Benny Blanco (John Leguizamo) -- is desperate for Carlito's approbation. But after a violent altercation between Kleinfeld and Blanco, Carlito makes a mistake. Instead f killing the trouble-making Blanco, Carlito lets him go.

And then, finally, Kleinfeld manipulates Carlito into a half-backed scheme to exact revenge against a Mafia, family, the Taglialuccis. When that scheme turns to bloody, brutal murder, Carlito realizes his only chance for survival is escape. "You killed us," he tells David, realizing that the mob will now hunt him down.

With $75,000 dollars in savings, a desperate Carlito arranges to meet the pregnant Gail at Grand Central Station, where -- God willing -- they will board a train bound for Miami. From there, it's the Bahamas...and a new life. But en route to the train station, Carlito must contend with betrayal, theft, vicious pursuit, the Taglialuccis and an unseen enemy he had not counted on...

Everything I Hoped For. Everything I Need

Aristotle defined "tragedy" as the tale of a great person who undergoes a dramatic reversal of fortune. In undergoing that reversal, that character's dilemma (and fate) evokes pity (meaning sympathy) and fear on the part of the audience until finally -- following the denouement -- there emerges a feeling of "cleansing" or catharsis.

And importantly, the all-important reversal of fortune is affected by something called "hamartia," a Greek word meaning a character flaw or foible. This is a critical distinction: a hero's sad fate is rendered not because of the character's intrinsic moral defects, but because of a mistake, because of some wrong action undertaken.

Eventually, in a good tragedy, the affected character comes to a final recognition about this wrong action, and experiences an epiphany about his existence; about destiny...and fate.

Let's consider Carlito's Way in light of Aristotle's definition of tragedy. Carlito is a "great person" indeed, especially in 20th century terms. He's a legendary gangster who once knew power, riches and fame. Carlito's reversal of fortune involves his arrest and incarceration. Going to jail changes Carlito in a critical way, and he loses a taste for the life that gave him "honor" and "glory" on the Street. When he is released from jail, Carlito notes that he has been "re-born" (like the Watergaters, he says...) and that he desires to start fresh.

This is not a con, nor a lie...but fact. And yet trouble finds Carlito, first in a pool hall shoot out, and then in his old associations coming back to haunt him. Still, in every meaningful way Carlito attempts to escape the pull of crime, the pull of the Street. But then, one day, Carlito -- now half-out of the "streets" -- makes a fatal mistake. He disrespects young Benny Blanco, a man described to Carlito (by Saso) as "you, twenty years ago." Then Carlito compounds that mistake by letting Blanco live following an altercation in the disco. At that moment (which De Palma's reveals in telling close-up), Blanco understands that Carlito's killer instinct is gone, and that he is ripe for the picking-off. Carlito is-- in the lingo of Blanco -- "over."

This mistake leads to Carlito's downfall and death. And certainly, this is where "fear" and "pity" both come into the picture. Let's tackle "pity" first. Gail is pregnant with Carlito's child. Carlito and Gail just want to escape the city with enough money to start a car rental business in the Bahamas. Yet Carlito can't let go of another mistake
: repaying his "debt" to Kleinfeld. Gail notes in one scene that she knows exactly how this story will end, "how the dream will end:" With Carlito dead in an emergency room while she weeps over his lifeless body. Carlito's tragic end is thus predicted, and so we fear that the prophecy will come true.

De Palma generates "pity" or sympathy by devoting special care to the love story between Carlito and Gail. Critic Janet Maslin termed it "grandiose romanticism." And Zach Campbell at Slant Magazine noted that "the scenes between Carlito (Al Pacino) and Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) are touching and expertly calculated illustrations of deep-seated romantic feeling: rainy streets, late night coffee shops, dim apartments." In other words, we are meant to feel that this is more than a simple romance, but a love story for the ages. The love story befitting a "great person" like Carlito, king of thieves, and, in his own words, "The Last of the Mohicans."

The "fear" part of this Tragedy equation arrives in what is surely the greatest climactic set-piece of any De Palma film (and that's saying something, given the Odessa Steps in The Untouchables or the split-screen Prom massacre in Carrie [1976]). To the tune of "Lady Marmalade" first, -- and then some anxiety-provoking follow-up compositions from Patrick Doyle -- De Palma arranges a sustained, fever-pitched chase sequence. This set-piece takes Carlito from his bar to a train, to Grand Central Station, down an escalator, and onto a train platform.

During this sequence, the camera is continually in motion, Carlito is constantly in motion, and even the trains are in continuous motion. Carlito grapples with the Taglialuccis, Saso's surprise theft of his money, a betrayal by Pachanga, and even an obese mafioso who functions as a kind of wild card; always lagging behind the other crooks as an unwitting but dangerous rear guard.

Carlito attempts to elude his enemies at the train station, and De Palma artfully takes up his hero's stance with the camera: dodging, lunging, retreating, trailing, and cornering in what amounts to a breathless, nail-biting race. Carlito informs the audience in his voice over narration that he "is angling all over," and the same is undeniably true of De Palma's is sterling, gorgeous and, indeed, fear-provoking. It's angling all over, lifting us like a tide into waves of tension and suspension.

This electrifying denouement is so brilliantly staged that, at first, we don't even recognize the looming danger (Benny Blanco) until it's too late. Like Carlito, we're sprinting to that finish Gail -- in the distance -- waiting by the train. The first time we watch the film, we don't even notice that danger (Blanco...) runs hand-in-hand with Carlito right up until shots are fired. And again, this is form deliberately echoing content. Carlito's tragic mistake was writing off Blanco; was not seeing and sensing the danger the young hood represented. De Palma grants us a deliberate visualization of that mistake in the seconds leading up to Carlito's shooting.

In the end, after Carlito is shot, Gail's prophecy of doom is proved accurate, but in his dying instants, Carlito finds some small peace; the catharsis or cleansing of Aristotle's definition. A son (or daughter) will succeed Carlito, and -- hell -- he lasted longer than any of his colleagues thought possible. In this fateful moment, De Palma allows Carlito (and the audience), to catch a small glimpse of that evasive, elusive paradise: a travel poster hanging on the wall of Grand Central Station. The poster reads "Escape in Paradise" and it is the only image in the frame to be shot in living, vibrant color. Everything else is gloomy black and white.

Suddenly, the dancer rendered on that travel poster becomes Gail -- in Carlito's eyes -- and begins to She starts to dance. A gorgeous sunset looms behind her...and as the movie ends, the lovers' theme song ("You Are So Beautiful") underscores the feeling that all is not lost, or hopeless. Gail (and her child) will go on with the $75,000.00 dollars. Carlito didn't escape the streets, but his child will. The cycle of poverty and violence that gave rise to Carlito and his mistakes will, finally, be shattered, in his progeny.

Didn't You Ever Have a Dream? If You Can't Get In, You Don't Get In...

De Palma provides us a number of visual indicators that Carlito dwells in a different world than the criminal associates who interact with him.

For instance, as Carlito confronts the corrupt Saso early in the film, we see Carlito framed inside a mirror. And when Carlito deals with the treacherous Lalin (Viggo Mortensen) in his office -- again -- we see Carlito positioned inside the confines of mirror. This is a pervasive visual indicator that Carlito is "through walking on the wild side," just as he claims; that he is different from those men he still associates with. He is noble...they are not.

Finally, when Carlito allows his sense of "debt" to Kleinfeld to get the better of him, we again view Carlito framed in the mirror -- alongside Gail -- staring at himself. Angry over Gail's prediction of doom, he shatters the mirror with his fist. Carlito's destruction of the mirror (and his reflected image there) suggests that Carlito is no longer separate from the corruption of the Street (and from men like Lalin and Saso); that this venture with David (a prison break involving the Taglialucci's) will make him, again, a criminal. It will be his undoing.

In other words, the "mirror" image represents the good world -- the place Carlito wishes to dwell...but can't. When Carlito visits Gail in her apartment, he gazes at her -- the madonna -- in a mirror too, meaning that she is part and parcel of that world he can't attain or keep. He is separated from Gail and that world, incidentally, by a door and a chain too...another obstacle blocking his entry to "paradise."

Carlito's Way is dominated by brilliant and subtle visual touches such as these. For instance, on your next viewing pay attention to Benny Blanco's wardrobe and the way in which it changes and evolves each time he re-appears. At first, Benny seems a pretentious, unimportant clown (especially with the alliteration of his name: Benny Blanco from the Bronx!). Later, his wardrobe grows his threat to Carlito turns serious. And I also admire the way the film sets up Kleinfeld and Carlito on opposite/mirrr reflection paths. Carlito is the gangster trying to go straight; Kleinfeld is the "straight" man (an attorney) becoming a gangster.

It's impossible not to be swept away in Carlito's tragedy. Even though his fateful ending is a foregone conclusion, you still find yourself rooting for his success. The most admirable quality about Carlito, perhaps, is that he never stops reaching for that better life. Unlike Montana or Corleone, Carlito's "way" doesn't involve killing people, peddling drugs or broaching robbery. His "way" to a better future is closer to our way -- keeping his nose clean, minding his own business and working hard. That's the American dream and that Carlito's dream. In the end, that dream is something he's denied, and one composition in the film captures that failure. It features Carlito at war with gangsters, the American flag perched behind him on the wall. A study in contrasts: violence in the foreground; beauty and liberty in the background.

I suppose I identify with Carlito because he doesn't seek fame or power...he just wants to pursue personal happiness. De Palma's success in Carlito's Way is that he makes the audience identify with this gangster and his dream in a way uncommon for the bloody genre. Even Carlito's death brings about the pity of Aristotle's tragedy. "Sorry boys," Carlito tells the paramedics (in his mind), "all the stitches in the world can't sew me together again. Lay down... lay down."

And then, finally, Carlito contemplates Gail, the woman left behind. "No room in this city for big hearts like hers... Sorry baby, I tried the best I could, honest... Can't come with me on this trip."

It seems to me that carping movie critics could have made room in this city for a De Palma film like Carlito's Way.

One with a big heart.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Coming Soon: Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England's Last Mannerist

Very shortly, Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England's Last Mannerist (Scarecrow Press; 2009), will become available for purchase. This new, hardcover book is a collection of essays about the artist behind such controversial movies as The Devils (1971), Tommy (1975), Crimes of Passion (1984) and Whore (1991). The anthology has been assembled and edited by Kevin Flanagan, maestro of GameCulture Journal, dedicated Russell historian, and film scholar.

The critical anthology features essays by writers John C. Tibbetts, Barry Keith Grant, Paul Sutton, Brian Hoyle, William Verrone, Brian Faucette, and Thomas Prasch.

For Part IV: Critical Re-Considerations, I also contributed a piece, entitled "As the White Worm Turns: Ken Russell as God and Devil of Rubber-Reality Horror Cinema," which gazes at Russell's considerable impact on the genre in the 1980s with such efforts as Altered States (1980), Lair of the White Worm (1988) and, to a lesser-extent, Gothic (1986).

Here's a (very short) snippet of my work, which defines the nature of "rubber reality" and relates to Russell's visual style:

"In films of this genre sub-type, the dramatis personae easily, and in trademark Russell fashion, glide between alternate realities, often quite indiscernibly to audiences. There is often no traditional scene transition between these parallel “modes” of reality and fantasy. The phantasms of the unconscious and subconscious mind are often physically externalized as tangible and tactile. Furthermore, state-of-the-art special effects breakthroughs create these fantasy domains (in miniature, in matte paintings, etc.), just as in Altered States.

I've long admired Ken Russell and his bold visual imagination, so it was a great pleasure to be involved in this study and re-evaluation of his cinematic output and his career. Soon, I'll be interviewing Kevin Flanagan here on the blog about his new book, about the essays inside it, and about Russell's place in film history. Stay tuned!

Monday, August 24, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK #88: Automan (1983 - 1984)

From Glen Larson -- the man who brought the world Manimal (1983) and Nightman (1997-99) -- came this short-lived 1983 ABC series, an hour-long dramatic superhero adventure entitled Automan.

The series ran for 13 hour long episodes before untimely cancellation. The final Automan episode actually went unaired until a 1990s broadcast on the Sci-Fi Channel (now Sy Fy).

This vintage series starred Desi Arnaz, Jr., as Walter Nebicher, a computer expert and nerd working at the L.A. Police Department. Nebicher dreamed of action, adventure and romance, but his cranky superior, Captain Boyd had other ideas and wanted the genius to stay at his desk in the Computer Room.

So -- in rebellious desperation -- Walter spent his free time creating a heroic, handsome alter ego, Automan (Chuck Wagner), a computerized hologram that looked, sounded, and felt real: the world's first “truly automatic man,” (hence the handle Automan.) So special was Auto that he actually considered himself perfect. “On a scale of one to 10, think of me as an 11,” he boasted in one episode.

This unique superhero didn’t wear a costume—he was the costume, and his torso glowed bright blue with powerful "holographic energy." Automan also boasted a helpful sidekick, a buzzing computerized pal called Cursor, a hologram generator that -- in the lingo of the program -- could “rezz up” anything needed to pursue the bad guys of the week, particularly customized transportation. Cursor outfitted Automan with a zippy Autocar, an Autocopter and even an Automotorcycle!

Automan also had one defensive capability in his crime-fighting arsenal. In times of extreme danger, he and Walter could merge into a single unified entity (“The Great Pretender”) to avoid death or catastrophic injury. This perfect symbiosis allowed Walter to actually become the hero he had created.

But Automan was a successful police detective for another reason: he could interface with computers and mechanical devices of all shape and sizes, including slot machines (“Staying Alive While Running a High Flashdance Fever”), thereby permitting him access to a whole new kind of “street” informant. On one occasion (“Zippers”), Auto even seduced a female super computer, scandalously boasting that he would “penetrate” her memory core! A braggart, Automan was also prone to spontaneous and bizarre declarations such as, “I suddenly sense the presence of a microchip!”

Automan even had his own Achilles heel/Kryptonite, originating from the fact that his complex program required a tremendous amount of power. Sometimes, he was unable to operate during the daytime -- when demands on the California power grid were especially high. Luckily, Auto could re-charge himself via proximity to electrical outlets, sucking nourishing power through his fingers (“The Biggest Game in Town”).

Automan’s other major weakness was a psychological foible based on his personality. Like Lieutenant Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–94), this artificial life form a literal thinker. Although he fancied himself the “finest deductive reasoner on the planet,” he did not comprehend human nature. Instead, he would sort of mindlessly receive pertinent input (often “downloads” of movies and TV series) about human nature, and then he would studiously mimic that behavior to catch the bad guys. Think Neo in The Matrix (1999)...only sillier.

In the episode “The Great Pretender,” Automan absorbed data on gangster movies such as The Godfather (1972) and out-gangstered the bad guys... as a new mob chief called “Otto.” In “Staying Alive While Running a High Flashdance Fever,” he viewed Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Flashdance (1983), and these MTV-age productions provided our hero with studly moves on the dance floor; right down to his John Travolta white-suit.

Automan and the Tinkerbell-ish/R2-D2-like Cursor represented the only fantasy elements featured on the series, and the bad guys were run-of-the-mill “crooks” and thugs. In “The Biggest Game in Town” there was a trio of gamers conducting high-tech extortion; in “Renegade Run,” a corrupt sheriff (played by the ubiquitous Richard Lynch...) threatened Walter. No costumed freaks or aliens here, thank you very much. There wasn't even an evil holographic twin for Automan to combat.

Although it was far more entertaining and droll than Manimal (Glen Larson’s other superhero series of the same vintage), Automan did not fare well in the ratings sweepstakes. It aired for one month (December) in 1983 on Thursday nights from 8:00 to 9:00 and was crushed by the competition, the mega-hit Magnum P.I. on CBS and the Nell Carter comedy Gimme a Break on NBC. Then it was shuffled off the ABC schedule until March of 1984, where it lasted barely another month on Monday nights at 8:00, this time competing against Dick Clark’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes (NBC) and Scarecrow and Mrs. King (CBS).

Still -- in some ways -- Automan seemed the right superhero at the right time. In the early 1980s, home computers had started to supplant the Atari 2600 as the technological gadget of choice in American dens, and the hologram Automan seemed tailored to prove that high-tech gadgetry was helpful and "user friendly." Unlike the Terminator, Automan showed that mankind could control his tools and harness them for beneficial purposes.

These days, Automan functions best, perhaps, as a time capsule of the 1980s. The series was surely inspired by the 1980s Disney epic, Tron, which likewise had been set in the world of computers and featured "computerized" dramatis personae and environments. Another Reagan Age touch the late Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” plays in the background of “Staying Alive While Running a High Flashdance Fever" episode set entirely inside a disco. And stylistically, each story culminates with a humorous (and hackneyed) “freeze frame,” an old television tradition that was lampooned in comedies like Police Squad. Also unlike TV series of today, Automan consisted entirely of interchangeable, standalone stories that could pretty much be viewed in any order desirable.

With Tron 2.0 on the horizon, I predict it's just days now before Automan is re-booted as Automan doubt to be directed by Bryan Singer. This time, Auto will be a shaggy-haired, brooding, anger-prone hologram...with a computer-generated hook for a hand. Or something like that...

Friday, August 21, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Blow Out (1981)

"Well, the box-office failure of "Blow Out" was, I think, a tragedy for De Palma and for John Travolta -- it's just about the best work each of them has ever done. But it probably served as a warning to some of the people who might have wanted to do something politically sophisticated. It's as if people get penalized for sophistication."

- Pauline Kael, on
Blow Out (1981)

If -- as Brian De Palma has famously stated -- "the camera lies 24 times a second," then how often, we must wonder, do politicians lie?

And if our national leaders lie about important things -- like life and death -- then, in some fashion, is American liberty itself...a lie? If the history we all know and learn in school is merely "comfortable" fiction, then what do all our glorious symbols (like Old Glory and the Liberty Bell) and slogans (like Patrick Henry's "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death") really signify?

In blistering, paranoid fashion, Brian De Palma's Blow Out (1981) delves deeply into this frightening conundrum. Indeed, this cerebral, Reagan-age thriller starring John Travolta and Nancy Allen focuses on a political conspiracy that stabs at the very heart of the Great American Experiment, and at the heart of American democracy itself. It depicts a country in which holding on to power is paramount, truth is irrelevant, and justice is just another loaded word.

De Palma's caustic, blunt film makes clever use of real life, historical national conspiracies and cover-ups, including the JFK assassination, the Chappaquiddick incident, and Watergate in order to spin a tale of America the Corrupt, America the Fallen, and most certainly not America the Great, post-Camelot. Intriguingly, Blow Out makes this case by focusing on the technological medium of film itself -- particularly a fictional surrogate for the Zapruder film -- as Entrenched Power's vehicle for selling "The Big Lie."

Though a dramatic failure at the box office, Blow Out remains, perhaps, Brian De Palma's most successful film in terms of critical approbation. Roger Ebert noted in his 1981 review that "this movie is inhabited by a real cinematic intelligence," and that "
De Palma is more successful than ever before at populating his plot with three-dimensional characters." The late Kael, of course, lauded the film as "a great movie" in her famous New Yorker review entitled "Portrait of the Artist As A Young Gadgeteer."

With De Palma -- an incomparably skilled filmmaker who operates in several modes and genres successfully (mainstream, thriller, crime, war...) -- it's difficult to pick favorites or select one "best film" from among so many triumphs. Yet Blow Out represents something of a consensus favorite: an unimpeachable thriller rich in homage to film tradition (in this case to the canon of Michelangelo Antonioni). It's also gorgeously self-reflexive, focusing on the manipulative power of movies by taking us -- literally -- through the building blocks of film production.

And finally, Blow Out also boasts a heavily ironic use of powerful images, particularly iconic symbols of Americana. Thus the visuals brilliantly reflect and augment the film's paranoid content. Also, the ending here is particularly unforgettable: haunting, bitter and nihilistic.

The Biggest Thing Since The Zapruder Film

Blow Out is the tale of a sound expert named Jack Terri (John Travolta). Following a tragic incident in his past working for law enforcement (on the Kean Commission), Jack has retreated to crafting sound-effects for sleazy, low-rent slasher films, like his current project "Co-ed Frenzy."

Unluckily for Jack, even that job isn't going so well. He just can't find the "Perfect Scream" to accompany a shower scene murder in the horror movie. His temperamental director wants other original sounds too, because he's grown tired of library effects and "canned" material.

To appease the filmmaker, an intrepid Jack heads out by night to a remote country road and records with his microphone several new sounds: an owl hooting; a frog's call, even the night wind rustling leaves in the trees.

But then, suddenly, Jack records something sinister: the sound of a terrible car "accident." Appearing as if out of nowhere, a car races off the unlit road, into a deep creek. In seconds, it sinks beneath the placid sruface. Jack rescues one passenger, a floozy named Sally (Nancy Allen), but the driver inside the car drowns.

That dead driver turns out to be Governor McRyan, an up-and-coming politician who was about to announce his candidacy for President of the United States. All the national polls suggested that if McRyan ran for high office, he would easily unseat the current, unpopular President. If this were but a simple accident, McRyan's fate surely would be considered tragic.

But there's more to this incident than meets the eye (or ear). While listening to his sound recordings, Jack hears a very distinct gun shot precede a tire blow-out...meaning that this "accident" was actually a political assassination. Unfortunately for Jack, the authorities are not even mildly interested in this "truth." The police cover-up Sally's presence in the car that night, and fail to check the car's blown-out tire for signs of a bullet strike. Even as Jack begins to build a story of what actually occurred that terrible night by using a film of the accident photographed by the sleazy Manny Karp (Dennis Franz), officials begin to erase the real story from history. Better to settle for a comfortable lie, than expose a dangerous truth.

And worse, the villainous assassin, Burke (John Lithgow) is still nearby, cleaning up loose ends in homicidal fashion. As the Liberty Day Jubilee approaches in the Philadelphia, Jack enlists Sally to help him seek out the truth behind the conspiracy, unaware that Burke is also stalking her...killing lookalike women so that her eventual murder will be ruled part of a serial killer's psychotic pattern, not a "hit" in a far-ranging political conspiracy.

I Don't Watch The News. It's Too Depressing

Like all great art, Blow Out reflects the time period in which it was crafted. Writing for Slant Magazine in 2006, critic Paul Schrodt provides some of that historical context in his review:

"America had fallen into a deep funk by 1981—the year of Blow Out's release and Ronald Reagan's presidential inauguration. Still hung over from the Vietnam War and dealing with inflation on the brink of recession, the public's election of Reagan, on a platform of optimism, suggested a desire to move on and leave the past behind.

De Palma, as anti-establishment as ever, suggests this in itself is another lie. When Jack Terry (John Travolta) inadvertently records the assassination of a presidential candidate, everyone politely asks him to leave his conspiracy to himself. But he can't let it go....Everyone else would like to believe it was just "a freak accident," so the nation can quickly heal again. (Maybe De Palma was prescient: Five years later Reagan would secretly and illegally sell arms to Iran in order to free U.S. troops, only to then deny he ever knew about the deal, retaining his bright image.)"

In other words, what candidate Reagan was "selling" the electorate in 1980s was a "new morning in America" (post Carter-malaise) when, in fact, nothing really changed at all. As I wrote in my review of Body Double, Ronald Reagan was the all-time champion of image-making, an affable Hollywood actor skilled at saying one thing and doing another thing all together. In his inauguration, Reagan stated boldly that "Government is the problem," but during his two terms, Reagan actually grew the government dramatically. Reagan's sunny demeanor also involved a "New Patriotism," and "New Confidence" in America and its institutions, and that 1980s trend is the very image that De Palma repeatedly and successfully undercuts in Blow Out. The film is dominated by stirring images of America and American patriotism...but these images are the background for horrible, monstrous events. The symbols of American freedom are mocked, because in this setting, they are empty representations.

For instance, the finale of Blow Out is set against the backdrop of "The Liberty Bell Jubilee," the first instance in a century that the Liberty Bell has been rung. All too quickly, this patriotic parade and celebration of American history becomes an opportunity for the psychotic Burke (Lithgow) to stalk and murder Sally.

Ironically, this vicious killer views himself as a patriot, and it is strongly implied that he serves at the pleasure of the President (the man, ultimately, who would benefit from the death of McRyan). How do we know? Well for starters, Burke wears a Jubilee Button that reads "I Love Liberty" throughout the film's final sequence. It's not difficult to extrapolate that Burke is a fictionalized version of zealous, right-wing thugs such as G. Gordon Liddy, the enthusiastic criminal who was convicted for conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping for his supervisory role as a Watergate "plumber" during the Nixon Era.

Liddy's mission was to keep Nixon in office, and Burke serves the same function in this fictional tale, offing the President's competition before he can prove dangerous to political continuity. Again, in real life, Giddy (who served eight years in prison for his crimes), also considered murder (of Jack Anderson) -- at least according to his own autobiography -- to preserve Nixon's hold on power. (Liddy, G Gordon, Will. St. Martins Press., 1996) pp. 208–211.

At the conclusion of Blow Out, Burke drags Sally up the steps of a grand building as glorious fireworks explode in the heavens above. Then, he strangles her to death against the backdrop of a colossal American flag.

There can be no question about the significance of these particular images. As Sally dies before Old Glory, the red, white and blue lights of the fireworks suddenly turn lurid, sleazy and ugly...soiled by those who kill in America's name. By positioning Sally's death against these powerful and patriotic symbols, De Palma successfully makes the point that the "reality" of America is very different from the glorious imagery that dominates her landscape, and inspires such fervent nationalism.

In attempting to rescue Sally, Jack accidentally runs his jeep into a storefront window that is decorated with the American legend, "Liberty or Death." This is, again, a literalization of Jack's agenda. He is in search of truth...or he will most certainly die, at the hands of a corrupt government. When Jack crashes through the transparent glass window housing that legend, he is literally crashing through the illusion of American liberty.

Even Burke's murder of a hooker in a train station bathroom is framed deliberately so as to feature a message about freedom and liberty. The most prominent object in one high-angle shot of a bathroom stall is actually a tampon dispenser decorated with the brand name "Stayfree." "Stay Free?" How can people stay free if the truth is hidden?

In Blow Out's most ironic and mocking use of iconic American imagery, Jack arrives too late to save Sally from Burke, but De Palma's camera triumphantly spins around the tragic duo nonetheless. As an "average" citizen dies below so the powerful may continue to "serve," in the heavens above fireworks explode with orgasmic glee and abandon.

The illusion of freedom and liberty are alive for all to see in the sky, even if Sally (and the truth...) die right here; their ends acknowledged only by Jack.

Sally's personal story in Blow Out also serves as a metaphor for disillusionment and disenfranchisement in America. Sally begins her journey as a disinterested observer, just minding her own business trying to make a buck any way she can. She doesn't even watch the news "because it is too depressing." When Sally finally does get involved in the "political process," in a quest with Jack to reveal the truth about this conspiracy, what happens? She is brutally murdered.

In this case, a murdered innocent in a movie may very well represent a disappointed, disillusioned electorate in real life. Most people don't get involved in politics, and those activists who do so inevitably face disappointment because things don't seem to change, or get any better. The parties in power may alternate, but the entrenched interests don't. Killing Sally in Blow Out is, essentially, killing hope in the democratic process; it's killing political involvement. From a certain perspective, there are no reak "good guys" in Blow Out because even the guy in "search of the truth," -- Jack himself -- exploits the simple-minded Sally (representing the American electorate) for his own purpose. He ruthlessly uses her for his ideological agenda...and she ends up dead, even though that agenda was inarguably noble.

Writer Rob Nelson, of Minneapolis Movies wrote about Blow Out in 1996 that:

"Jack's increasingly selfish and obsessive sleuthing reflects an '80s tide turning away from political action and toward selfishness and misogyny: A woman whom he'd saved from the crash, a makeup artist named Sally (Nancy Allen), becomes no less a pawn of Jack's scheme than the villains'. The film is full of male manipulators bound together in a vicious circle: The dead man's political rival had used Sally in an attempt to frame him; a smarmy TV news reporter manipulates Jack; and Jack in turn exploits Sally by subtly goading her into wearing a wire for her meeting with the killer...In the amazingly hyperbolic finale, DePalma conflates patriotism, dirty tricks, violence against women, and slasher movies into a single sick joke, one that's all the more dark for how fully it resonates with the real zeitgeist."

Indeed, this is where some critics detect misogyny on De Palma's part, but as I offered last week, I see this as the director's commentary on misogyny. Sally is brutally used. Buy one political side (the assassins) to discredit a "good man." She is then used by the opposition ("Jack") to get at the truth. After she ends up dead, she is, finally, used again, this time by the media. Her "perfect scream" (her scream at the moment of her death...) gets exploited by filmmakers to be enjoyed in a bad slasher film. This is a comment on exploiting women in the culture all right, but it isn't De Palma who is doing the exploiting. He's exposing the exploitation. And I don't think he's talking about slasher films either: he's talking about our predilection to be distracted by tits and ass, bread and circuses, while the business of the nation passes us by.

I Didn't Hire Her For Her Scream. I Hired Her For Her Tits

As Vincent Canby wrote in his New York Times review, "more important than anything else about ''Blow Out'' is its total, complete and utter preoccupation with film itself as a medium in which, as Mr. De Palma has said along with a number of other people, style really is content. If that is the case, ''Blow Out'' is exclusively concerned with the mechanics of movie making, with the use of photographic and sound equipment and, especially, with the manner in which sound and images can be spliced together to reveal possible truths not available when the sound and the image are separated."

Canby is correct to note Blow Out's obsession with the technical aspects of filmmaking. Early in the film, De Palma provides a split-screen image of Jack hard at work at his Independence Film offices. On the right side of the frame is a TV news story covering Governor McRyan. On the left hand side of the frame is an insert shot of Jack at a sound editing machine, adjusting levels, labeling tapes, etc. The implication here is one of routine, tech-ish multi-tasking. The eye goes to the report on the TV, while the hand goes to the work of sound cutting. This is before the car accident/assassination occurs...and so Jack still handles his job in a work-a-day, routine fashion...not thinking about the serious implications of what he does.

When Jack goes out to the creek to record various sounds, De Palma also reminds us of the breadth of our technology, revealing in detail how a directional microphone picks up authentic sounds from great distances. A series of staggeringly beautiful long-shots join the percipient and the perceived within the same frame. We thus see Jack connected (in the background), to a majestic, hooting owl (in the foreground). Yet importantly, these "real" sounds are soon to be placed over unreal events; ones staged especially for movies. And movies, of course, are false narratives. It's another explicit reminder from De Palma that movies do lie; both in images and sound. That although the sounds may be "real," their context has been altered in ways we can't begin to imagine by the time they reach our ears.

Later, we watch in detail as Jack creates a sort of film strip of the car accident by utilizing photographic film stills (featured in a popular magazine). We watch him laboriously photograph these stills one-frame-at-a-time, and the result -- when we watch it assembled -- is a visual record of the governor's car accident; one that gives the incident new life, new shape. Yet, as illuminating as these visuals remain, without the sound of the accident, there is no hint at all of a gun shot; only the accidental "blow-out." The truth is not in the film. At least not obviously.

But the important thing here is that De Palma is including us in the process, just as he did with the split-screen multi-tasking. He's showing us the building blocks of film so we can understand how pictures, how sounds, can be created and manipulated. This is the crux of the story, of the conspiracy.

In one beautifully-crafted scene, Jack returns to his studio to find every single one of his reel-to-reel tapes blanked out...erased. De Palma shoots this scene in novel fashion by spinning his camera around the studio in a series of sequential, overlapping (time lapsed) circles, as though we are positioned on one of those damaged reels ourselves. This round-and-round movement of the camera mimics the movement of the reel tape; and we get the idea that Jack is "spinning" on his heels himself; ambushed by Burke's erasure of the critical sound recording.

The film's punch-line, of course, marks the (grim) line between the film's "reality" and the "fiction" within the film. Jack spends much of the film trying to locate the so-called "perfect scream" for the horror movie he is working on. The director brings in several actresses to record new screams...but they are all lacking in some fashion. They lack passion. They lack authenticity. In the end, Jack uses Sally's death scream in the slasher movie. Her scream is blood-curdling because it is real. It is the voice of terror. It is that real scream which is applied to the fictional film-within-a-film to lend the shlocky enterprise some sense of authority or gravitas. The horrifying truth, of course, is unknown except to Jack. It's sort of a small-scale conspiracy balanced against the national conspiracy. But nobody seems to care about the truth anymore...

In the film's last shot -- slowed down for emphasis -- Jack hangs his head low, hands over his ears, as the scream repeats. Jack was a man who wanted to "hear" the truth, but ended up hearing too much. Now he just seeks silence. He wants to hear no evil.

The fetishistic attention to technical detail (editing, sound recording, etc.) in Blow Out reminds us that nothing in the art of film is what it seems on a simple viewing. The component parts -- the parts coming together in a final cut -- can literally be anything. The truth can be exposed...or hidden in film depending on the whim of the director. Or the President of the United States...

You'd Be Amazed What Some People Would Do For a Story Like This.

An obvious foundation for Blow Out is the similarly-titled 1966 Antonioni film Blow-Up, which concerns another artist (a photographer, instead of a film's sound engineer...) becoming embroiled in what he perceives to be a crime...a murder.

In that film, the lead character, played by David Hemmings, begins to lose focus on his "real" life. He begins to obsessively question reality itself. In some senses, that's also the journey of Jack in Blow Out, but he starts to question political reality -- the images of patriotism and nationalism so proudly displayed.

De Palma's other sources here arise not from movie history, but from conspiracy lore. The setting of the car "accident" at a creek -- and the presence of an unmarried woman in the passenger seat of a married politician's automobile -- clearly recall the July 18, 1969 Chappaquiddick incident involving Senator Ted Kennedy.

The Karp film, which -- because it lacks sound -- cloaks the truth of the conspiracy rather than exposing it, recalls the much-debated, much-analyzed Zapruder Film. In this case, Manny Karp, the originator of the McRyan film, had foreknowledge of the car "accident," so he could be present at the creek to film it. That fact retroactively raises questions about the late Zapruder, and how he came to be filming the Kennedy assassination. Indeed, some people have suggested a connection between the late Zapruder...and the CIA. And, as I mentioned above, Burke is pretty clearly a model of the Watergate Plumber, namely the most infamous of the lot, Liddy.

In referencing all of these terrible incidents (JFK's assassination, Chappaquiddick, and Watergate), De Palma asks the viewer to consider the tumultuous and bloody nature of modern American history, and how much we really "know" for certain about it. Indeed, Blow Out was released just months after the attempted assassination of President Reagan by another lone gunman (and friend of the Bush family...), John Hinckley.

Just ask yourself, how would history have been different if an unvarnished Ted Kennedy -- having no Chappaquiddick incident to mar his personal history -- had run against Nixon in 1972? How would history have been different if Reagan had not survived his first term, and George Bush ascended to the Presidency in 1981? I believe what De Palma was prescient in Blow Out, making us feel that kind of paranoia as a sort of palpable fear. We begin to understand how politicians and the media can manipulate images and sounds; manipulate truth using certain indelible images.

The attacks of 9/11? Dukakis in a tank? Bill Clinton hugging a beret-wearing Monica Lewinsky in a crowd? Willie Horton's mug shot? Bush Jr. with a bullhorn on the rubble? "Terrorist" fist bumps? "Let's Roll?" "The Fundamentals of the Economy are sound?" These "clips' were brought to you by a selective corporate media. Why?

In Blow Out, De Palma delves into a dark place, one where seeing and hearing is not necessarily believing. He tells us, again, that film can be a powerful and insidious tool in the court of public opinion. But trenchantly, the master manipulator himself shows us the tricks of the trade this time. De Palma lifts the curtain and reveals how the magic works. And it's not all in the wrists.

It's in the microphones, the editing bay, the scissors, and the camera lens.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Of Men, Morality and Microwaves: A Trip Back to The Last House on the Left

Writer/director Wes Craven created The Last House on The Left (1972) as a "Generation Gap" Era re-interpretation of the 1960 Ingmar Bergman film, Jungfrukallan (or The Virgin Spring), an Academy Award winner for best foreign film. Going back further, you can trace the film’s violent tale to a twelfth-century Swedish ballad sometimes known as “Töre's daughter in Vänge."

There are some two-dozen variations of this particular ballad, but all versions are built upon the bloody pillars of rape and revenge. The story also involves the destruction of innocence or purity, and the moral price of vengeance.

The filmed versions of "Töre's daughter in Vänge" all feature a relatively affluent doctor, his innocent young daughter, and the violent, unwashed “herdsmen” who -- after raping and murdering the girl -- arrive at the doctor’s home to stay the night. In the end, after learning of his daughter’s death or suffering, the doctor exacts bloody and righteous vengeance against the murderers.

The three celluloid versions of this long-lived story offer starkly different interpretations of the ballad. Bergman's take is overtly religious and redemptive. Craven's "God is Dead," Manson-era take seeks morality in a universe totally absent the Divine. And the post-Bush/Obama era version of Last House on the Left offers a sort of "let's turn the page" approach to morality; leaving us to draw conclusions for ourselves after we have witnessed horrific, cruel, pre-meditated violence.

"You See It and You Allow It:" Violence and Faith in The Virgin Spring

Bergman’s The Virgin Spring explicitly concerns faith. Indeed, the tragic incident from start to finish may even be interpreted as a "test of faith" for Dr. Tore, played by Max Von Sydow.

He wonders why God permits such atrocities in the world of man. “You see it and you allow it! The innocent child’s death and my revenge…you allowed it! I don’t understand you!” he laments near the film’s conclusion.

Tore searches for meaning in the death of his beloved child, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson); but also in his own blood-thirsty, violent actions. He is a faithful servant…so why was he punished in this cruel fashion? Why was his dignity -- his sense of civilization -- stripped from him? Was he right to act so barbarously?

Mareta (Birgitta Valberg), Tore’s wife, believes that the innocent child was taken from the family because the parents loved and adored the beautiful Karin more than they worshipped and honored Christ. In other words, the parents were punished for not putting their love of God first. A shaken Dr. Tore swears to erect a church in the very spot in the forest that his daughter died; a kind of testament to the Mystery of Faith.

God rewards the tortured, doubting Tore. The Supreme Being miraculously creates a bubbling spring at the very idyllic location where Karin died; a sign that Tore’s continued faith is justified; and that his violent actions were justified too. Tore sees his faith restored by this miracle. A rapturous, high-angle shot reveals the creation of the virgin spring, and Tore’s awe at God’s wisdom and power.

An affirmation of religion (specifically Christianity), The Virgin Spring suggests that God forgives even the most atrocious acts of violence…if only the perpetrator is faithful. Tore may never have all his answers (God moves in mysterious ways), but the doctor can satisfy himself that God exists...and that God has heard him; and that he remains the Lord's servant.

Brilliantly and artfully crafted, Bergman’s version of "Tore’s Daughter" may boast a darker, more sinister interpretation too, especially given our times. The film seems to suggest that after committing heinous violence, the self-righteous will be rewarded with a miracle, and more than that, even be granted certainty of the existence of the Divine...something most human beings are denied on this mortal coil.

Today, we see doctors murdered for performing legal operations, terrorists bombing innocent civilians, and nations launching into bloody war...all over personally-held beliefs or delusions that “God is on their side.” Religion thus becomes the excuse for ideological and literal warfare. Here we see the same thing on a smaller, more intimate scale: bloody vengeance is deemed okay, and forgiven...if one is devout.

The Road Leads To Nowhere And the Castle Stays the Same: The Last House on The Left (1972)

Wes Craven re-interpreted The Virgin Spring and "Tore’s Daughter in Vange" for The Last House on The Left, his widely-despised debut film.

The New York Times
reviewer walked out of the film (with an hour still to go) and called it “sickening tripe,” (December 22, 1972). Even Danny Peary, author of Cult Movies decried the film as a “sick sexual fantasy” and “an incitement to violence.” (Delacorte Press, 1981, page 348).

In The Last House on The Left, young Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel) -- the equivalent of the Karin character -- is raped and killed by the sociopath Krug (David Hess). Her path intersected with Krug's while she was trying to score some weed on the way to a rock concert performance (by a popular group called "Bloodlust.") In The Virgin Spring, Karin had been on her way to "lighting candles" for Christ, to honor his suffering, when attacked. The distinction, of course, is critical. Mari is a self-involved modern teen of the Peace Generation; not a devout supplicant like Karin. Craven has thus stripped the religious veneer from the tale. But importantly, he has not stripped the moral underpinnings of the ballad. On the contrary, he has actually augmented them.

Although Mari prays to (an absent) God before she is murdered -- in a harrowing scene staged in almost identical fashion to Karin’s rape and murder in The Virgin Spring -- there is no salvation for her or redemption for her fallen parents here. Unlike the Tores in The Virgin Spring, Dr. Collingwood (Gaylord St James) and his wife in the 1972 Last House on the Left are not enlightened in the finale by the existence of God, or by a comforting awareness of Divine Method. Rather, they are left totally isolated in their shattered, middle-class living room, surrounded by the blood of villains. The camera does not majestically swoop heavenward to give the impression of God’s support; or even presence.

Instead, by freeze-framing on the shattered Collingwoods in the final (close-up) shot of The Last House on the Left, Craven reveals the futility of bloodshed and retribution in a way that the spiritually uplifting finale of The Virgin Spring does not. Very simply, the film ends on the face of two shattered people. They have been as violent and brutal as Krug and his fellow attackers (Sadie and Weasel)...and their daughter is still dead. They have achieved nothing...except the lowering of themselves to barbarism; to the level of the criminals who were so monstrous. They have survived; they have prevailed...but now they don't even know who -- or what -- they are.

On the soundtrack, a song entitled "The Road Leads to Nowhere" (composed and performed by David Hess) plays, and the title itself (also a lyric featured in the body of the pieces) expresses the futility of all the violence portrayed in the film. Despite the brutality, despite the revenge completed, "the castle stays the same," meaning that nothing changes. Mari remains dead and God does not right that wrong because the Collingwoods have "won." The subtext of the film is simple: as bad as the low class Krug and his compatriots are...the affluent, middle-class Collingwoods are really no better.

There's a fascinating moment in Last House on The Left, when Krug, Sadie and Weasel all pause by the lake, following the rape and murder of Mari (and her friend, here named Phyllis). For a brief instant, the criminals are silent. And they actually appear chastened. As if, for one fleeting instant...they have awareness of what they are; what they have done. At the end of the film, the Collingwoods kill with comparative abandon and glee. Mrs. Collingwood even bites off Weasel's penis while giving him head (a macabre touch not retained in the remake). The "respectable" Collingwoods seem to have no recognition of what they've done...not until that "freeze frame" captures them in the hell of their own making; in the aftermath of a bloodbath. In both these moments, violence is not championed, not even in the name of retribution. The opposite is true.

Why is The Last House on the Left so reviled by so many, so despised? In part because it accomplishes the unthinkable and the totally unsavory: it treats violence as real...and horrible. Most films, even great horror films, treat violence in a "tolerable" way, meaning that we may be frightened by the scary images...but we're not, ultimately, undone or debauched by them. Movie decorum keeps "the horror of violence" at an acceptable distance from our psyches..

Not so Last House on the Left.
After titillating the audience with early glimpses of the comely Mari in the shower, arousing lascivious interest, Craven turns the table on his audience and stages a brutal, affecting, prolonged, utterly monstrous rape. He lingers there. The scene goes on and on until you feel sick to your stomach watching. Again, this is Craven's desired manipulation: he makes you thirst for the blood of Krug, Sadie and Weasel right along with Mari's parents. Your anger is justified and righteous. We identify with the Collingwoods. With their loss, with their pain. We want the bad guys to suffer too.

But then, there you are, at the end of the film -- having wallowed in the violence with the Collingwoods. And you don't feel good about it. You feel - like the Collingwood's in that traumatized, valedictory freeze frame -- ashamed . The Collingwoods have stooped to Krug's level and gotten their revenge...but what's left? The road leads to nowhere. Violence, while perhaps satisfying on first impulse, ultimately solves nothing. Forged during the time of the Vietnam War, Craven's Last House on the Left is perhaps the ultimate anti-violence, anti-war film. It doesn't romanticize violence, and furthermore, decries violence even when the situation is an archetypal Biblical "Eye-for-an-Eye" setting. It's ironic that Last House on the Left is constantly attacked as being an incitement to violence, when nothing could be further from the truth. It's just that -- as movie goers and perhaps even as critics -- we prefer our violence palatable...not authentically disturbing.
"Are You Ready to Be A Man?" The Last House on the Left (2009)
The remake of Last House on the Left (2009) makes a number of interesting and telling modifications to the Swedish ballad and original story of "Tore's Daughter."

In this cinematic version alone, for instance, the doctor's daughter -- again named Mari (Sara Paxton) -- survives the attack. Her survival removes some of "anger" that, theoretically, Dr. Collingwood should feel. His victimization, in other words, is not as severe.

Also, the leader of the "herdsmen" or thugs, Krug (Garret Dillahunt) is defined more in the terms of being one of Craven's "Bad Fathers," than in the original film. This Krug is almost constantly seen goading his son into violent action; telling him to cowboy up and be a man. Even the rape of Mari here seems to stem more from Krug's cruelty to his son than his own feelings of sexual desire. The point, I believe, is the cycle of violence: the passing of "abuse" from one generation to another.

Also, alone among the filmed versions of the tale, Dr. Collingwood in this film (Tony Goldwyn) gets to utilize his skills as a physician.

Some of these changes in the "Tore's Daughter" template are just superficial; and some run far, far deeper. For instance, in the last act of the remake, Dr. Collingwood stabilizes his badly-wounded daughter and plans to escape in a boat (and get her to a hospital alongside his wife). With the aid of Mrs. Collingwood (Monica Potter) and Krug's son, Justin (Spencer Treat Clark), Dr. Collingwood also incapacitates Krug, eliminating any and all immediate danger..

But instead of simply escaping -- or killing Krug in the heat of a kill-or-be-killed moment (as was the case in the Craven version) -- this Dr. Collingwood takes his time and, with extensive pre-meditation, plans for the torture and death of Krug utilizing a malfunctioning microwave oven. In other words, this is no longer a case of flight or fight. Mari is safe. Krug is down for the count. But Collingwood -- a man sworn to protect life -- nonetheless breaks his oath and engineers a complex plan (involving a delicate surgery...) to kill Krug. Here's how I see this: Were my loved ones attacked and in jeopardy, I would certainly respond violently in the moment...perhaps even protect them. But, were my wife and daughter attacked, and the situation safely ameliorated, I can't imagine I would respond by engineering -- over a sustained period of time -- a brutal surgery and torture scheme. That goes beyond preservation of self and family. That's...extreme sadism.

There are two ways to read this alteration in the tale. Either this is a pander-fest to the modern audience, ostensibly a bread-and-circuses demographic, who demand Krug's blood and want him to suffer in a horrifying way. Or, as I believe, this is a comment on our post-9/11 age, just as Craven's version commented on the 1970s. Yes, we were brutally attacked in September 2001 and three thousand Americans died horrible deaths and the terrorists were EVIL. But The Iraq War occurred in 2003, the torture at Abu Ghraib happened in 2004, and over 101,000 Iraqis are now dead in the year 2009. Exactly when, you might rightly ask, do we get to stop avenging 9/11 with a free conscience? Exactly when does the "heat of the moment" of 9/11 fade away, and reason...and restraint...and LAW set in? We were right to strike back against those who hurt us and killed our loved ones...but how long do we continue striking back against enemies with moral impunity before we are the ones provoking a new cycle of violence?

In the 2009 version of The Last House on the Left, Dr. Collingwood expresses not one recrimination about his actions; and that's also the official take of our government, even today. President Obama wants to "turn the page" on American moral abuses of the Bush Years...thus leaving them unaddressed and unpunished. That's also the state in which we leave Dr. Collingwood. Mari (like America) is safe and sound, but he (like our nation) hasn't yet looked in the mirror and faced the consequences of his bloody actions. That needs to happen. For him and for us.

This is a fascinating change in the enduring Swedish original. In the past, Dr. Tore and Dr. Collingwood responded to violence with savagery, but it was always in the passion of the moment. And they had motives we sympathized with: the death of the daughter. Here, this Dr. Collingwood has time for reflection, time for pause, and his daughter yet lives. And despite time, despite the survival of his daughter, Collingwood still knowingly and mercilessly fries Krug's brain in a microwave.

He doesn't feel bad about it...and in this case -- I hate to say it -- that makes the Tore character worse than the despicable Krug. Because this Krug, like his previous incarnation, at least experiences that moment of humanity by the lake in which he realizes that he's a monster. This Dr. Collingwood still thinks he's a doctor and an upright citizen. He marches on...but his violence is left unaddressed. And Krug, for all his brutal crimes, clearly didn't set out one morning to hurt Mari or Page...he happened upon them...and his brutal nature asserted itself. That assertion doesn't take him off the hook for his crimes in any way, but they were crimes of opportunity. By contrast, Collingwood is the only character in the movie who plots out and executes -- in detail -- a torturous death for another human being.

In some ways, this newest Last House on the Left is the most disturbing version of the tale yet produced. It doesn't find answers in God, like Bergman's version. Nor does it find answers in man's nature, like Craven's tale. Instead, it just punts moral judgment down the line. The 2009 Dr. Collingwood feels he was justified in the pre-meditated torture and murder of another human being because he was attacked first....and I suspect many modern viewers feel the same way.

"Bloodlust" isn't just the name of a rock group. And it's not a feeling limited merely to black hat bad guys, either. We can find it right here, dwelling in our very own neighborhoods. Just turn by the lake, and stop at the last house on the left...

Saturday, August 15, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Woodstock (1970)

It was forty years ago today that a generation came together in upstate New York to celebrate a vision of the future that included good music, peace and love...and perhaps a recreational drug or two.

Yep, the Woodstock concert is officially four decades old in August of 2009, and given that landmark anniversary, I thought it would be appropriate to remember Woodstock -- the movie -- today.

This Academy-award winning non-fiction film endures as a remarkable document, one that pain-stakingly charts a specific time and place, particularly Bethel, New York, on the specific weekend when 1.5 million kids descended on a parcel of farmland for what ultimately became a free concert (much to the surprise of the show's concerned financiers).

It's no hyperbole to state that Woodstock is a giant among documentaries (and concert films), much as the event itself remains a colossus among concerts. If you want to witness the dark side of the Vietnam generation, check out (the equally amazing, if depressing...) Gimme Shelter. But Woodstock has the good vibrations. It delivers just what the film's subtitle promises: Three Days of Peace and Music.

Yet what I admire most about the movie Woodstock is that director Michael Wadleigh depicts two engaging stories simultaneously. One is the story of the music itself, of the on-stage performances. You've got Arlo Guthrie, The Who, and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Virtually everything about this facet of the film is sterling; from Joan Baez on stage at night by her lonesome, singing about her incarcerated husband (a draft dodger), to the always energetic Jimi Hendrix, doing his particular brand of hard rock.

But today, I'm even more fascinated by the other story depicted by Wadleigh. It's a tale of logistics; of preparations; of amazing, vast scope. In other words, Woodstock is a film that doesn't merely provide shots of teeming masses, it's one that desires to reveal how those masses lived for three days (and nights) in that farmland setting. The film shows us how, where, and when concert-goers slept, carving out territory for themselves and pleasantly "saying goodnight" to their neighbors. It reveals how people made the best of a difficult situation when the sky opened up and it began to rain. Before long, the ground had turned to slick, messy mud...

The film shows us concert-goers standing patiently in line to use a pay phone (and check-in with their worried parents). At one point, we even learn that a baby has been born at Woodstock. And then realization dawns that this is not merely a "shitty mess" as one person suggests, but rather a full-blown, ad-hoc city. There's health care (forty-five doctors from the Army have arrived; all toiling without pay), there's food, there are even bathing facilities (meaning a place for co-ed skinny dipping.)

Improbably, Wadleigh even arranges an entire sequence around the toilets; portable chemical port-a-johns that service the vast crowd. And finally, at the end of the film, we see volunteers cleaning up the deserted field, picking up what appears to be a vast sea of garbage. "Just love everybody and clean up a little garbage on the way out, and everything will be fine," one organizer optimistically suggests.

There was so much footage shot for Woodstock that, at times, the movie cuts to split-screens, ones two-and-three frames strong. To Wadleigh's credit, he marshals the technique when it is merited -- as balance and counterweight, mostly -- not when he's simply attempting to be flashy. The result is a visually dazzling film that's never less than compelling.

Unlike the rowdy, contentious Town Halls we see on TV today, the Woodstock concert didn't require policemen to step in and maintain law and order. Instead, people behaved themselves and didn't act on ignorance or bigotry. Fifty thousand teenagers were expected...and over a million showed up. And yet there were no major incidents to report.

I suspect there's a lesson in that somewhere.

The radical right wing in this country has been very successful at marginalizing, ridiculing and lampooning the Peace Generation (with a little help from the "libertarian" South Park). But that's okay, because the Left has this film -- an authentic time capsule -- capturing Woodstock in all its glory, wonder and peace. And undeniably, this the finest moment of that Peace Generation.

Rent Woodstock, watch Woodstock...and commemorate a time in America when an event like this could actually happen without courting disaster. At this point -- what with those pesky Death Panels and all -- I don't think it's going to happen again soon.

The Road Warrior (1982)

I first viewed  The Road Warrior  on a double bill with  Superman III  at the Castle Theater in Irvington, New Jersey. I was thirteen or fou...