Friday, January 29, 2010

Theme Song of the Week: VR 5 (1995)

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"One man's mundane and desperate existence is another man's Technicolor."

-- Strange Days (1995)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Goodbye, Holden...

"I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day."

- J.D. Salinger (1919 - 2010)

CULT TV FLASHBACK #99: The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Meet Dracula

Don your bell-bottoms, cue the stock-footage thunderstorms, and turn up the library archive sound-effects of wolves baying at the full moon. It's time to ride our blogging TV time machine back to that great year 1977. Our destination: The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, a Glen A. Larson production that ran for three years on ABC (1977-1979).

This once-popular detective TV series (styled after the popular, long-lived, mystery books by Edward Stratemeyer) starred teen heartthrob Shaun Cassidy ("Da Doo Ron Ron...") as Joe Hardy and Parker Stevenson (later the husband of Kirstie Alley...) as his cleverer brother, Frank.

On the Nancy Drew side of the equation, lovely Pamela Sue Martin portrayed the dedicated part-time sleuth. At least that was the case for the first two seasons of The Hardy Boy/Nancy Drew Mysteries. Then she permanently exited the series, breaking the hearts of pre-adolescent boys across the nation. Concurrent with her departure, Pamela Sue Martin shed her "good girl" image forever by posing nude in Playboy.

Little known fact: I still own that particular issue...

But for this 99th cult tv flashback, I want to direct your attention to the two-part, second season opener of The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, the charmingly-titled "The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Meet Dracula," which aired on September 11th and September 18th, 1977.

In most of my reviews, I prefer not to use descriptors such as cheesy or camp -- because in time, all programming turns to cheese or camp -- but this series is indeed a very cheesy. It's also rather charming...and innocent. In other words: perfect stuff for kids. Even better: it's perfect stuff for kids with a burgeoning interest in the horror genre.

So, in this particular tale, hapless Hardy Senior -- Fenton Hardy (Ed Gilbert) -- disappears at Count Dracula's castle in Transylvania (on June 4th, 1977...). Weeks later, Joe and Frank go in search of Paris. Then, they run into the lovely Nancy Drew in Munich, and learn more about their father's unusual disappearance. Fenton and Nancy were "comparing notes" on a mystery involving international art thefts. Many of the world's most valuable paintings have disappeared, and Fenton was on the case.

The three amateur detectives concur that all roads lead to Transylvania, where a Dracula Festival is being held at Vlad The Impaler's historic castle. Shooting a rock concert there for ABC is the rock sensation Allison Troy...really the incomparable Paul Williams (who appeared EVERYWHERE in the 1970s, including in Battle for the Planet of the Apes...).

And here (in Part I), Williams performs a great song from one of my favorite movies of all time (and one by Brian De Palma, no less...), 1974's Phantom of the Paradise.

Anyway, the Hardy Boys go undercover as members of a band called "Circus"....which is just a transparent excuse for Shaun Cassidy to sing "That's Rock'N'Roll" ("Come on Everybody, get down, get with it, come on everybody get down, get with it...")

While Joe sings his heart out for costumed revelers, Frank and Nancy Drew separately investigate the creepy caverns underneath the castle; a locale they have been warned about repeatedly. Before long, Frank ends up locked in a dungeon with the apparent victim of a vampire attack.

Soon vampire bats are attacking a night-gowned Nancy Drew in her hotel bedroom (!) and the Transylvania town elders start panicking. Before long, they are on the receiving end of vampire neck bites. Inspector Stavlin, played by Lorne Greene -- a traditional sort-of-guy -- hints that Dracula may be perturbed that his castle is being used for such crass commercialism (meaning Allison Troy's concert, not this two-part Glen Larson episode...).

But deep in the caverns -- behind the ancient Dracula family crest -- a secret chamber awaits. And there, Frank, Joe and Nancy finally learn the truth about vampires, and international art thieves too.

Directed by Joseph Pevney and written by Glen A. Larson and Michael Sloane, "The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Meet Dracula" is a show I vividly remember from my childhood. I guess I was seven years old when I watched it originally, and, well, what can I say? it had a lasting impression on me.

For instance, I've always recalled the Dracula-"stalking" scenes that dominate this two-part episode. We just see Dracula's stylish boots as the count hunts his prey in the dark caverns. Of course, the villain was filmed in this manner so we couldn't discover Dracula's real identity. But there was always something unsettling (to my young mind, anyway....) about the way those shiny boots came out of the darkness and followed everybody through the catacombs.

And, of course, how can you not love Paul Williams? The performer gets to camp it up here as an egotistical rock star. I love that he sings "The Hell of It" in this episode, because it features nihilistic song lyrics that aren't exactly as kid-friendly as the rest of this landmark Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew endeavor. Anyway, I've embedded the Paul Williams Hardy Boys performance below this review, so you too can share in the joy.

All right, so it''s all too easy to make fun of 1970s costumes and lingo, right... turkey? And vampire bats on visible strings? Han Solo hair cuts? Lorne Greene -- Ben Cartwright -- as the Prince of Darkness, Dracula?

But all snark aside, from 1976-1979, I loved this series. I mean, I loved it. I never missed an episode. The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries had fun stories, featured engaging performances and depicted some great tales about The Bermuda Triangle, King Tut, the Phantom of Hollywood and other weird 1970s era obsessions. I often write about TV series as "time capsules" for their era, and -- my god -- what a time capsule this show is. It's just a whole lot of goofy, 1977-style fun.

And now, before I sign off, may I present Paul Williams on The Hardy Boys...?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK #98: The Incredible Hulk: "Married" (1978)

Even as late as 1978, superhero television was still attempting to escape the gravitational pull of the campy but highly-entertaining 1960s Batman series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. That watershed ABC series -- undeniably a prime example of colorful, counter-culture pop art -- had so shaded the format requirements for superhero and comic book TV initiatives that a new template -- sans "BAM!" "POW!" and "WHAM" -- was required.

Resourceful and literate, writer/producer Kenneth Johnson crafted that new template when adapting Marvel's The Incredible Hulk comic-book for television. Instead of depending on dynamic super criminals, tongue-in-cheek dialogue, and out-of-this-world swashbuckling, Johnson grounded his new hero, David Bruce Banner (Bill Bixby), in a more familiar, less over-the-top world.

As author Gary Gerani observed in TV Episode Guides Volume 2 (1982, page 64), "he [Johnson] turned to a more intelligent and dramatic approach of a man whose life is upset by the fact that he can become this uncontrollable monster."

Series producer Nick Corea was even more specific about the program's approach: "Any writer who comes in with clones or extraterrestrials, we steer in another direction." (John Abbot, SFX #18, November 1996, page 76).

Today, we happily take costumed and colorful heroes at face value, as part and parcel of the superhero genre. We want to see super villains and super feats. So the superhero stigma once associated with the camp 1960s Batman is finally gone. And in something of a turnaround, we actually gaze at TV's drama The Incredible Hulk -- which rigorously followed a format similar to The Fugitive -- as a bit of a relic; as a time capsule of a different era.

Times change. Tastes change.

Yet The Incredible Hulk ran for four successful years on CBS because of Johnson's dedication to the "human factor." A latter day Jekyll-Hyde story, The Incredible Hulk explicitly concerned the divide between human emotions and human rationality.

Think about it this way: we exist day-to-day by controlling our emotions; by keeping them firmly in check. Yet in the person hood of the raging Hulk (Lou Ferrigno), our impulses are free...unfettered. For David Banner -- living in the last days of disco -- the struggle was an internal one; to manage that provoked Id; to restrain the instinct-based beast inside all of us who wants to react to every challenge, fear, and pain with raw emotion and brute force. Hulk smash!

One of the best and most touching episodes of The Incredible Hulk was the second season opener, "Married" (written and directed by Johnson). A two-hour tale, "Married" originally aired on November 22, 1978, and guest-starred Mariette Hartley as Dr. Caroline Fields.

Caroline is a brilliant psychologist facing her own internal struggle: a terminal disease (like Lou Gehrig's Disease) that has reduced her expected life span to just six weeks.

Our protagonist, David Banner, arrives at Caroline's medical practice in Hawaii to seek her assistance in controlling his "monster," unaware of her own debilitating condition. In particular, Caroline is an expert in hypnosis, and David believes that she could hypnotize his conscious mind into trapping the Hulk within. In other words, he hopes to cage the Hulk with his brain.

Over a few weeks, David and Caroline fall in love...and are married. David tries to cure Caroline's disease, and Caroline tries to cure David of his affliction. And impressively, much of the episode's "action" occurs inside the mind-states of these two individuals.

As David is hypnotized, we see him physically encounter the Hulk in a barren, desert landscape. First, David tries to restrain the Hulk in heavy ropes. But the Hulk breaks out.

Then David tries a cage with steel bars. Again, the Hulk breaks free.

Finally, David attempts trapping the Hulk inside the mental construct of an impenetrable vault. But even here, the beast within him cannot be contained.

Meanwhile, Caroline attempts to use the mind-over-matter hypnosis technique to cure her defective "mitochondria" of the invading disease lesions. She envisions her put-upon cells as an Old West wagon train; and the lesions there as invading Indian raiders surrounding it. When David formulates a new drug (taken from the Hulk's skin sample...) Caroline imagines the drug as the cavalry, coming over the hill. This is all weird and wonderful stuff (and fits in perfectly with the 1970s obsession with hypnosis).

The Incredible Hulk always concerned the ways in which our mind responds to external stimuli. We can choose to respond with rage; or we can choose to respond calmly. We can choose to respond with violence; or peaceably. "Married" is very much on target in terms of the series' overriding themes then, since virtually every major scene concerns the way our brain faces conflict and interprets challenges.

Today -- 32 years later -- "Married" has indeed dated somewhat. No doubt there. There are two worrisome scenes during which Bill Bixby and Mariette Hartley speak in atrocious Pidgeon English (talking about Chinese food...) and then perform bad John Wayne imitations. This is what seemed like witty and romantic banter in the 1970s, I guess, but today's it's just sort of cringe-inducing.

And also, "Married" evidences a big flaw common in many Incredible Hulk scenarios That flaw: the Hulk's presence isn't entirely warranted given the less-than-threatening circumstances.

For example, in "Married" two on-the-make "groovy" swingers (wearing polyester pants two-sizes too small...) pick-up a drunk Caroline and take her back to their bachelor pad (along with a floozy...) for a night of casual sex. David arrives to take Caroline home, and then these two swingers suddenly become violent. They push David around. They pop a champagne cork in his face (!). Then -- all kidding aside -- they violently hurl him from their second-story bedroom balcony...into a glass coffee table, below thus precipitating an appearance by the Hulk. The un-jolly green giant then proceeds to tear the bachelor pad to pieces. It's an impressive-enough action scene, but entirely unnecessary. Not to mention unmotivated.

Why would two relatively harmless guys with sex on the brain suddenly turn egregiously violent? (And destroy their own apartment in the process?) This sort of thing happened a lot on the show: people who you wouldn't expect to immediately turn to violence suddenly become a HUGE threat so that the Hulk can appear and save the day.

But leaving aside these dated elements, "Married" remain an outstanding episode of the CBS series. Perhaps because of the two-hour running time, Caroline feels like a "real" person and not just the guest-star/love-interest-of-the-week. And the relationship she shares with David doesn't feel forced or silly. It's clear that Caroline and Bruce are both suffering terribly, and sharing what little time they have left together eases that pain. That's as good a reason for marriage as any, isn't it?

There's also one incredibly dark moment in "Married." With only two weeks to live, Caroline plays frisbee with a little boy (Meeno Peluce of Voyagers!) on the beach. The scene is much longer than it need be; and focuses a great deal on Hartley in close-shot. There's almost no dialogue. The scene is mostly silent. But inscribed on her expression is the agony and regret of the life Caroline will never experience. She will never be a mother; never have children, as she once dreamed of. This is an issue "Married" raised early on, but then returns to with this unexpectedly sad and restrained moment. I can't deny "Married" is a tear-jerker, either, but then that was a perpetual quality of The Incredible Hulk too: it was, overall, a pretty lugubrious, melancholy show.

What I admire most about "Married," however, are those "dream state" sequences occurring in the desert of Banner's mind; as David and The Hulk face each other down. It may not seem like much of a comic-book-style adventure -- there's no Marvel-style mythology or continuity in place -- but the human drama is nonetheless fascinating.

We don't like ourselves when we're angry. We don't like ourselves when we're bad tampered; when we let our "Hulks" out to roam. The Incredible Hulk's impressive "Married" externalizes and literalizes the idea of the emotional battle raging within each of us, the battle for control with our barely concealed monsters.

Monday, January 25, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

To aggressively analyze and interpret a David Lynch film is to invite agitation. On one hand, many critics suggest the artist's movies are dense and impenetrable; that they are weird just for the sake of weirdness. Therefore, no possible interpretation for what occurs on screen exists, and the interpreter is simply partaking in a wild goose chase. Or worse, being self-indulgent.

Reviewing Lynch's Lost Highway (1997), for instance, one of my favorite critics, Roger Ebert, admitted "I've seen it twice, hoping to make sense of it. There is no sense to be made of it. To try is to miss the point. What you see is all you get."

Yet, David Lynch's films are so abundant with symbolic representation; so rife with abstruse dream sequences; so criss-crossed with narrative alleyways, and so thoroughly dominated by opaque characterizations that they virtually cry out for contextualization and analysis.

To leave such treasure troves of figuration uninterpreted or unexamined is to abandon a half-solved puzzle.

Contrarily, to delve into the mysteries of David Lynch's cinema is to grow nearer the mind (and dream state...) of a most singular American film artist. For me, the temptation to dive in is...well...irresistible.

Sometimes, audiences, scholars and critics have also been willing to take that giant leap of faith and gaze -- unblinking and unbowed -- at the secrets and enigmas presented in Lynch's twisting, tricky narratives. Many of Lynch's productions, such as Blue Velvet (1984), are indeed held in high critical esteem. But at the same time, other Lynch films have not met with the same aggressive intellectual curiosity. Exhibit A: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) a prequel to the popular TV series; a movie produced a year after the program was canceled.

As you may recall, the movie was booed at the Cannes Film Festival, and New York Times critic Vincent Canby suggested "It's not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be. Its 134 minutes induce a state of simulated brain death, an effect as easily attained in half the time by staring at the blinking lights on a Christmas tree."

Jay Scott at Toronto's Globe and Mail called Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me "a disgusting, misanthropic movie," and compared a viewing of the film to "cocaine-induced paranoia."

To many critics, the layered, perplexing Fire Walk with Me is but "as blank as a fart," to quote one of the film's quirkier characters.

Yet taken at simple face value, Fire Walk With Me is a disquieting exhumation of the "underneath" in America. In the film, we encounter homecoming queen and Twin Peaks resident Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). We follow her through her harrowing last week on this mortal coil, and see that this "typical" teenager is anything but.

If the movie feels like a case of cocaine-induced paranoia, that is likely intentional. Because Laura is indeed experiencing a cocaine-induced paranoia throughout much of the movie. She's a junkie (and the film depicts Laura snorting coke on several occasions; as well as participating in a drug deal gone wrong.) Thus the film's lurid, jittery, unpleasant shape perfectly reflects the piece's content. We seem to be viewing the film from inside a drug fever.

Quit Trying to Hold on So Tight...I'm Gone: Laura Palmer as Victim of Incest

David Lynch's films work on different metaphorical layers, and one thematic layer of Fire Walk with Me involves a truly unpleasant topic: incest.

Beautiful Laura Palmer -- the envy of every girl at Twin Peaks high school -- is the victim of incest. She has been the victim of sexual molestation by her father, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), for several years.

Unable to cope with this monstrous reality, Laura's shattered mind has come to visually re-interpret her father's nocturnal bedroom visits as the home invasions of a swarthy stranger, a monster named "Bob."

Laura informs her psychiatrist, Harold ,that "Bob is real. He's been having me since I was twelve." Furthermore, she notes "he comes through my window at night...he's getting to know me. He wants to be me...or he'll kill me."

And sure enough, one day, Laura arrives home from school early and sees Bob prowling around in her bedroom. As if sniffing her out. It's a terrifying scene: we suddenly register the unexpected intruder in a place of safety and comfort, and almost physically blanch at his presence. Scared, Laura runs out of the house, terrified, only to see not the Evil Bob emerge after her...but rather her beloved father, Leland. He is the Monster of Her Id.

In another disturbing scene, Bob slips inside the Palmer house through Laura's window at night. In electric blue moonlight, he seduces her. In the throes of their mutual passion, Laura suddenly sees that the stranger is actually her father, Leland, and nearly goes mad at the revelation. Again, this is the thing she is trying to bury under mountains of cocaine; in alcohol. The betrayal of a trusted loved one.

How does a the typical victim deal with persistent sexual abuse and incest? According to author Ken Chisholm's article on the subject, "Some of the social maladjustments arising from incest are alcoholism, drug addiction, prostitution and promiscuity." Consider these factors in relationship to Laura Palmer. We already know she is addicted to cocaine. We already know she drinks.

But Laura is also sexually-involved with at least two boyfriends at school: the temperamental Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) and James-Dean-ish James Hurley (James Marshall). She seems to ping-pong back and forth between them. And, as prescribed above, prostitution is part of Laura's life too. We learn in Fire Walk With Me that (as in the series before...), Laura has been selling her body both at One Eyed Jacks and at the film's sleazy Bang Bang Bar.

In other words, a history and pattern of incest leads to self-destructive behavior on the part of the victim. It leads to the destruction of -- and disassociation from -- the healthy ego. This is also evident in Fire Walk with Me. "Your Laura disappeared," Laura informs James blankly, feeling unworthy and undeserved of his authentic, romantic love. "It's just me now," she explains, feeling ashamed and guilty over her behavior.

At one point, late in the film, even Laura's guardian angel seems to abandon her, vanishing from a painting in her bedroom. It's thus clear that Laura blames herself for her father's behavior, and consequently that she views herself as ugly and corrupted. She isn't the golden girl anymore, she's tarnished.

This self-hatred becomes especially plain during the moment when Laura confides in her psychiatrist Harold about "Bob's" visits.

Suddenly, the film cuts to a nightmarish view of Laura as an ivory white crone; one with alabaster skin, yellowed teeth, scarlet gums and blackened lips. She looks like a terrible, corrupted monster: an outward reflection of her low self-esteem. This is how she sees herself.

Later in the film, we see Leland Palmer -- suffering his own personal hell of guilt and shame -- imagining himself in identical terms, right down to the black lips. This is the form of the bad conscience made manifest.

Those who endure incest and sexual abuse also, over time, may experience night terrors, hallucinations or insomnia. Laura is not immune from these symptoms either. She lives through terrifying nightmares, especially ones that involve a creepy painting. On that painting is rendered a half-open door; and in Laura's dream she mindlessly treads though that door into the evil world of the Black Lodge. A place were "garmonbozia" (pain and suffering) is eaten like creamed corn, and her suffering will provide a feast. She is, literally, the Devil's candy. And she knows it.

Laura is aware that she is a moth driven to the flame (a woman consigned to Hell...) and again and again, Fire Walk With Me brings up the idea of fire in connection to Laura. Donna Hayward (Moira Kelly) asks Laura a weird question. "If you fall in outer space, do you think you'd slow down after a while, or go faster and faster?"

Laura's telling answer is that she would go faster and faster...without knowing it, and then spontaneously burn up. No angels could save her...because they're all gone. The world is devoid of angels.

Again, this answer appears to be a metaphor for Laura's increasingly "fast" life (a life made even more jittery and fast by the cocaine): dating two boys; scoring drugs; acting as a prostitute...trying desperately to escape her real life and the sexual abuse.

In the end, however, no matter how fast she goes, Laura will still be consumed by flame; destroyed. The Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson) tells Laura -- in an important, if brief, scene that "When this kind of fire starts, it is very hard to put out. The tender boughs of innocence burn first, and the wind rises, and then all goodness is in jeopardy."

Once more, you've got to contextualize this remark in terms of the incest: the act which has made the self-loathing Laura change from golden girl to promiscuous drug abuser and prostitute. In the execution of that bad behavior, the first victim is Laura's innocence...her childhood. The second is her goodness (and now she can't even volunteer to feed the hungry in the meals on wheels program...). The third existence itself. Laura understands this. She realizes she is headed ""

Another frequent quality of incest victims is a protective impulse; an overriding need to save or rescue younger siblings from the life-destroying behavior that has ruined them. In Fire Walk with Me, Donna goes to the Bang Bang Bar with Laura. Donna drinks alcohol, takes drugs, and seduces a john. When Laura witnesses Donna's craven behavior -- the tender boughs of innocence about to burn -- she is roused to act. Unable to save herself, Laura does the next best thing: she rescues naive Donna. Afterwards, Laura warns Donna cryptically "don't wear my stuff," an indication that Donna has "tried on" Laura's lifestyle. But it doesn't fit Donna; and Laura doesn't want Donna to be like her.

There's No Tomorrow; It Will Never Get Here: The Spirit World in Fire Walk With Me

A central question regarding Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me involves the rogue's gallery in the Black Lodge. This gallery includes Bob, The (backwards-talking) Man from Another Place (Michael Anderson) and the One-Armed Man. They dwell in that sitting room (the velvet-lined room with zig-zag floor). Are they real? Or imaginary? Are they sentient, or symbolic?

Is Leland an all-too "human" sexual abuser? Or is he an unlucky man possessed by an evil spirit? Who do we blame for the incest: the spirit (Bob) or the body (Leland)?

In a sense, it doesn't matter a whit. It is immaterial. When criminals commit terrible acts, they often claim the "devil made them do it," right? Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me may suggest a universe of Hell (in the form of the Black Lodge) and Heaven too (in the form or Ronette Pulaski's and Laura's individual guardian angels), but it never suggests that Leland is innocent.

There may be a "monster" cowering inside him; but there is a monster cowering inside all abusers, isn't there? If evil dwells in the human psyche, then it dwells in the human psyche...and we must combat it. Leland never does that. He murders Teresa Banks, and eventually he murders his own daughter, Laura, because he is so consumed of "the evil spirit." That's what makes him a villain.

That really was something with the dancing girl, wasn't it? What exactly did all that mean?

Encoded in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is a self-commentary on David Lynch's approach to symbolic story telling.

Early in the film, FBI agent Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) and Agent Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) are tasked by Lynch's deaf FBI chief with the investigation of Teresa's murder. After briefing them in very general terms, Lynch's character then maddeningly introduces the two agents to "Lil" a woman in a red dress wearing a blue rose. He says, in essence, that she represents the case that the men have embarked upon.

Then, in a bewildering moment, the strange Lil dances up to the two agents, grimaces -- revealing a sour face -- and makes a fist.

Then, Lil is never seen or heard from again as a living, breathing, human character. But soon after this scene, Desmond and Stanley interpret her presence. They analyze her facial expressions. They note the color of her dress. They register the presence of the blue rose, and ponder the meaning of her balled fist. On one hand, this is Lynch's oddball humor, acknowledging the Twin Peaks' aficionado's propensity for analyzing every little thing.

But in another sense, Lil -- and Desmond's explanation of Lil -- is the audience's primer to successfully reading or interpreting the figurations of this movie. Following Desmond's example, the viewer is meant to weigh characters and events symbolically. We are supposed to "see" Bob as Laura's "safe" interpretation of her father's criminal, unacceptable behavior. We are supposed to understand the drug use and prostitution as a victim's escape from guilt and shame. Even the passing of Theresa's ring we are to comprehend as a legacy of death, carried from one victim to the next. And the creamed corn? Human pain and suffering as the food of the gods.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
is really The Tragedy of Laura Palmer and the Tragedy of Small Town America. The golden girl -- the cheerleader beloved by all -- is actually a secret victim of sexual abuse...and no one sees it. Or no one cares to see it.

This is the roiling "underneath" that Lynch so frequently expose in his films, and it was never more relevant, perhaps, than in the early 1990s when this film was made. These were the early years after the notorious 1989 Glen Ridge rape case (wherein popular football jocks raped a retarded girl with a baseball bat and broom); these were the years of the Spur Posse. Suburbia's shameful secrets were spilling out into the tabloid culture in creamed-corn torrents.

Perhaps an entire American generation of teenagers was actually fire walking with us; possessed by darkest impulses.

What remains profound about Laura Palmer's tragedy today is that, in the end, David Lynch grants the character a small measure of contentment. The guardian angel she believed she lost during her last, brutal hours on Earth, returns anew (in the afterlife) to heal her pain; even as good Dale Cooper lands a comforting, supportive arm on her shoulder. Our last view of the cheerleader is of Laura smiling.

In life, Laura was relentlessly victimized...her goodness burned away by life's ugliness. In death's sitting room, of all places, peace is finally at hand.

Although this may seem decidedly bleak, it is also Lynch's balancing of the spiritual world. It may be a place of garmonbozia -- death and suffering -- but it isn't populated merely by the likes of Bob and the Man From Another Place. The winged celestial being is there too, the seraph, and that means that forgiveness is at hand.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
isn't misanthropic. In Laura Palmer, there's sympathy for the victim of abuse. Even in Leland Palmer, there's sympathy for the devil. If we do "live in a dream," as one character suggests in the film, then it is also up to us to shape that dream, and always keep Bob at bay.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Questor Tapes Re-Activate!

The San Francisco Chronicle and other news outlets have reported this week that Rod Roddenberry and Ron Howard's production company, Imagine, are teaming to produce a new version of the classic 1970s Gene Roddenberry TV pilot, The Questor Tapes:

"The script, about a robot with incomplete memory tapes who is searching for his creator, was originally written by Roddenberry as a 13-episode TV series, but after disagreements with bosses at America's NBC network the sci-fi mogul abandoned the project.

The production eventually aired as a one-off small screen movie in 1974 - and now Roddenberry's son is hoping to bring "The Questor Tapes" back to life to honor his dad's memory.

Rod Roddenberry says, "My father always felt that Questor was the one that got away. He believed that the show had the potential to be bigger than Star Trek."

Personally, I think this is great news: The Questor Tapes never got a fair shake in the 1970s. Network brass wanted it to look more like The Six-Million Dollar Man than an original series and so Roddenberry stuck to his creative guns...scuttling the show. Although I'd rather see Genesis II re-made, I believe Questor would make for a great new series; especially as we continue to lose quality sci-fi program, seemingly by the bushel full.

Here' a snippet of my review of the original TV movie:

The Questor Tapes is an almost perfect representation of the Gene Roddenberry aesthetic. There is (gentle...) criticism of 20th century industrial/technological mankind here, his "squalor...ugliness...greed...struggles."

Yet this damning view is balanced and tempered by an essential optimism about intrinsic human nature. Our "greatest accomplishment," declares Questor is "our ability to love one another."

Questor is a character much like Mr. Spock or Lt. Data -- an outsider who is nonetheless fascinated by mankind. The perspective as "outsider" permits Questor, Data or Spock to be both critical and positive about the human race, without any of it seeming personal, political or petty. Like Spock, Questor is dedicated to logic, and uses that word (logic) frequently. "Logic indicates the simplest plan is often the best," etc. And also like Spock, Questor is peaceful. He is not programmed to kill, yet he can incapacitate enemies with the equivalent of a "nerve pinch."

But if Questor is a child of Spock, he is also the father of Data. There can be little doubt of that. Questor desires to be human, just like Data, and wants to understand humor. "Humor is a quality which seems to elude me," he tells Jerry at one point. Also, like Data, Questor is a sexual being, and this facet of his personality also conforms to an essential quality of all Roddenberry productions: kinkiness.

To get information out of Lady Helena Trimble, Questor -- an android -- makes love to her. Beforehand, he tells her that he"fully functional." Next Generation fans will recognize that particular turn of phrase from Data's seduction of Tasha Yar in the first season episode "The Naked Now."

In another scene from The Questor Tapes, Jerry and Questor visit a European casino and Questor learns that the House is cheating, utilizing fake dice. The android is able to beat the cheaters by adjusting the balance of the dice. In the second season episode of The Next Generation entitled "The Royale," Data does precisely the same thing.

The Questor Tapes has aged poorly in a few, minor ways...all mostly visual. For instance, a close-up glimpse of Questor's high-tech interior reveals a rotary telephone cord...not exactly state of the art. And the very idea that "tapes" would carry an android's programming? Well, that is passe, of course too. Even Vaslovik's Information Center is obviously pre-world-wide-web.

Yet none of that matters in the slightest. What matters here, and what grants The Questor Tapes a real "heart" is the relationship at the forefront of the production: the friendship between a human (Jerry) and a machine (Questor). There's funny banter and quiet affection there, and the relationship will remind you (in a positive, not derivative...) way of the long-lived Kirk/Spock friendship. It's different in that Jerry has no authority over Questor: he's a teacher in the subject of humanity, not a commanding officer. Despite the difference, there's definitely charm here...

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Now Available: Space:1999 Shepherd Moon

I mentioned the upcoming Powys Media releases a couple weeks ago, but now there's more news. The officially licensed Space:1999 anthology, Shepherd Moon is now available for order. Whoo-hoo! (I ordered my copy this morning!).

I'm pleased to announce I have two short stories included in this collection: "The Touch of Venus" (which opens the book...) and "Futility."

There's also "Fallen Star" by Albert Leon, Ken Scott, Lindsey Scott-Ipsen and Raja Thiagarajan.

Then there's "Cargo" by Brian Ball, "Dead End" by E.C. Tubb, "Mission Critical" by Michael Faries, "Spider's Web" by William Latham, "The Astelian Gift" by Emma Burrows and "Remembering Julia" by Stephen Jansen.

In all, the collection is over 270 pages. I can't wait to get my copy and jump in. If you're ready to order, click here.

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

The fourth film in the Planet of the Apes motion picture cycle is also the most overtly violent and controversial entry you'll discover in the classic, five-strong franchise.

Schaffner's original Planet of the Apes (1968) offered an anti-nuke, pro-peace message to top them all with that trademark, shocking Statue of Liberty climax. The fallen, rusted Lady Liberty was a tragic visual reminder that man had ruined himself and his posterity over clashing fleeting political ideologies (CCCP vs. U.S.A.). "God damn you all to Hell!"

Even Beneath The Planet of the Apes (1970) -- the sophomore series entry which ended in the Earth's final obliteration -- was anti-violence in thematic thrust. The first sequel gazed at the polarization between races -- in this case simian and mutant races -- and suggested that if we didn't all learn to "get along," our world would become but a burned-out, lifeless cinder. Dark? Indeed. But encouraging of violence....certainly not. The film even featured the equivalent of college-age, Vietnam War Era, pro-peace protesters. Only in this topsy-turvy world, they were intellectual chimpanzees...

By contrast, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes -- written by Paul Dehn (and based on characters by Pierre Boulle) -- is dramatically different in both tone and theme from these cinematic predecessors.

The best of the four sequels to Planet of the Apes -- and a great science fiction film even as a stand-alone venture -- director J. Lee Thompsons' film suggests -- in unblinking, brutal terms -- that in the case of subjugation, oppression, slavery and injustice, violent revolution is the only solution to rectify the problem. In the words of the film, despotic masters won't be kind until they are "forced" to be kind. To force kindness, your people have to be free. To have must possess power.

This notion of violent revolution as panacea to matters of social inequality didn't just arise from the ether. Like all great works of art, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, released in 1972, strongly reflects the time period during which it was produced. And from 1965 through the early 1970s, the United States suffered a number of debilitating, disturbing and violent race riots in many of its most populous urban areas. Angry African-Americans took up arms, looted merchants, and destroyed property in an attempt to express their grievances with the social injustice they witnessed and endured.

The Watts Riots occurred in Los Angeles in the year 1965, and 4,000 rioters were arrested by the police. 34 rioters were killed, and over 1,000 were injured. A political commission convened after the riot judged that the outbreak of violence had been caused by the following conditions: racial inequality in Los Angeles, a high jobless rate, bad schools, heavy-handed police tactics, and pervasive job and housing discrimination.

The LAPD chief at the time of the lawlessness didn't exactly help calm things down either. He referred to the rioters as "monkeys in the zoo," according to Social Problems, 1968, pages 322-341. As silly as that may sound, that very description -- of rioters as monkeys -- is literally translated in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.

The Watts Riots did not represent an isolated incident, either. There was also the Washington D.C. Riot of 1968, the Baltimore Riot of the same year, and the Chicago Riot too. And -- perhaps most dramatically -- there was the so-called "Detroit Rebellion" of 1967 which lasted for five days (during a hot July) and saw 7,200 arrests, 40 million dollars worth of property damage, and over 2,000 buildings burned to the ground. The root causes of this violent spree were -- again after the fact -- deemed the same as those that had been observed in Watts. Unemployment by blacks doubled that of whites (15.9% to 8%) in Detroit; the community had little access to adequate medical facilities; there was distinct "spatial segregation" in the city; and 134,000 jobs had been lost over the previous decade-and-a-half.

In toto, half-a-million African-Americans were involved in the various race riots of the late 1960s. To contextualize that sum total, this number is equivalent to the number of American soldiers serving in the War in Vietnam. (Planet of the Apes as American Myth, Eric Greene, 1998, page 79). This huge figure alone should put truth to the lie that the riots were but isolated incidents, or somehow just involved career criminals. Clearly, this was a social movement, not a crime spree.

From this turbulent era of violence, riot and protest was formulated Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, a sci-fi film which projects an ape slave uprising in technological North America in the far-flung future year of 1991. As also suggested by author Greene, the film's text is actually "key for re-reading the Watts Riots as a justifiable reaction to intolerable oppression, rather than just an outbreak of lawless abandon." (Planet of the Apes as American Myth, Eric Greene, 1998, page 16). In Dehn's script, the rebelling apes are even specifically referred to as "rioters."

Shot entirely on the futuristic-looking campus of the University of California at Irvine, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is set in "the future," in an America that has transformed itself into a rigid, fascist state. Nightly curfews are enforced rigorously. Heavily-armed police officers patrol the streets. American citizens are subjected to torture by the State (via a device called an authenticator) without any respect to due process of law. Announcements to citizens by the "Watch Commander" play regularly in the background on the heaivily-guarded city streets...the ubiquitous voice of Big Brother. Labor demonstrations and gatherings are ruthlessly put down by military police.

Because all dogs and cats have died (killed by a space plague in 1985), apes have replaced these beloved animals. First as beloved pets but now as slaves.

These slave apes are "conditioned" to obey human masters, and are punished via "conditioning" when they fail in their tasks or simply don't perform fast enough.

A populist human movement resists the enslavement of apes...because the simians are (involuntarily) taking away their jobs. GO HUMAN, NOT APE, reads one placard. SLAVES ARE SCABS reads another. UNFAIR TO WAITERS screams one more We saw signs and isceral protests like this in District 9 (2009) this summer too: a nativist fear that ethnic "newcomers" are here to steal jobs, depress wages and tax our already overburdened system.

In Conquest of the Planet of the Ape's dynamite, extended opening sequence -- shot entirely in the shadow of 1970s "futurism" architecture -- the viewer is introduced to the rules and locales of this cold, fascist world. Apes are trained en mass in the public square, running a gauntlet of tasks at the bidding of armed, uniformed masters. They are constantly instructed and disciplined in cruel terms. "Go!" "No!" "Do!" It is the ape's job to serve, but not to question. The slaves are also forced to breed, but not allowed to maintain families.

In keeping with the overarching metaphor of the race riots in America, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes further contextualizes the apes' 1991 slavery in terms of the historical African-American experience in our country.

We see, for instance, a racially-charged image of prejudice: a slave ape obediently shining his master's shoes (a shoeshine boy!). We also see apes transported from their native habitats (Borneo) against their will to serve in the United States, via ships. Again, this is an echo of Ghana's "Gate of No Return," and the involuntary journey of many slaves from Africa to our prisoners.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes even depicts slave apes in neck shackles, and auctioned off in a public square to the highest human bidder. If you've ever toured the Old Slave Mart in Charleston, SC, you'll recall that such auctions are not fiction; and that Conquest of the Planet of the Apes does not exaggerate the plight or treatment of slaves in our history.

Conquest of the Planet of the Ape's screenplay draws specific parallels to the African-American experience, not merely with these resonant images, but also in the presentation of an African-American character named MacDonald (Hari Rhodes) who serves as the aide to Governor Breck.

McDonald is sympathetic to the ape cause and the ape leader, Caesar (Roddy McDowall) notes that McDonald "above all people," should understand him. "Above all people" is an explicit verbal reminder of MacDonald's racial identity and status as the descendant of a black slave.

Later, one of the oppressive aides in Governor Breck's dictatorial regime notes that the compassionate McDonald must be an "ape lover." Not to be excessive, but this is a variation of the ugly epithet "nigger lover." Another aide replies caustically (about McDonald), "Don't it figure?" Again, these are veiled, bigoted references to McDonald's skin color and his heritage as a black man. Governor Breck even terms MacDonald a "bleeding heart," equating him with the position of civil-rights-fighting "liberal" in this battle.

The villain of the piece, Governor Breck (Don Murray) finally informs ape leader Caesar why he hates apes, and his detailed explanation is one built on the backbone of racial hatred; a belief that the "other" (black man or ape...) is inferior to him. Breck calls Caesar "the savage who must be shackled in chains...You poison our guts. When we hate you, we're hating the dark side of ourselves."

Our question becomes: is Breck referring to the "dark side" of human nature (which certainly doesn't seem to fit the kindly, innocent apes; especially those like Lisa...), or is the governor actually making another coded statement about skin color. "The dark side" might actually be interpreted to mean dark-skinned.

What remains rather audacious about Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is that most audiences -- white, black, what-have-you -- register the subjugated apes (and Caesar) as the unambiguous heroes of the piece; as the wronged party -- even though it is the entire human race that stands to lose in any violent revolution.

Perhaps such reflexive identification with the underdog, with the exploited, speaks to the inherent goodness and fairness of the American people. Intellectually, we immediately reject racism and oppression, and so therefore easily sympathize with the put-upon, subjugated apes. Yet, ironically, that's not at all what happened regarding the real life riots of the 1960s. Nixon's "silent majority" found it easier to disregard the rioters as lawbreakers and opportunists than acknowledge them as fighters against injustice; fighters for equal rights in American cities of consdierable social disparity. Of course, a movie allows us to experience things that we don't see or understand in real life. As viewers, we saw in Conquest torture, degradation, inequality and other moral sins. But how many of us went to Watts to live? Or Detroit?

At 88 minutes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is a short, fast and brutal film, but it is also one of the most effective and direct science-fiction movies of the era. Many of the visuals reinforce the pervasive theme of governmental subjugation.

I'm particularly fond of an artful shot that visually "entraps" Caesar and his kindly master, Armando (Ricardo Montalban) within the parted, uniformed legs of an armed soldier. The images tells us how the State surrounds and dominates the characters.

I also appreciate the manner in which the inspirational Caesar wordlessly transmits his message of total resistance (and then rebellion...) to his kindred ape slaves. Caesar simply appears on the scene (sometimes in close-up; sometimes in medium shot), and then there's quick pand and zoom to a slave ape...and then the slave ape very actively rebels; dumping garbage, dropping books, even starting a fire. This brand of cause-and-effect shot is repeated again and again in the latter half of the movie, and it's a perfect visual signifier for the notion that you can't kill a powerful idea. Now, Caesar can't literally be everywhere at once; but his message of freedom and liberty transmits at light speed across the slave population. The visual approach reveals how powerful, and widespread the idea of liberty can be in a population that lacks it.

The final sequence of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes depicts the specifics of the ape uprising. It is a clash between riot police (with shields, guns, and helmets) and armed, screeching, enraged apes. This extended, and very violent sequence diagrams "the slave's right to punish his persecutor." The sequence ends with mankind fallen, and Caesar assuming command, ironically, from the pulpit of the human civic center. Behind him -- in the background of the frame -- skyscrapers burn out of control. Again, given the context of the Detroit Rebellion or the Watts Riots, this image is meaningful. People watching the nightly news during those real-life conflagrations had also witnessed "the night of the fires" as Caesar called it, and wondered: would order be restored? Or was this the dawn of a new order? The order of the oppressed...

20th Century Fox apparently grew concerned that Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was too overtly a political film., and took steps to de-fang the social commentary it offered.

In the original, scripted ending, Caesar announced, basically, that Apes would now rule the world just as cruelly as man had ruled it. But a last minute bit of post-production editing changed the tenor of Caesar's pronouncement. After his anger is released Caesar relents and notes that even the inhuman (the apes...) can prove "humane" in their domination over mankind. It's a quick philosophical turnaround and doesn't entirely work. In fact, your head may spin from the shift. But still, you can understand the compromise. The studio didn't want Conquest of The Planet of the Apes -- in the environment of race riots -- to be interpreted as an incitement to real-life violence.

Still, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes ends on a haunting, unforgettable note. Flames consume the the futuristic city, and the planet of the apes is born. And as the end credits roll, the screeching of the victorious apes continues unabated. No closing music softens this shrill sound. The night of the fires continues into an unknown future...

So, is Conquest of the Planet of the Apes really pro-violence? Or is it simply pro-slave? In an interesting sense, the answer is undeniably affirmative: it is pro-violence. Thomas Jefferson once explained that "experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms (of government) those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.”

We see that tyranny clearly depicted here: the America of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes exists for the glorification for the rich and powerful at the expense of liberty and freedom for all. Breck's administration is positively despotic (and he's running for President!) And Thomas Jefferson's prescribed cure for tyranny was not unlike Caesar's in the film; the steadfast belief that "every generation needs a new revolution."

So Conquest of the Planet of the Apes re-interprets the Watts Riots and other race violence of the 1960s as one possible and even legitimate response to entrenched racial inequality in America. Caesar tells Mr. McDonald that the only means left to him and his people (the apes) is, indeed, revolution. "We cannot be free until we have power. How else can we achieve it?"

MacDonald then insists that Caesar's attempt at revolution is doomed to failure. "Perhaps, this time," Caesar replies, indicating that this initial riot will not be the last attempt. This response further contextualizes the race riots in America: they exist not as separate, individual, isolated incidents of rampant lawlessness...but as organized, necessary steps along the pathway from slavery to freedom, to total equality.

I realize it is controversial to equate a science-fiction film about "apes" to the Black experience in American history, yet that's precisely the comparison Conquest of the Planet of the Apes forges, as I hope the images in this post, and my contextual examples, reveal. The result is an incendiary, subversive and endlessly intelligent film; one that asks us to gaze at what Caesar calls a myth: "the ideas that human beings are kind."

Like District 9 (2009), Conquest of The Planet of the Apes judges man by the way he treats those populations he controls or dominates. Namely the slaves, the minorities, the immigrants, or the ethnic "others."

In both films, there's an implied warning to entrenched power (one made much more overt in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes):

The tables can be turned. Or worse, over-turned...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

ACEFEST 2010: Judge Muir!

The New York Press made the announcement recently, so now I can share the news here too: I've accepted the invitation to serve as a judge at the upcoming ACEFEST 2010 Film Festival in NYC.

This is the film festival's fifth year, and the event will be held from August 20th through 28th, 2010. Tickets go on sale, Monday July 12th at 11:00 am.

Here's a snippet from the New York Press article involving the festival and, in particular, the selection of the judges:

The judging panel consists of 14 film experts including Emmy-award winning visual effects guru Ben Grossmann and Splinterheads director Brant Sersen. The panel’s talent pool is deep and diversified and they have all been called upon for their specific expertise because this year ACEFEST is trying something new with their judging process.

“For the past few years, we’ve pretty much taken anyone who’s interested in the judging within reason,” O’Malley said. “If they had any sort of notable resume, they were in. This year we tried something different. We very specifically made categories which we wanted to fill with judges. Categories such as performance, directing, special effects, cinematography and writing. Then we set out to fill those particular categories with judges. They’re all looking with an open eye at everything they see of course, but they’re all accomplished experts in their fields. They’ve seen it all. They’ve done it all. It’s going to be very interesting what they bring to the table this year because - I guess for lack of a better term -we got more organized. It was less of a free-for-all with our judging panel.”

And O’Malley expects the judges to have their work cut out for them if the caliber of submissions, which start being accepted Jan. 11, are on par with prior years.

I must say, I'm really looking forward to this gig with tremendous excitement. I can't wait to see all the films; and I hope that all you independent filmmakers out there get signed up for the competition. To learn more about ACEFEST (and the film submission process), click here.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Coming in February: The House Between Soundtrack CD

In February, to kick off the fourth anniversary of the premiere of my independent, sci-fi web series The House Between (which has twice been nominated for "Best Web Production" by Airlock Alpha/Sy Fy Portal...), the official series soundtrack is being released.

Above, you can see some of the beautiful CD artwork created by talented Kim Breeding. The CD itself features every prominent cue and composition from all three seasons of The House Between as written and performed by maestros Mateo Latosa and Cesar Gallegos. And as an added bonus, the CD also includes Kim's haunting "The House Between" song, featured in the episodes "Settled" and "Ruined." I'll provide ordering information here as soon as it becomes available.

Also coming in 2010: a re-edited, re-mastered Complete First Season DVD release of The House Between. More on that exciting project as the time nears.

Meanwhile, if you haven't checked out The House Between, you can still catch the original Internet broadcast episodes for a limited time at Veoh, or at The House Between smart hub.

Monday, January 18, 2010


Victor Hugo once wrote that "the greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves or rather loved in spite of ourselves.”

Now imagine a world in which you carry such great happiness and love in your heart, only to discover one day....that it's not true. Or more accurately, that it's not yours. Rather it is an illusion, and the love you carry is but the "property" of someone else, another individual.

In vague terms (in case you haven't seen the movie), that's the crux of the understated and haunting Moon (2009), a hard science-fiction film starring Sam Rockwell, written by Nathan Parker, and directed by Duncan Jones.

Moon is set in the near future, primarily on a moon base called Sarang that is busy producing Helium-3, the miraculous new energy source needed down here on Earth.

Manning Moon base Sarang is one lonely, strung-out astronaut, Sam Bell (Rockwell). Sam is rapidly nearing the end of his three year contract, growing a little loopy from passing the hours alone, and he spends much of his day chatting with the base's ambulatory computer/robot, Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey).

But Sam longs to return home to his beautiful wife, Tess, who periodically sends him recorded video messages. Sam also has a beautiful little daughter, Eve, that he misses desperately. In two short weeks, he can resume his life with them, he believes. That's the only thing he is holding onto.

Sam is so excited about returning to his family that he ignores some odd events going on around him. Like the fact that the large diorama/model he's worked on for 938 hours was actually begun before he arrived at the base. Sam also ignores the phantasm of the girl in the yellow dress, and jolting video images of himself that seem to sparkle to life and then vanish on his view screen without rhyme or reason. He doesn't seem to worry much, either, that he can never, ever get a live feed transmission back to planet Earth.

Then, one day, there's an accident on the lunar surface involving one of the powerful energy harvesters. Sam is injured in a lunar rover and suddenly things really take a turn for the truly weird. Somehow, Sam is returned safely to Sarang's infirmary. Who rescued him? How did he get there? Why can't he remember the specifics of the accident?

Upon recuperation, Sam overhears Gerty talking to officials of the LUNAR Corp. in hushed, conspiratorial tones...even though supposedly there's no available live feed to Earth. Then the officials abruptly decide to send a rescue mission to recover Sam before his tour of duty is over. Why? What is the real reason the enigmatic "Eliza" rescue team is moon bound?

Finally, Sam meets someone on the lunar surface, in the wreck of the lunar rover, and comes to realize that he's been a patsy in someone else's game for a long time. That reality is nothing like he had imagined it to be.

I don't want to give away too much more about Moon's plot except to say that it is fascinating, and lives up to Outland's (1981) famous ad-line: "Even in space, the ultimate enemy is still Man."

And that allusion to an older science fiction film -- one set on a moon base orbiting Jupiter -- leads nicely into a discussion of Moon as dedicated homage to the outer space film tradition of the late 1960s-early 1980s.

I'm not talking about the swashbuckling Star Wars "adventure" tradition here, but something else entirely: the sort of "man alone"-confronting-the-mysteries-of-existence tradition. These are films and TV installments that focus on the details of our near-future space "tech" or hardware, but also on the condition and future of the man who operates it. It's not the holodeck/transporter room/bumpy-headed tradition of latter-day Star Trek, either (not that there's anything wrong with that...). But here, life in space is extremely difficult, and one little mistake means instant death.

Accordingly, Moon references a number of respected older productions. Alone on his job, going slightly bonkers, Sam might well be Bruce Dern's Freeman Lowell in Douglas Trumball's Silent Running (1972). There, Dern's character -- the only human aboard an agro-freighter called The Valley Forge -- had just three drones (Huey, Dewey and Louie) to converse with and play poker with. Here Sam has the company only of Gerty. Dern's character was also put in the position of disobeying orders and attempting an escape of sorts. Sam's journey mirrors that aspect of Silent Running too.

There's also a reference in Moon to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Remember the scene in Kubrick's masterpiece which featured Dr. Floyd arriving on the space station and telephoning home to wish his daughter a happy birthday? There's a recorded birthday call between Sam and his daughter here too. It's interesting how the same idea is re-purposed in an original way by Jones. In 2001, the phone call represented a marvel of communication: a way for humans to stay close across vast distances. In Moon, the call represents the opposite: Sam's distance from his family. The recorded message allows no real back-and-forth. It's only a reminder of what's lost: real-time contact between father and daughter.

And, viewers familiar with Outland (1981) will instantly recognize the over sized, digital countdown clock ticking away to the "rescue" shuttle's arrival at Sarang. A similar clock counted down the arrival of a supply shuttle at Io in the older film. But that Outland shuttle was really carrying a team of assassins to murder troublesome Marshal O'Neil (Sean Connery). Likewise, the countdown clock serves the same purpose in Moon: building suspense, and carrying assassins bent on murdering poor Sam. In both cases, an individual (O'Neil or Sam) has stepped out of the prescribed order, learned a secret, and must be dealt with before the population at large discovers the hidden truth. There are even some similarities in shuttle design in the two pictures.

Right down to the smallest details, Moon echoes the outer space thrillers of yesteryear. One Purina-style logo on the computers comes right out of Alien (1979), as does the frequent talk of work "contracts." Also, the company LUNAR -- which runs the moon base -- is of English/Asian origin, just like nefarious Weyland-Yutani. And Sam's discovery of a body on the lunar surface -- wiping ice away from the face plate of a space suit -- also refers back to a haunting image from the classic Space:1999 (1975-1977) episode titled "Another Time, Another Place," and it's actually the same discovery: the horrifying vision of a corpse that can't possibly be a corpse. In that Johnny Byrne episode of Space:1999, the discovery involved alternate worlds and alternate selves. Moon boasts a resonance of the latter element.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the film's plot and resolution comes around to echo Blade Runner's (1982) central theme; and idea of man playing God with living beings who feel, think...and love. Mankind tampering with life-spans, memories and emotions.

What I found so consistently intriguing and delightful about Moon is that although it indeed alludes to all these great productions of the late 1960s-1980s, it isn't a remake, a re-boot, a re-imagination, a "brand" or a sequel. While cleverly aping the austere, minimalist visual style of 2001, Silent Running and Space: 1999, director Jones nonetheless weaves an original and thoughtful narrative.

It's one that -- like Silent Running, Solaris, Blade Runner, etc. -- asks important questions about what it means to be a human being. And it questions whether love is something we can transfer -- perhaps through osmosis, perhaps through programming, perhaps through cloning -- to our creations.

Gerty is one answer to that question. Jones teases us throughout the film that Gerty (a robot with a 1970s yellow smiley face screen...) may be as secretive and manipulative as Kubrick's HAL 9000. The truth is somewhat different...and ultimately affecting.

Gerty lives up to his programming, but it's implicit that he's doing something more than that as well. That he boasts an emotional bond with Sam that goes well beyond company directives and protocols. I mean, the robot understands the concept of self-sacrifice. Moon seems to suggest that man and machine, clone and robot, are more than the sum of their "constructed" parts. When we dismiss such things out of hand, it makes us all...less human

Interestingly, Moon opens by explaining that we have conquered our energy problems. A voice over narration informs the audience "there was a time when energy was a dirty word," for instance. But after optimistic talk of this great breakthrough, it then it goes on to tell Sam's story; a story of a corporation that has made moral compromises to achieve that breakthrough. A Space:1999 episode of the 1970s ("Dragon's Domain") noted that "space adventuring is terribly expensive" and that "the opportunities" come "one at a time." Moon acknowledges that reality: watching the bottom line, LUNAR has assured that no humans will die on the moon; and that no interruption of the energy flow will occur either. But the way the corporation has achieved this end is both deceitful and immoral.

Moon is a sturdy, introspective, intelligent meditation on the near-future trajectory of humanity. When we go to the stars, how will we treat the men and women who represent the vanguard? How will we replace people who are injured? How will we assure that those astronauts remain psychologically sound during long durations alone, isolated? Moon finds answers -- and it also finds pitfalls -- in LUNAR's solutions.

The film is not a shoot-em-up, it is not a blockbuster, and it is not a crowd-pleaser. The location may be space, but the approach is entirely human; entirely grounded. The last film that attempted this alchemy was Solaris (2002), and I remember how vehemently modern audiences hated, hated, hated it. It's easier to tell a sci-if story about light sabers, drooling aliens, and rampaging robots than it is about the condition of the human heart, I suppose. By some way of thinking, Moon is even a love story: an impossible love story.

Moon is a space epic all right, but it is an emotional, intimate epic.

And no, that needn't be a contradiction in terms.

Friday, January 15, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Halloween 2 (2009)

"Hell is a teenage girl."

-- Anita "Needy" (Amanda Seyfried) waxes philosophical in Jennifer's Body (2009)

Well, here's a toughie...

The funny quote about teenage girls -- excerpted at the top of this review -- reflects the element I most appreciated about Jennifer's Body (2009), a bracing, black horror-comedy from writer Diablo Cody and director Karyn Kusama. 

In the spirit of that line, Jennifer's Body is droll, cynical, harsh-to-the-max, and undeniably clever. 

However, the film doesn't quite work as a horror piece, and the pervasive (if delightful politically-incorrect...) humor engenders an overall sense of distance from the material. 

Indeed, many aspects of the film's narrative are handled with such kookiness that the viewer ends up feeling wholly removed from the characters and their dilemmas. Some viewers may interpret this sense of distance from the nuts-and-bolts horror aspects of the film as actually making fun of the genre. Which probably explains why so many horror-conscious critics panned Jennifer's Body. Some viewed the piece as a slap in the face. And they may have a point: for horror to work well, it can't be scatter shot and inconsistent; you can't just throw anything and everything at the screen and hope it all sticks (unless you're Sam Raimi engineering a blood flood).

Yet, Jennifer's Body boasts something I find infinitely valuable in horror films: a distinctive world original voice. Too many horror movies today rely on recycled world-views and conventional wisdom, and Jennifer's Body, for all the flaws it plainly evidences is determinedly different. Although it is garbed in the costume of a horror film, the movie's purpose is plainly satire in the mold of Juvenal, meaning it is contemptuous, abrasive, savage and in-your-face.

Personally, I wholeheartedly approve of that.

Here, the target is America's high school culture and the changes mores of our young people. Specifically, the film involves a floundering, obscure indie band, Low Shoulder, that can't make it big and thus resorts to Satanism for dummies to achieve fifteen minutes of fame. Such Satanism requires the sacrifice of a virgin, only the band can't find one...

Surely, this is exactly how Ashlee Simpson, Paris Hilton, the Gosselins and other non-talents achieved their place in the spotlight...right?

Rather daringly, Jennifer's Body also contemptuously gazes at our society's tendency to first rubberneck at human disaster; and then move on with touchy-feely, popcorn platitudes and mock catharsis. We saw it after Columbine; we saw it after 9/11 too. Between endless, exploitative footage of bloodied students at a high school shooting or the Twin Towers falling down, the news networks spouted truisms about "faith," "American strength," traditional values," etc. We were thus permitted to gawk at tragedy, and then turn around and feel good about ourselves. Yay us!

In Jennifer's Body, Cody comments on one town's "tragedy boner" after a tragic bar fire (brought on by the Satanists' agenda), and the media's obsession with the least until another tragedy comes along. Then, when it's time for someone else's fifteen minutes of fame, "sorrow" proves to be "last week's emotion" in the town of Devil's Kettle. The movie even delves into the strange myths that the media creates and perpetuates during such national tragedies. Remember how CNN reported on a non-existent Trench coat Mafia at Columbine? Or told us how one brave Christian girl dared to tell the Columbine killers she believed in God before she was shot? Pure fiction both. Here, the pure fiction is that the band Low Shoulder bravely rescued townspeople from the fire. Of course, this myth just makes the performers that much more famous. They even give the tragedy a theme song...

Jennifer's Body
 also gazes at our society's disturbing trend of sexualizing younger and younger females; the way that attire, pop music, and societal expectations transform adolescent girls into powerful objects of male sexual desire. That's almost precisely what vapid Jennifer (Megan Fox) becomes after becoming inhabited by a demon.

Only this sex object bites back.

In the end, when some of Jennifer's power (not the evil part, I guess..) is transplanted into nerdy Anita, the movie provides an unmistakable message of female empowerment; a taking back and controlling of the mini-skirted, skinny, bare-midriff Bratz/Britney Spears image society relentlessly forces on our young girls. If you think I'm making too much of this trend, go to any Target or Wal Mart store and just take a gander at the clothes being designed and marketed to ten year old girls. You won't doubt me. It makes me glad I'm raising a boy, not a girl. (And hell, I'm a liberal...)

Jennifer Body's secret weapon is Megan Fox, who -- let's face it -- has been a willing vehicle for the exploitation of the young female form in pop culture cinema. As such, she's perfect in the role of wolf in sheep's clothing. Only Nixon could go to China, and all that. And I'll say this for any doubters: Fox can act. Her performance here is quite accomplished because it takes the material at face value and doesn't camp it up, which would have been disastrous. Instead, Fox cheerily spouts the most cynical, filthy, sexual dialogue you can imagine, and does it with the aura and attitude of total naivete and youth. At one point, she discusses the physical after-effects of anal sex with the wondrous, guilelessness...of a virgin; a paradoxical contradiction. When demonically possessed of voracious appetites, Fox's Jennifer is a warning to the youth-obsessed, male-dominated culture that inappropriately sexualizes these girls: be careful what you wish for.

Given the message of female empowerment and the distinctive mode of communication here (Cody's zippy, pop-culture heavy dialogue), Jennifer's Body is clearly this generation's answer to the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) -- the movie, not the TV show. And interestingly, it shares in common that old movie's central flaw: it isn't scary in the slightest. Jennifer's Body makes the terminal mistake of playing the villains and their evil plans for laughs. Rutger Hauer and Pee Wee Herman kind of camped it up in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) and the result was that the bottom fell out of the satire; the horror wasn't grounded in anything genuinely horrific. Though Fox doesn't play her villainous role in campy fashion, the movie's other villains -- a group of "emo" "Satanists with awesome hair cuts" -- are so silly, so over-the-top, so obvious, that -- again -- the bottom falls out of the movie. There's no sense of menace. Without it, the movie just kind of bops from one set-piece to another, with half-thought-out ideas taking the forefront. For instance, Anita is mildly psychic..sometimes.

I would also be remiss if I didn't point out a lesbian kiss late in the film that -- entirely contrary to the movie's thematic point --panders the male culture's interest in seeing two hot women get it on.

I understand that there's been a kind of backlash against Diablo Cody; the belief that Cody's dialogue is too hip; too glib. I disagree: the dialogue is the best thing about Jennifer's Body, in tandem with Fox's blunt delivery. This may be a matter of subjective taste, but I would rather watch a film witha distinctive (even if occasionally annoying) voice, than a cookie-cutter product extruded from the Hollywood assembly line. Finally, I'll offer this caveat: Jennifer's Body may play better a few years from now, once we've separated ourselves from this particular moment in history and can thus more easily detect the very context that Jennifer's Body satirizes.

So how's this for a guarded recommendation: Jennifer's Body is "freaktarded." It' a pretty good comedy and a pretty lousy horror film.

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...