Saturday, July 31, 2010

Images of Film -- On the Net and Unbound

Stephen Russell-Gebbett, blogger-extraordinarie at Checking on My Sausages, and MovieMan0283, another fantastic blogger at The Dancing Image, are really onto something with this widely-proliferating, imaginative meme regarding "images on film," particular images that "stand for so much of what makes Cinema such a rich and exciting medium." MovieMan's post, "In The Beginning" lays out many of the details. Thank you both.

On Thursday, I posted about images of America and America on film, after getting the tip from J.D. at Radiator Heaven. And today, I see that many other fantastic bloggers are posting galleries of the imagery that has captured their imagination over the years. I consider this high level of interest a testament to Stephen's and MovieMan's great idea, and to the way that the images from film history powerfully resonate with audiences. But also, specifically, how individual that sense is. Film -- a medium ostensibly meant for the masses -- ends up seeming particularly personal when you look through this lens.

So today, I just wanted to briefly point out to readers where a couple of new, intriguing and gorgeous galleries are up and available for viewing.

Le0pard13 at Lazy Thoughts from a Boomer has put up a lovely gallery regarding "Heroic Silhouettes" in the Cinema, and I was reminded of this post last night when I watched Book of Eli. There are some iconic heroic silhouettes in that post-apocalyptic thriller, and I think Le0pard13 is really onto something by gathering them together. Suddenly we see that these images are not chance; not coincidence...but an essential ingredient of our collective film "grammar," visual shorthand for a "hero."

Jeffrey at Beers on the Beach has assembled a gallery near and dear to my heart, given my love of all-things outer-space related. His collection is called "The Vastness of Outer Space" and highlights how filmmakers have visualized the unknowable, infinite nature of the final frontier. How do you describe the infinite? Well, filmmakers from Stanley Kubrick to Robert Wise to Ridley Scott to James Cameron have visualized the idea in memorable fashion.

Trick or Treat Pete, another blogger I really admire, has gone the horror genre route (yay!), and in artistic, dedicated fashion created a gallery at Deadly Serious to cinematic "Moments in Madness." Film is a tool which, at its best, tells us something vital about the human condition, the human psychology. And this memorable gallery is a walk on the dark side of human instability and psychosis. I love it!

Sunday Updates: Another one of my favorite bloggers, Sci-Fi Fanatic, has posted his gallery today, and just as I knew it would be, it's a dazzling and thought-provoking treat. At Musings of a Sci-Fi Fanatic, you can see "Science Fiction Images In Techni-COLOR." This is how Sci-Fi Fanatic described this lovely collection: "I love the use of color in cinema in general, but it particularly effective and fun within science fiction. It lends an image, a moment, a scene, a story, a kind of power or mood or feeling or even alienness that would be lost without its accent. Color or lighting, whether in a live action or special effects shot, enhances a picture giving it new meaning or another depth altogether." Well said, and this is a gorgeous and eclectic gallery.

Last, but never least, Will at Secure Immaturity, another blogger I have become a big fan of, presents today "Images of Reflection: Both Dark and Light." This impressive gallery focuses on portraits, on the human face, and on the light upon it. It's a great collection.

I hope you enjoy these image galleries too, and I just want to again thank J.D. for tagging me, and also Stephen and MovieMan0283, for originating and developing fascinating meme that enables all of us to view film in new, personal, and infinitely intriguing ways. Kudos!

Friday, July 30, 2010

En Garde: The Magic of the Fantasy Sword Fight

Although these days I generally live by the axiom that the pen is mightier than the sword, I experienced an epiphany on the subject of swords yesterday. Particularly sword-fighting in the movies. (and in genre movies, specifically, I guess.)

It was about four in the afternoon on Thursday, and I was playing outside with my three-year old son, Joel.

We were pelting each other with water balloons (it was like 100 degrees out...) when Joel picked up a stick -- and quite unknowingly -- began brandishing it as though it were a sword.

I picked up a stick too, and before we knew it, we were locked in a fast-moving sword fight of epic proportions...up and down my drive-way.

When Kathryn arrived home from work at about 5:00 pm, that's precisely how she found the two of us: Joel had a "sword" clutched in each hand, and was fearlessly attacking me -- whirling about -- while I cowered in a defensive posture, parrying his lunges

In that moment, I was transported back to my own distant childhood in the 1970s. I experienced a flood of memories from favorite films; ones I hadn't thought about in a very, very long time.

For instance, I recalled Saturday afternoons in hot summer, playing with a toy sword and shield, and recreating with friends the magic of Jason and the Argonauts (1963), or the thrill of the sword-fights against other fantastic Harryhausen-created monsters in the Sinbad flicks (The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad [1958] and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad [1974].)

I remembered -- surprisingly -- how my favorite Star Trek episode as a six-year old kid was actually "Day of the Dove," because it pitted Captain Kirk against Klingons...with swords. God, I can't tell you how many times my friends and I put on our Star Trek utility belts from Remco, then ended up fighting each other with swords instead of phasers....

And naturally, of course, I thought of Star Wars. George Lucas was extremely clever in the way he crafted a sci-fi variation of the swashbuckling sword -- the "light saber" -- for his new cinematic universe. The 1970s was definitively the era of gun-toting, silver-screen anti-heroes like Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood) and Kojak (Telly Savalas). Accordingly, in Star Wars, swords (er...light sabers) were explicitly positioned as being "an elegant weapon for a more civilized time."

Funny, that's precisely what Star Wars was too: a throwback to another, more romantic era of Hollywood history, before anti-heroes became all the rage. Think Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) for instance. Touche, George, touche.

So anyway, I began to consider how, as a kid, many of my favorite fantasy/sci-fi movies involved sword-play in one mode or another. And then I realized that sword fighting had to absolutely be the geek equivalent to a sports obsession. I mean, just watch the amazing fight between Robin Hood and Sir Guy in that 1938 film (on a winding staircase, no less...), and you can see how the action is all about dexterity, speed, and physical grace. It's fascinating. It's a recognition of physical prowess, skill, athleticism and training... only cloaked in romantic, fantasy, and dramatic trappings. This fight is available on YouTube, but the embed is seek it out if you haven't seen it.

Now look at how the cinematic sword fight standards are re-parsed in a more modern film like The Princess Bride (1987). There, the battle between two evenly-matched opponents is an opportunity not just for physical dexterity and speed....but for razor wit as well. Yep, the sword-fight is definitively the thinking man's sports addiction. Remember the Star Wars Kid, who in a (not-so) secret moment, picked up a light saber and just went nuts...expressing his inner geek? Well, that kid took a lot of mean-spirited ribbing, but I truly believe each and everyone of us who grew up with Star Wars (and also with sword-fights on film) understands the "force" that was driving that kid to take up the sword-play.

It's not a violent impulse or anything. But to pick up a sword and lunge at your enemy...well, it's empowering, somehow. To know that all of your body is in tune -- a perfectly calibrated instrument -- and that you are moving with grace and purpose and determination; that your brain is reacting and acting with lightning fast-agility to each new certainly beats the hell out of jogging. And watching Joel yesterday, I think this love of the sword fight is genetic.

So today -- on a lazy summer day when I'm feeling slack -- I've assembled below some of my favorite cinematic sword fights to spark your own memories. I'm sure I've left quite a few battles out (I couldn't find Ash's on-the-rampart battle from Army of Darkness, alas...), but these were the ones that popped to mind. The one in Jason and the Argonauts still dazzles me: it's a meticulously-constructed, perfectly edited combination of solid film techniques. I love how it doesn't rely on quick cuts or close-shots or a jerky camera to depict the special-effects-heavy action. Instead, exhilaration comes from watching the movements, the choreography; from the sense of escalation and tension of seeing the main characters in jeopardy.

And I know people dislike The Phantom Menace (1999), but this sword duel between two Jedi and a Sith Apprentice must be one of the most dazzling in genre film history. Lucas may have gotten other things wrong, (Jar-Jar) but he certainly got this sword-play right. He's aided in no small part, I should add, by the scoring of John Williams...which still gets the blood pumping.

Anyway, here we go. If you can, watch the clips in their entirety, so you get the feel of the building momentum before each fight commences. After you're done watching, take your kids (if you got 'em) for a sword fight in the drive way.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Thanks for the Meme-ories: Images of America on Film

My friend and amazing fellow blogger, J.D. at RADIATOR HEAVEN recently tagged me regarding a meme circulating around the Inter Tubes. The meme originated with Checking on My Sausages and involves the assembly of a gallery of images (must be screen-grabs/captures...) that "stand for so much of what makes Cinema such a rich and exciting medium." J.D. selected images of isolation on his great blog, particularly from the cinema of Michael Mann. His collection is, in a word, stunning.

As per the rules of this particular meme, I've now selected my individual topic: images of America in film; particularly those that have sparked my imagination.

One of the aspects of this great country that I love the most deeply is its seemingly eternal capacity for self-reflection, self-criticism and sense of imagination about the future. In other words, we have been afforded a great freedom in this country: the freedom of our artists to express their opinion about the nation that nurtures them.

The images I have selected for this post represent the entire spectrum of positive and negative imagery, and span several decades (the late 1960s through 2009). If you read my blog with any regularity, you know my enduring theme that the technological art of film reflects "who we are;" that historical context is vitally important to an understanding and solid interpretation of any movie. Over the years, the cinema -- with startling imagery, as you can see -- has reminded us of who we are, who we can be, and what pitfalls we must avoid to build a better future.

Below are some of my favorite such film images of America and Americana. There's one still of Wall Street (The Stock Exchange...) in shambles, which is something we can certainly relate to today, in the aftermath of the Great Recession. There's also an image, circa our Bicentennial, of the "giant monster" threatening our future (hint: It's Big Oil). Another image represents patriotism, unity, and the spirit of of "Let's Roll-ism" shortly after 9/11. There's also Norman Rockwell-esque view of a wintry middle America that I've always admired, and a stirring pic that represents the death of innocence for the Boomer Generation...right in front of Old Glory. Another imnage I like very much remindsus that the future need not be bleak. That we can be caretakers of the land, of the Earth, even in the 23rd Century.

My favorite image, however, is the one showing middle America (Kansas?) experiencing an ICBM launch. The land and the farms speak of such beauty and peace, and the launches could easily be mistaken for fireworks. It seems to me, this cinematic moment captures with eloquence what we stand to lose,should the unthinkable occur. This would be a paradise lost. Amazingly, even the missile launches look gorgeous, and I think the subtle message is the paradoxical beauty of destruction. Perhaps we're addicted to it.

Anyway, here are the images.

Now, in the tradition of these Internet memes, I'm supposed to say, "Tag, You're It" to five additional blogs that I would be interested in seeing take up this challenge of capturing images that reflect film's rich and exciting possibilities and legacy.

In no particular order, I'm going to politely suggest several personal favorites: Kindertrauma, Slammed & Damned, Vault of Horror, and Zombos Closet of Horror. These are all blogs (and bloggers...) that I love, and all of them boast a distinctive sense of "vision" that I find fascinating.

Photos (Top to Bottom): Planet of the Apes (1968), Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1969), King Kong (1976), Superman 2 (1981), Gremlins (1984), Blow Out (1981), They Live (1988), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), South Park: The Movie (1999), Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008), and The Day The Earth Stood Still (2009).

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 112: The Outer Limits: "The Zanti Misfits" (1963-1964)

Imagine you're a little kid again. The year is 1963. And it's a Monday night.

You've just adjusted the channel on your (b&w) TV set to ABC. The Outer Limits is airing, and this week's "transmission" from the Control Voice involves the creepiest alien creatures you've ever seen: skittering, howling, relentless, big-eyed ants known as Zantis.

And In the final act of this Joseph Stefano-penned nightmare, the damned Zanti Misfits are EVERYWHERE.

They're crawling down walls, attacking American soldiers, and jumping -- literally -- out of the woodwork of a hotel-turned military installation in Morgue, CA.'s pretty much an unstoppable onslaught of insectoids.

In vetting this harrowing denouement, the classic TV anthology truly lives up to producer Stefano's famous mission statement: "The viewer must know the delicious and consciously-desired element of fear..." (Gary Gerani. Fantastic Television, Harmony Books, 1977, page 57).

Another story element that Stefano always insisted upon in each episode of The Outer Limits was a focus on some important aspect of "the human condition." "The Zanti Misfits," directed by Leonard Horn, lives up to this dictum too, revolving specifically around the contemporary problem of what a"civilized" society should do with its criminals.

Here, the U.S. Government is "co-erced" by the technologically-advanced alien Zantis into accepting on our soil a shipment of their extra-terrestrial criminals. The draconian Zantis are described by the teleplay as being "perfectionists" and are genetically incapable of executing their own kind, even their most heinous law-breakers.

The Zanti Misfits encounter two small-time Earth criminals, played by a very young Bruce Dern (!) and Olive Deering, upon landing in the California desert. This unexpected incident could cause the destruction of the Earth since the Zanti insist on privacy for the prisoners. And it is learned very quickly that Zanti have no qualms about killing human beings.

In the end, the Zanti escape their prison ship with their guards and overrun the town of Morgue, now the U.S. "warden" post for the prisoners. The U.S. Army and an inexperienced military historian, Stephen (Michael Tolan) fight for their lives, and it's utter chaos in the aforementioned final scene. The Zanti are finally taken out with fire, with rifles...and with good old-fashioned bug foot-stompin.'

The kind-hearted general in command of the installation (Robert Simon) fears a Zanti reprisal for this violent response from Earth men, but a transmission from the Zanti home world reveals a surprise and, indeed, some sense of relief.

"It was always our intention that you destroy them," the Ruler reveals, referring to the Zanti criminals.

In other words, the Zanti were banking on destructive human nature to resolve their problem of housing criminals. worked. As the final narration from the Control Voice points out rather trenchantly, the Zanti solution is not a human one or an in-human one. It's just a...non-human one.

What I appreciate most about The Outer Limits, and the reason why it remains worthy of extensive study and remembrance today, is the fact that each episode of the series is shot in exquisite and expressive horror-movie fashion. This episode opens, for instance, with an establishing shot of a sign reading "Restricted Area: Do Not Enter," which raises viewer anxiety and fear. What's behind the sign? What's behind the fence?

As a book-end to this mysterious opening shot, "The Zanti Misfit's" final composition reveals another sign, this one cast-off on the ground, disordered and revealing the name of the desert town: "Morgue."

Of course, the hotel and surrounding lands have been turned into a literal morgue, at least for the the sign transmits, with much gallows humor, a sense of truth. The bottom-line is that this TV drama from 1963 features, in some important ways, a deeper sense of classic film style (and film grammar) than many of the major motion pictures produced today.

In between these book-end "sign" shots, the episode finds time to orchestrate a terrific upside-down, claustrophobic of Bruce Dern surrounded by rock, expressing well the idea of death. And -- for 1963, anyway -- the Zantis are rendered pretty convincingly through stop-motion photography, especially in close-up.

I've pulled some screen-shots of these famous alien beings (probably the most famous of all Outer Limits bears...) and you can see for yourself the amazing detail on their faces, around their mouths and lips, for example. Amazingly, the Zanti are also depicted by the production as unique individuals. There's one alien criminal with facial hair ...a beard, actually. I wasn't expecting that level of differentiation in alien insects, nor so much attention to detail either.

These malevolent creatures are shot well too. Horn's camera frequently zooms-in jarringly on close-ups, and gives the audience full-on, disturbing views of these little buggers howling and complaining about their treatment and predicament. When a chase sequence in the desert is presented, -- with the Zanti pursuing Olive Deering's character -- Horn goes with a hand-held camera, and the sudden herky-jerky nature of the camera really gets the blood boiling.

I know Leonardo Di Caprio is currently working on a feature-length remake of The Twilight Zone. Well, if The Outer Limits ever gets the same silver-screen treatment, "The Zanti Misfits" would be a prime candidate for inclusion in the project. The alien villain of this installment is extremely memorable (and disgusting...) and the central scenario is tense and involving. Frankly, I still freak out a bit watching the last five minutes of this episode.

Believe me, if you watch "The Zanti Misfits" in bed and in the dark, you'll be nervously scanning the floor (and your blankets...) for signs of these nasty, malicious bugs. Recently, the great blogger Trick or Treat Pete at Deadly Serious listed "The Zanti Misfits" as one of the things that perpetually give her the willies.

I wholeheartedly occur with that assessment...

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Cult-TV Faces of: Tracy Middendorf

Monday, July 26, 2010

Defending The Indefensible: Torture Porn and Horror Today

Well, first things first. I better be more careful what I wish for.

In recent reviews here on the blog, I have lamented the "safe," mainstream nature of some 2010 Hollywood horror fare. I've even mentioned in some cases my first edict of the genre: Do the Psyche Harm.

Well, lo and behold, I've finally gotten around to screening Pascal Laugier's controversial Martyrs (2008), a movie that -- most definitively -- does the psyche harm.

The continuing controversy over that film -- re-counted in detail via the remarkably divided critical reaction -- comes down to one thread, simply: Is the film art, in the self-same tradition as The Passion of Joan of Arc? Or is it merely an ultra-gory, gratuitous example of that currently despised-genre: so-called "torture porn?"

The debate itself -- re-argued endlessly with the arrival of each new Saw or Hostel installment -- is sort of hypocritical. Some of the same genre voices who have so vociferously defended and championed the once-hated slasher movie trend of the 1980s have been among the very first to jump on the bandwagon deriding so-called torture porn.

Yet in both cases, these horror films (whether slasher or torture porn) decisively reflect what's happening in our culture, in the world itself. One can't (or at least shouldn't...) blame these contemporary movies for holding up a mirror to our contemporary beliefs, to current events, to modern mind-sets and fallacies. Sure, the torture porn films -- just like the slasher films that came before them -- abundantly feature their own brand of highs and lows. But to dismiss an entire sub-genre out of hand with an easy, negative label is to miss out on some very powerful, very worthwhile material.

You see, I'm old enough to remember when it was the the slasher film that was termed an "incitement to violence," and directors of the form (including John Carpenter and Brian De Palma) were actually called "pornographers" by the likes of journalists such as Zina Klapper, writing in Ms. Magazine.

I'm old enough to remember when Janet Maslin in The New York Times (back in 1982...) wrote of slashers: "you leave the theater convinced that the world is an ugly, violent place in which aggression is frequent and routine."

I remember when Commonweal's critic, Tom O'Brien said that Friday the 13th "literalizes the violence against women [that] feminist groups have identified as the core of pornography."

I remember when a critic I deeply admire, Roger Ebert -- who was insightful enough to recognize the social value of Last House on the Left -- opined of slasher movies (and the F13 series specifically) that they portray a world in which "the primary function of the teenagers is to be hacked to death."

He missed the point. The primary function of the teenager in the 1980s slasher film was to survive the gauntlet. To survive in a world in which the deck seemed stacked against him or her; in which Mother Nature herself -- giving cover to Jason during his bloody attacks via thunderstorms and lightning strikes -- seemed determined to snuff teenagers out. In the pervasive "apocalypse mentality" of the 1980s, when the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, James Watt said Judgement Day could well be at hand for this "last" generation, these movies -- and the slasher form itself -- had something vital to tell teenagers.

Be resourceful, and you will survive.

And yet today, these lessons of recent history seem forgotten. I see the "torture porn" genre harshly criticized, in the very tradition of these attacks on the slasher film, but without many substantive arguments as to what's actually wrong, corrupt or immoral with the form. Is it because these movies openly concern cruelty? Extreme violence? Blood and guts?

If so, when did horror lovers become so...milquetoast? The Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn't all about a simple tea party, you know.

I've written about this before, but good horror movies are all about pushing boundaries, about shattering taboos, about transgressing traditional senses of decorum, and that's what films like Hostel, Saw, the Last House on the Left remake and Martyrs spades. The question becomes: are these transgressions based purely on puerile, sadistic impulses? Or do they carry with them a higher aesthetic purpose? Do these movies tell us something critical about "who we are" right now, at this juncture in history? Is there a purpose and morality to the violence featured on screen, or is it all just bread and circuses?

The simple answer, of course -- exactly like the slasher film before it -- is that the fair-minded individual and reviewer should take each example on its own merits, and judge on a case-by-case basis. One should not paint an entire classification of horror film with one easy brush-stroke.

But at its apex, the the "torture porn" format addresses several important aspects of today's culture with cogent authority. First, it reflects the reality that the media already inundates us (on the 24-hours cable news networks) with ultra-violent images on a almost-daily basis. From government-authorized imagery of vanquished enemy corpses (Saddam's Hussein's sons) to battlefield imagery itself, we've witnessed a lot of real-life "horror" since 9/11. We've seen torture in the photographs from the Abu Ghraib scandal, and also fictional torture performed routinely by American "heroes" like Jack Bauer on 24. And the New York Times won't even use the word "torture" when it applies to the United States doing it. When we torture, it's "coercive interrogation techniques." Ex-President Bush has said he would (illegally) authorize water boarding all over again, too. To quote Bob Dole: "where's the outrage?"

I'll tell you where the outrage is: it's in the moral barometer of the horror film. If we visit torture upon others for our own reasons, is it right for other nations to visit torture upon our people, on Americans? This is the subtextual context of the Hostel films: blow back.

Even if we truly boast noble motives for torture (preserving security, sponsoring democracy across the world) does that behavior make us heroes or monsters? Well, my friends, the self-same question applies to JigSaw (Tobin Bell), a horror movie icon who also has "pure" motives for the torture he inflicts upon others. He wants to "help" them. He wants to "free them" from their demons.

In the 2009 version of The Last House on the Left, Dr. Collingwood expresses not one recrimination about his murderous actions; and that's also the official take of our government 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 in the film. 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.

And the very best of the torture porn films deal with this admittedly gruesome subject matter in a trenchant, thoughtful manner. Martyrs seems to ask, what comes after torture? What arises inside a person after such brutality?

Until we deal decisively and responsibly with what's been done in our names, for our "security," this repressed evil will bubble up and return as symptoms...certainly in our entertainment, especially our dark entertainment. This has always been so, and I submit, will continue to be so as long as horror movies exist. The form mirrors our worst fears, our darkest psychological demons. Horror can comment on our times in a way that other genres can't and don't. Love them or hate them, torture porn films fit this definition to a tee. They live up to the historical legacy of the horror format.

I guess what I'm saying is really simple: don't blame the messenger. Torture porn films may not be to your personal taste (they certainly aren't universally to mine, either...), but at the very least they have a right to exist, and more-so, are actually serving a valuable social purpose within the pop culture, at least in this age. And if it is necessary to deride these films, get to specifics. What is it about the form that is corrupt, immoral or wrong? What about these films debauches you? If you are a critic, you owe it to your audience, to your readers, to explain the "why" behind the dislike of this sub-genre.

It's always easy to bash and mock the movies that don't fit our preconceived notions of what the genre could be (just look at the universal mocking and tongue-lashing that Twilight gets from genre writers, on a daily basis.) A lot of people don't like torture porn, either and that's absolutely fine. It's not my preferred thing, as I've stated. But the form shows us where we are, and isn't, actually, you know, porn. Or if it is, I guess the slasher films were pornography too....

And I guess I'm a porno blogger...

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Now Available for Pre-Order: Nightmares in Red, White and Blue

Joseph Maddrey's horror film documentary Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film -- which Fangoria called "The Best Documentary Of Its Kind in Years" -- is now up for pre-order at, here.

The incomparable Lance Henriksen narrates, and Joe conducted great on-screen interviews with John Carpenter, George Romero, Joe Dante, Larry Cohen, Mick Garris, Tom McLoughlin, Darren Lynn Bousman, and other horror icons.

And yes, yours truly is in the show too. Check it out!

Friday, July 23, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 111: The X-Files: "Sein Und Zeit"/"Closure"

"You know, I never stop to think that the light is billions of years old by the time we see it. From the beginning of time right past us into the future. Nothing is ancient in the universe. But, maybe they are souls, Scully. Traveling through time as starlight, looking for homes..."

-Fox Mulder contemplates the night sky, and the fate of his sister Samantha, in The X-Files, "Closure."

In the epic two-part X-File presentation, "Sein Und Zeit"/"Closure," a television inside Agent Fox Mulder's motel room in Sacramento plays important imagery from the classic sci-fi film, Planet of the Apes (1968).

In particular, orangutan scientist and Protector of the Faith, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) warns the human astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) not to seek the truth about his people, about humanity.

"Don't look for it, Taylor," the simian urges. "You may not like what you find."

When asked by Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) about what Taylor will find on that mysterious shore-line stretching to the horizon, Dr. Zaius replies, cryptically, "his destiny."

This quotation from a sci-fi, cinematic landmark underlines the thematic through-line of this emotionally-affecting X-File two-parter, which aired originally on Fox TV on February 6th and February 13, 2000. Written by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz, this seventh season story very explicitly concerns the idea of "seeing."

In particular, the narrative revolves around the way that people -- even good people -- tend to see only what they desire to see. Even heroes like Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) -- who believes he is seeing through conspiracies and secrets -- tends to see the world as it conforms to his particular world-view.

This isn't a critique of Mulder so much as it is an observation about human nature. It's just how we, as thoughtful, emotional beings, operate. We all boast a personal lens (our viewpoint) through which we see and attempt to interpret the world. The X-Files remains such a memorable and valuable television series because it provides not one, but two distinctive world-views, two perspectives, in the persons of Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Mulder (David Duchovny).

But the series also pointedly tasks us, the audience, with seeking the "balance" or "truth" between those perspectives, these two "poles" of human sight and insight. We are encouraged, on one literal level, to contemplate extreme possibilities (like the existence of the paranormal or supernatural), and but then, on a deeper, metaphorical level, to consider what these possibilities mean to the characters, even to the human equation as a whole.

In other words, The X-Files deploys both its stirring and scary supernatural cases and its two very-differently-inclined heroic investigators to gaze meaningfully at the essence of our human nature. In my opinion, this is the critical element that renders the series an artistic masterpiece in the tradition of Star Trek, The Twilight Zone or other genre greats. Although not as widely popular as many other installments of the Carter series, this two-part effort reveals The X-Files at its most meaningful, and indeed, most poetic.

As is also often the case with The X-Files, "Sein Und Zeit"/"Closure" commences with reality, and with a real life event from the 1990s as context, and then beelines into the unexpected, the supernatural.

Here, the action starts in Sacramento when a cute-as-a-button, six-year old girl, Amber Lynn La Pierre, disappears from her bedroom...never to be seen alive again. Oddly, her mother disassociates from reality and pens a cryptic ransom note (through the paranormal auspices of "automatic writing.") And her father experiences a precognitive vision of the little girl's bruised corpse.

If you remember the 1990s at all, you will appreciate many of the details of this strange, macabre introduction. Jon Benet Ramsey, a six year old girl, was discovered dead in her family home in Colorado on Christmas Day, 1996. The unsolved case became a media sensation for months and even years. As late as 2006 (and the false confession by John Mark Karr), this murder was still a topic of hot debate.

Importantly, the bizarre ransom note in the Jon Benet Ramsey case, believed to be written by the late Mrs. Ramsey, opens with the same two cautionary words as the note written by Mrs. La Pierre in the X-Files episode: "Listen carefully!"

Furthermore, the victim in both cases is a six-year old girl. And in both real and fictitious cases, the parents are believed to be the perpetrators of a terrible, heinous crime; the murder of a child. There's even a connection between Amber Lynn and Jon Benet in the Christmas day trappings. At the bottom of Mrs. La Pierre's ransom note is a mystifying, holiday-themed sentence: "No one shoots at Santa Claus!"
This odd final sentence is the very clue that rouses Mulder's interest. He remember an earlier X-File in which the same sentence was also scrawled in a ransom note. Another woman, Kathy Lee Tencate (Kim Darby, of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark fame...) wrote the same words on a kidnapper's note for her "missing" son back in 1987. She is currently in prison, having confessed to his murder. But that is just a legal ploy and Ms. Tencate actually believes -- as Mulder comes to believe -- that ancient spirits called "Walk-Ins" are responsible for the disappearance of these children. That they are "old souls protecting the children" from terrible violence in this mortal coil, as depicted in the precognitive visions of the parents.

The particulars of the case are resolved at a place called "Santa's North Pole Village," a haven for a serial killer who abducts and murders children. One visitor at his tourist trap was...Amber Lynn La Pierre. She was destined to die at his hand, like too many other innocents, and the Walk-Ins spared her this terrible agony, transforming the child from matter into energy...into, poetically-speaking, "starlight."

Ultimately, however, this paranormal resolution of a murder case related to real-life isn't the point of Carter and Spotnitz's intricate and haunting tale. The narrative take a strange and unexpected turn when Mulder learns of his mother's suicide...and comes to realize that his missing sister, Samantha, may have also been taken by these Old Spirits as well.

For seven years up to this point, one of The X-Files most prominent mysteries involved Samantha and her ultimate disposition. Was Mulder's sibling abducted by aliens in 1973? Was she taken to another world? Is she still alive on another planet? Will Mulder ever be reunited with her?

This has been Mulder's continuing obsession, his white whale, and various episodes of the series have charted clues, intimated destines, and suggested possibilities. One episode even revealed the aliens harnessing Samantha clones, if I'm not mistaken.

But "Closure" suggests,Mulder has not seen the truth at all. The investigations, the trappings of the alien abduction and other bells and whistles of the case, have actively prevented him from seeing the truth.

And what is that truth? That his sister...a frightened fourteen year-old girl, for all intents and purposes died in 1979.

All Mulder's adult life, he has been chasing a ghost rather than dealing with the truth that his sister is gone. The Cigarette Smoking Man even encourages Mulder's wild goose chase. "Allow him his ignorance," he tells Scully. "It's what gives him hope."

It's a hard, human truth Mulder finally comes to countenance here, and much of this two-parter deals explicitly with our (understandable) sense of outrage and futility when innocence is corrupted, when innocence (like the innocence of Amber Lynn La Pierre or Jon Benet Ramsey) is destroyed. by human "evil." Carter and Spotnitz suggest a welcome spiritual remedy to such ugliness: Walk-Ins who take the children and spare them the pain of such destruction. But the writers also offer Mulder a sense of closure, if he will accept it. The quest for Samantha is over. Or as he realizes, he's reached "the end of the road."

What makes this sense of closure all the more emotionally affecting is that Mulder is joined in this story by a kindly psychic, Harold Piller (Anthony Heald) who lost a son to the kindly Walk-Ins, just as Mulder lost Samantha. But because Harold refuses to believe his son is dead...he can't see him. He refuses to see his boy's spirit, and acknowledge the truth, He cannot grieve, can never on, because his stubbornness won't let him. And thus he achieves the opposite of his desired goal. He remains eternally separated from the child.

Mulder attempts to sway him. "Harold, you see so much, but you refuse to see him," he says. "You refuse to let him go. But you have to let him go now, Harold. He's protected. He's in a better place. They're all in a better place. We both have to let go, Harold."

Our final view of Harold in "Closure" is a haunting one. He runs off, dedicated to finding his "truth"...which is no truth at all. He would rather chase the palatable fantasy than accept the sad reality. This is the object lesson. This could have been Mulder, forever tilting at windmills, never moving on, past the defining traumatic experience of his life.

What remains so remarkable about this X-File story is that Spotnitz and Carter successfully make the audience feel much like stubborn Harold. After seven years and over a hundred episodes, we all invested in Mulder's quest, and the possibility of a happy reunion, of Samantha's safe return. That's what we all hoped for. But this episode precludes such a happy ending, even as it grants Mulder a kind of release.

That sense of release, of catharsis, arrives in one of the most beautiful, lyrical sequences I've ever seen on a television program" a kind of perfect expression of magical, spiritual reality. By starlight, Mulder ascends a hill, accompanied by Harold's son...and sees a field where the "taken" children are at play...still innocent, forever young. There, he is reunited with his fourteen year-old sister. Shot in glowing white light, in slow-motion photography, cut to a haunting but cathartic song from Moby (called "My Weakness,") the long journey ends, and Mulder finds a degree of peace.

Yet some X-Files fans I know outright rejected this lyrical conclusion, mirroring Harold's rejection in the storyline itself. It is easier for us, often, to accept fantasy than reality . We don't have all the answers, and as Scully suggests, "we never truly know why" things happen. But, this tale reminds us, we must attempt to make our peace with the way things are. As as often the case in Chris Carter's works, he purposefully flouts expectations here in order to foster a deeper understanding of the human race. We had expected a Samantha resolution story to involve alien abduction, not, explicitly, grief, about the process of letting go.
Like Planet of the Ape's Taylor -- Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz tell us -- we may not like what we find at the end of the road. The fans are in the same boat as Taylor and Mulder: we don't want to climb that star-lit plateau and know, finally, that Samantha is gone. But it's our destiny. Just as it is every human being's destiny to grieve a loved one, and, in fact, to die.

The popular meme, endlessly repeated in the media about The X-Files, is that it is a brilliant series that stayed on the air a few years too long, and in doing so, somehow damaged its permanent legacy. I would argue, contrarily, that episodes such as "Sein Und Zeit" and "Closure" reveal the opposite is actually true.

It would have been extraordinarily easy of Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz to write a happy ending for Samantha and Fox Mulder. They probably could have done it in their sleep, actually. Mulder gets information from the Lone Gunmen that the Cigarette Smoking Man is holding Samantha for tests somewhere, and Mulder and Scully break her out. Brother and sister are reunited. Cue End Credits.

Instead, these writers pursued a more creative, artistic path and forged a tale about how difficult it is to accept our own mortality, or the mortality of loved ones. This is why human beings have that we don't have to openly acknowledge that for all of us, there is an end. Although this episode of The X-Files also promises a kind of moral hierarchy to the universe -- one in which innocence is preserved instead of destroyed -- it simultaneously acknowledges that death is an irreparable and grievous separation.

Mulder aches to "believe to understand." And in a beautifully-composed and delivered voice-over, Mulder contemplates the destruction of innocence, and human mortality:

"They said the birds refused to sing and the thermometer fell suddenly... as if God Himself had His breath stolen away. No one there dared speak aloud, as much in shame as in sorrow. They uncovered the bodies one by one. The eyes of the dead were closed as if waiting for permission to open them. Were they still dreaming of ice cream and monkey bars? Of birthday cake and no future but the afternoon? Or had their innocence been taken along with their lives, buried in the cold earth so long ago? These fates seemed too cruel, even for God to allow. Or are the tragic young born again when the world's not looking?

I want to believe so badly; in a truth beyond our own, hidden and obscured from all but the most sensitive eyes; in the endless procession of souls; in what cannot and will not be destroyed. I want to believe we are unaware of God's eternal recompense and sadness. That we cannot see His truth; that that which is born still lives and cannot be buried in the cold earth. But only waits to be born again at God's behest... where in ancient starlight we lay, in repose..."

To me, this soliloquy a perfect summation of human existence, and particularly human doubt. It's an explicit grappling with the unanswerable "why" of our lives. We want to believe in something greater, something good and kind at the end of the rainbow Why? Because, again like Taylor, we're all going to be making that trip ourselves, whether we want to or not. "Sein Und Zeit" and "Closure" get at this truth beautifully. The episodes don't hit you over the head with everything, either. For instance, in a scene featuring ghosts, there's a young, World War II era couple depicted, and without acknowledging explicitly their identities, we understand that they are Mulder's (now-reunited) parents...supporting his "quest" and his attempt to learn the truth.

I suppose what "Closure" really comes down to is the idea that we can either accept hard reality, like Mulder, or retreat into "not seeing," like Harold. Even today, I think that's particularly relevant message, globally and individually, in our culture.

We sometimes need to understand that -- in seeking answers -- we may not like what we find. Still, we need the grace to accept the truth for what it is.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 90: Rock Lords (Bandai/Tonka) (1985)

I write this post today in honor of my son, Joel, who will be four years old in a few short months.

Joel's latest toy obsession (after Transformers, after Kenner Superheroes, after Bakugan...) revolves around metamorphic creatures called "Rock Lords."

These action-figures are a spin-off from Bandai's and Tonka's successful GoBots line of the mid-1980s. In 1986, specifically, there was an animated feature film called GoBots: Battle of the Rock Lords (1986) and it involved the GoBot Guardians protecting "powerful living rocks" from the likes of Cy-Kill and the leader of the evil rocklords, named Magmar (and voiced by Telly Savalas). Margot Kidder voiced the Rock Lord queen, Solitaire, and Roddy McDowall played Nuggit, the sort of R2D2 of this particular franchise.

Now, unlike Transformers or GoBots, these Rocklords don't actually transform into vehicles...they transform At first blush, that sounds highly uninteresting and totally lacking in creativity, but Joel loves these critters with a passion. First, he loves transforming them; they're great puzzles to further develop his small motor skills.

And secondly, Joel has no problem landing his action figures in creative situations. For instance, the Rocklords transform into harmless rocks in our garden, in our flower bed, under trees, etc., and then spring into action against the bad guys. As normal-looking rocks, they're good stealth warriors, I suppose. In a four-year old world, it makes perfect, even cunning sense.

What seems indeterminate to me (though not Joel...) is what exactly these rock lords are when they aren't rocks. Are they robots? Biological organisms? What? Joel has settled firmly on the idea that they are robots...made of that "powerful living rock."

On the side of the good guys in the Rock Lord battle are the following individuals: Boulder, Crackpot, Granite, Nuggit, Marbles and Pulver-Eyes, to name a few (all-pictured).

On the side of evil is the aforementioned Magmar. His minions include Brimstone (who wields a mean battle-axe), Tombstone, and Styx-and-Stones (a two-headed monstrosity). These are all pictured as well (in the third and fourth photo).

Not pictured are the characters that Joel doesn't own yet (and are not in my crazy collection): Slimestone, Stoneheart and a few other villains. The neutral Swedes of this rock lord collection are the Rockasaurs, who refuse to take sides, I suppose. The one that looks like a Pterodactyl is called "Terra-Roc." (pictured with the villains.)

The fascinating thing about the Rock Lords line is that there are apparently class differences at work in the "rock" culture. There's a whole subset of these guys from the planet Quartex called Jewel Lords (with names like Solitaire, and Flamestone), and another subset of "Fossil Lords" as well. These variations are difficult to find...and really, really expensive. But Joel really wants them and encourages me to spend my free-time haunting E-Bay while he watches videos of Tom and Jerry and You Tube. So I'm either the best father or the worst, not sure which...

In addition to action figures and vehicles, the Rock Lords were merchandised in the 1980s with other neat collectibles. For instance, there was a lunch box, and a coloring book from Golden (which I snagged on E-bay too for Joel.)

For the curious: here's a sample of the Rock Lords movie:

And here's a Tonka Rock Lords toy commercial from the 1980s:

The Future Just Got More Fantastic...

From TVShows on DVD: Following their very well-received The Prisoner Blu-ray release last fall, A&E Home Video is preparing a high-def Blu-ray Disc version of Space: 1999 - Season 1. is taking pre-orders now...for a 6-disc set that the box cover describes as "complete, uncut and restored in high definition".

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Cult-TV Faces of: David Duchovny

Monday, July 19, 2010

Once You Are in Hell, Only the Devil Can Help You Out: The Tao of Jigsaw

Without a doubt, the most prominent silver screen bogeyman of the last decade is John Kramer, or Jigsaw (Tobin Bell).

This memorable horror villain has headlined a whopping six franchise feature films spanning the years 2004 to 2009, with a seventh Saw installment on the way (in 3-D) soon.

Much like historical cinematic bogeymen such as Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, and Hannibal Lecter, Jigsaw's very nature informs us about ourselves; about the things occurring in our world during his terrifying reign from Saw (2004) through Saw VI (2009).

The first important thing to understand about John Kramer is that he is a man who has known personal hardship. John's unborn child died in the womb when a weaselly drug addict named Cecil (Billy Otis) slammed a door into the belly of the expectant mother, John's wife, Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell).

If that tragedy wasn't sufficient suffering for one man to endure, John Kramer also weathered a terrifying car accident and the associated, bloody injuries, and -- finally -- was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. In some ways, John Kramer has been made to suffer more -- and in a shorter span -- than the Old Testament's Job. Like that Biblical character, Kramer was once a prosperous, happy man. But he was tested by -- if not God -- then certainly life.

Instead of surrendering to his enduring pain and loss, John Kramer selected another path. Sick and dying, he began to see that all those supposedly "healthy" people around him did not cherish they lives; that they were ungrateful for all they had.

So John set about to test these ungrateful, unaware people in the most painful, life-threatening manners possible. These tests or "traps" (or "games," as John Kramer terms them) comprise the gory, body-annihilating set-pieces of the Saw series. Each game is introduced with Jigsaw's euphemistic opener, "I want to play a game," and usually ends with a simple "game over."

Contextually, Jigsaw's flesh-rending, trademark games represent the crucible through which these ungrateful individuals must face their crimes, their weaknesses, their oversights, and their mistakes. In keeping with the post-9/11 context of the Saw films, nobody gets off scot-free, without losing something (usually a limb or other body part...).

For example, Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes) in Saw (2004) -- who has been unfaithful to his wife -- loses a foot to rescue his family. A predatory lender in Saw VI (2009) must hack off her own arm to survive, giving up a literal pound of flesh.

Interestingly, those victims/player who do endure through Jigsaw's bloody gauntlet may also arrive somewhere special in terms of understanding: at the same destination, in fact, as their secret guru, their anonymous teacher, John Kramer.

In other words, they come to appreciate life all the more for their harrowing journey. Jigsaw's mantra, "Cherish Your Life" becomes a phrase to live by.

I hasten to add, this is not a small lesson in the Age of Terror. We should cherish our lives, the Saw movies remind us, because easy, happy, seemingly-eternal continuance isn't a given. As an ex-President is fond of reminding us, "oceans can't protect us anymore." Government can't protect us, either, as Hurricane Katrina and the BP Oil Spill have proven. Life can be taken away in a heartbeat, even in modern America. That's an essential part of the human experience, despite our affluent, technological culture.

The Saw movies actually concern several entangled, interconnected aspects of American politics in the 2000s. There is blowback: a repayment for bad deeds by a wronged person; certainly a metaphor for what some people might deem imperialist foreign policy leading up to 9/11.

There is also the reckoning that comes from surviving an absolutely destructive, horrifying, and traumatic event, like the 9/11 attack itself. That attack (and Katrina, etc.) remind us how lucky we are to be alive. How the bell could have tolled for us; or for our own beloved family members in such a crisis.

And most importantly, perhaps, there is the hypocrisy of personal judgment imposed on other people. What elevates Jigsaw to the realm of villain and bogeyman-- and not merely a righteous moral avenger -- is the fact that he forces his belief system on others. He believes he knows the answers, that he knows the "right way" and that others must follow those ways so they can function on his "higher" moral level. This is self-righteous and intrusive in the extreme, yet Jigsaw sees his actions simply as helping people.

In other words, Jigsaw imposes upon his victims "games" in which they must specifically choose between two pre-arranged alternatives. Yes, they may learn from the horrifying experience. But the fact that they must learn at all is a result of Kramer's actions, no matter how John chooses to see it or rationalize it.

Jigsaw remains popular, I submit, because people of all political persuasions can interpret his behavior as being either Bush-like (pre-emptively forcing his will on others because he believes God wants him to; that he is on a holy mission) or Obama-like (legislating new social order from the bully pulpit).

I'll stay out of that particular argument...but I submit a case could likely be made from either end of the spectrum.

Finally, the Saw films boast another important and timely quality. They are unbelievably gory. Saw III (my choice for the best film in the cycle) is probably the most effectively gory film I've ever seen. By that, I mean simply that the movie boasts a powerful emotional impact, and isn't just a display of spaghetti special effects for shock and awe. This quality too is a product of our times. In the 2000s, Americans saw the bloody corpses of Uday and Qusay Hussein on cable television, photographs of prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib, news footage of American corpses hanged and burned to cinders in Iraq, and even a contractor decapitated by Al Qaeda, on the Net. You want to complain about "torture porn?" Don't point at the Saw films as devilish culprits (they merely reflect what's happening in our culture), point out the mainstream media for playing such ghastly images on a seemingly endless loop, day in and day out.

Given all this pertinent historical context, let's now play a game ourselves. Let's enumerate the most important qualities of this particular silver screen "monster," or the Tao of Jigsaw.

1.) He understands that "The Knowledge of Death changes everything."

Because of his own personal experiences, Jigsaw has come to understand what truly matters in life.

It's not wealth. It's not material belongings. It's personal morality;

It's the way we treat each other in this life. As strange as it sounds, many of Jigsaw's games are designed to foster that understanding.

Because Jigsaw has accepted his own death, he has no fear, no desire for possessions, no need to gain further power or prominence in the culture. Instead, he uses the knowledge of death to "see" other people as they truly are, and pinpoint and expose their faults.

It was never done in the Saw films, but it would have been truly interesting to see John's self-righteous moral lens turned on himself; to see someone else at the same plateau of "higher" morality judge him. His students, Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith) and Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) accept his dictates almost mindlessly; and other characters, such as Kerry (Dina Meyer) and Rigg (Lyriq Bent) reject him out of hand, considering him simply a criminal to be caught. Who judges the judge?

2.) He picks the right tool for the right job. Or, the punishment fits the crime.

Jigsaw is fiendishly clever and yet amazingly insightful in the manner he selects his victim's deadly "games." The games almost universally have something to do with the victim's bad behavior.

A corrupt cop, Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) is positioned by rope over a melting ice cube of considerable size, for instance, a metaphor for his "slippery" moral behavior on the job, in
Saw IV. When the ice melts...he will hang.

In Saw III, Jigsaw makes an abused woman's continued survival dependent on the physical separation from her abuser (her husband). They are both impaled on long spikes, but the beaten-down woman can pull herself off...and kill her spouse in the process. In other words, this woman must release herself from the shackles of co-dependency, instead of going back to the man that hurts her. Again. She can either die with him, or establish independence in a...pointed fashion.

In Saw VI, a slimy health insurance agent, Will (Peter Outerbridge) mercilessly chooses every day which strangers should live and die according to business, according to health insurance policy "rules." He issues death sentences with an eye not towards morality, but towards the company's bottom line. Jigsaw understands this, and thus makes Will's behavior on the job personal. In his deadly game, William must choose from among his friends, family and co-workers who should live and who should die. He suddenly sees the emotional underpinnings of his policy choices clearly.

Even Amanda's ghoulish game in Saw -- which involves a helmet that will literally rip her face apart -- seems to fit the nature of her individual personal demons. She is a junkie. She puts poison into her body on a regular basis. Amanda cares so little for her "temple," apparently, that she is willing to destroy it. Accordingly, Jigsaw provides a game which requires her to protect it from total destruction; the very opposite of her typical behavior.

3.) He understands that we're all "connected."

We're all in this life together. We are all citizens of the planet Earth. Ocean may separate us, but we are all of one globe.

Jigsaw understands that all human beings are "connected" through our choices, and attempts to teach this lesson to his victims.

In Saw V, Jigsaw arranges a game for five co-conspirators involved in a real-estate swindle. All five of the people enmeshed in this "deal" were looking out only for themselves; only for their own bottom-line. The end result is that several homeless people died in a fire they caused. They were so busy looking out for their percentage, they forgot the human equation. They committed murder because lining their pockets was more important.

Accordingly, Jigsaw lands all five conspirators in a game in which one person's fate dictates everybody's fate. The five people-- like we citizens of Planet Earth -- are connected. And if they learn their lesson -- if they realize the nature of this connection -- they will survive with minimal carnage and bodily harm. If they don't realize this, if they only look out for themselves, there can be no winner. Everyone will die.

In essence, this is an environmental message. We share the Earth. We either treat it right so we all can enjoy it, or we risk losing the whole game for everybody.

4.) He knows that immortality exists not in continued survival, but in the children.

Jigsaw, John Kramer, knows that he is going to die. He knows that the body weakens, and that life ends. He is not immortal.

Throughout the Saw films, then, he takes on multiple apprentices, "spiritual" children who can learn what he knows, and follow in his fatherly footsteps. These children are Amanda, Hoffman and Rigg.

Some of John's heirs prove disappointments. Rigg is a failed student. He is shown Jigsaw's way...but never takes to it.

Amanda and Hoffman both very soon prove to be more sadistic and less fair-minded than John (who believes that "everyone deserves a second chance"). Specifically, it is always possible for victims to survive one of John's games, if they play well, if they choose correctly. There is escape if the lesson is learned and understood, and understanding is demonstrated to the game master.

In Amanda and Hoffman's games -- as Detective Kerry learns the hard way -- the deck is stacked. There is only death and annihilation at the end of the contest, and so John's brand of justice becomes simply "vengeance." As self-righteous as John is, at the very least he plays by the rules. His offspring do not.

Yet sometimes siblings fight (Amanda and Hoffman boast a terrible rivalry...), and sometimes children disappoint their parents...but Jigsaw knows that the future is theirs, regardless. He attempts to share his wisdom with them, even taking into account that they are not "him" and can never be "him." He is both a good and bad father, I suppose. Good, because he teaches his children how to live. Bad, because that way to live is, well, at best self-righteous, at worst evil.

In a deep (and yet exquisitely gory...) fashion, the Saw movies are deliberately all about our moral decisions, and about the way we pass judgment on others for their moral decisions. We can look at the context of the films, the years from 2004 - 2010, to glean a better understanding of the movies, but perhaps the most critical aspect of the Tao of Jigsaw is human nature itself. John Kramer -- Jigsaw -- will likely carry relevance and meaning for us so long as human nature remains unchanged.

In other words, "the games have just begun..."

Friday, July 16, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Primer (2004)

"How many times would it take, before he got it right? Three? Four? Twenty? I've decided to believe that only one more would have done it. I can almost sleep at night, if there's only one more..."

"...Slowly and methodically, he reverse-engineered a perfect moment. He took from his surroundings what was needed, and made of it something more ..."

-A frightened Abe (David Sullivan) debates the pitfalls of amateur time travel and the illusion of control in Shane Carruth's Primer.

The word primer may be defined in a couple of ways. For instance, a primer is an elementary book or text that introduces and prepares a reader for an understanding of a particular topic.

Or, a primer could be the first layer of paint applied in a project, before the final layer goes on.

Shane Carruth's award-winning, low-budget mind-bender Primer (2004) concerns two ingenious, ambitious young men in Dallas, Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth), who accidentally discover their garage workshop.

These two engineeers then proceed to play with time itself as though it were a primer, a dress-rehearsal that they can use, re-use, and practice with until they get things exactly the way they desire.

In other words, Abe and Aaron keep re-living the same incidents -- slathering on a new layer of paint, over familiar events, as it were -- certain that after five, ten, or even twenty iterations of the same event (like a party...), time will finally see things their way. They believe they can actually master a moment; control the direction of time and produce beneficial outcomes. Maybe not at all once. But eventually.

A downside is that Abe and Aaron's method of time travel may not be even remotely safe. After several sojourns back in time, the men begin to spontaneously bleed out of their ears...and they can no longer hold a pen steady when they try to write notes. Worse than the physical ramifications, however, Abe and Aaron eventually lose all trust in each other.

What if the other guy is using the time travel mechanism (a long box that seems like a coffin...) to his own personal advantage, and is keeping secrets about it?

"What's worse," asks Aaron, "
thinking you're being paranoid or knowing you should be?"

which was made for a meager $7,000 dollars, is a cinematic head-trip of the highest order. It compellingly follows two characters who are "out-of-their-depth" according to the dialogue, and places them into frightening situations in which they must debate causality, paradox, and "recursive" loops. As a consequence, Abe and Aaron promptly find themselves in a world where evidence of their sloppy time-travel handiwork is everywhere. For instance, one night the two men run into a prospective investor who has already used their "box" (the time machine) and is now in some kind of mysterious vegetative state.

Why? The reality in which this man's trip to the past (Abe and Aaron's present...) occurred no longer exists. It's been erased from Aaron and Abe. Yet the man is still present in our world, though now he never even made the trip in the first place. He's just a time-time travel byproduct...a side-effect of the process.

Time travel is described in the film "as the most important thing any living organism has ever seen," and yet Abe and Aaron hardly treat their momentous discovery with appropriate respect. They make mistakes, they break their own rules and all of existence could be at stake.

For instance, several days in a row, Abe and Aaron travel back in time several hours (the limit of their machine's capacity) and buy stocks that double in get rich quick. Similarly, Aaron fantasizes about punching his white-collar boss in the nose, and then going back in time and preventing himself from doing it. These are not exactly philanthropic endeavors.

These men are simply children who "play" at life, and believe no mistake can't be undone. All of life is just a dress-rehearsal, a primer, and there's always time to make things right on the next go-round. To state that they are both short-sighted doesn't exactly make the point. These guys are on a juvenile power trip. "We know everything, okay? We're prescient," Aaron suggests.

But Abe comes to fear the power they wield, and attempts to use a secret "fail safe" time machine to undo everything he and Aaron have done...but Aaron is, at heart, a shark, and has already anticipated Abe's second thoughts. Abe's discovery of Aaron's true nature makes for one of the film's most unsettling sequences, which plays like a commentary, perhaps, on human nature.

Although it features no action scenes, no special effects, and no name actors, Primer remains one of the most exhilarating, imaginative motion pictures I've seen in years. The film is alive with smart, overlapping dialogue and a spine-tingling sense of anticipation and fear as Abe and Aaron delver deeper into the mysteries and pitfalls of their surprise discovery. Primer is unfailingly smart, and as a rule, we movie critics never like to admit when a movie is smarter than we are.

This movie is smarter than I am.

I had to watch Primer twice to piece (most of) it together.

Well, that's not exactly true. The time travel mechanics and scientific aspects of the film are much more than "basic mechanics and heat 101," but the emotional and moral aspects of the film are plain enough for general audiences to comprehend easily on a first viewing. The film takes the audience from the thrill of inventing something new, something that could change the "world" to the disappointment that, in the wrong hands, nothing important changes. Even time travel is just another get-rich-quick-scheme, a short-cut for men who feel disenfranchised by the establishment and want to leap-frog, illicitly, into the realm of the millionaire.

In a way, time travel in Primer is almost comparable to nuclear power. Yes, it is enormously advantageous for those who wield it, but it boasts troubling side-effects. In particular, it creates byproducts that are not so desirable. In nuclear power, it's spent nuclear fuel, depleted uranium and other wastes that are created through fission. In time travel, it's unexpected consequences: people without a past or future (like the vegetative man), or a possibly murderous duplicate from a non-existent past who is locked away in the attic and trying to break free.

But what Primer does so well is this: It makes us realize that nothing is for free. There's always a cost to power, nuclear or otherwise.

Primer opens with Abe, Aaron and two other men toiling in the garage, using their expensive equipment to create something new. Anything new, really. There are shots of the men laboriously preparing envelopes at the kitchen table for prospective investors in hopes of generating interest...and a budget for their work. And there are domestic scenes here too: of a patient wife, and a new baby. The pressure to "get rich" and support the family is palpable, and so the viewer quickly becomes invested in the travails of Aaron and Abe. They don't want to be office slaves their whole life, tethered to a predictable routine in which they inevitably fail to achieve their dreams. Aaron and Abe -- both engineers -- are also facing a unique timetable of extinction. "You know what they do with engineers when they turn forty?" a technician jokes. "They take them out and shoot them..."

Since time is running short for these men to make their mark in the world (as well as their millions), time travel presents Abe and Aaron an opportunity to escape the 9-to-5 drudgery so many of us face...and yet these are clearly not the men you would want to discover time travel, accidentally or not. Accordingly, the film shifts moods many times as it races through its 78-minute running time. It goes from a feeling of giddy discovery to a fear of the unknown, to downright paranoia, and the result is that when the movie ends, you feel like you've been holding your breath the whole time. You've gone from identifying with Aaron to actively fearing him.

Primer is truly that most mythical of cinematic beasts: the sci-fi movie that fans always claim they long for and dream about. One about human nature, one featuring a brilliant script, and one that puzzles out every ramification of its premise with inspired cleverness. In every sense (and aided by Carruth's able, almost cinema-verite-style cinematography), Primer feels alarmingly real. There's nothing stereoptypically Hollywood about this movie; even the time machine device (explained in laborious, wonderful detail) looks like something created in a garage, not by a special effects wizard.

And the implications of time travel, as explained by Primer, are terrifying.

If you and your best buddy discovered time travel today, would you trust him (or her) to monkey around with all our yesterdays? Or as the movie's tag-line puts it: What happens if it actually works?

Is anyone thinking that far ahead?

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...