Thursday, September 30, 2010

Collectible of the Week: Deep Space Nine Runabout (Playmates)

My blogging buddy Will, at Secure Immaturity is running a fantastic and highly-detailed retrospective of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993 -1999) this week, and I seriously recommend you check it out.  Great stuff...and the posts make me re-visit the entire saga, especially after years away from it.  My favorite episode of the series, by the way, is "The Visitor," which is a heartbreaking and intimate story about a father and son, and eminently worthy here of a CULT TV Flashback here at some point.

Anyway, I wanted to join in all this DS9-themed fun, but find myself short of time with another book deadline looming.  Therefore, I now offer an extremely shallow post: a small pictorial of  my favorite Deep Space Nine toy: The Runabout, by Playmates Toys (circa 1994) .

Back in the roaring 1990s -- before I had one child and two mortgages -- I had money to burn and I collected everything -- and I mean everything -- Star Trek related.  I collected basically the entire Playmates Star Trek run from its inception in the early 1990s through the heyday of Star Trek: Voyager.

One of the coolest Deep Space Nine toys from this era was a "highly detailed replica" of the "Runabout Orinoco," a "passenger and cargo transport for space station DS9."  

The large craft could nicely accommodate two Playmates action figures, and had a "phaser activation button" to defend "against hostile aliens from the Gamma Quadrant." 

The Runabout also featured a "wormhole activation button," which would have really, really come in handy on certain occasions during the series.

The toy also boasted "hinged front and rear hatches" and came with "a technical blueprint."  The toy is pretty large-scale, and also a relatively accurate reflection of the miniature used on the TV series. 

My son, Joel, loves it (though he prefers the Galileo 7, for some reason...probably the flip-up missile compartment under the hood...). So yeah, mine is out of the box.  I came to a point last year -- when Joel became interested in my collection -- when I realized it was more important to me that he have fun with my toys than I preserve them "mint" in the box...untouched, but also, essentially, un-enjoyed.  Toys were made to be played with...and nothing gives me greater joy than seeing Joel enjoy them.

But overall the Runabout (Danube class) remains one my favorite Star Trek spaceship designs -- more than a shuttle but less than a starship.  In utility the Runabout was something along the lines of Space:1999 Eagle or a Space Academy Seeker -- a kitted-up ship that could navigate deep space or land easily on alien worlds.  And unlike the standard Starfleet shuttlecraft, the Runabout was a bit roomier.  I even recall a briefing/dining room area (seen in the sixth season TNG episode "Timescape").

The Runabout reflects how I prefer my space adventuring: a ship without too much firepower and personnel to rely on, so characters on the frontier had to rely on their human qualities, not phaser banks, to survive and thrive. 

Later in the DS9 run, the Runabout became less important as Sisko took command of the Borg-busting Defiant.  I love the Defiant -- an awesome ship for wartime  -- but I was sorry to see the neat, versatile Runabouts reduced so much in importance.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Arthur Penn Dead at 88

Arthur Penn, the director of one of the greatest films of all time, Bonnie & Clyde (1967) has passed away. 

The AP reports:

NEW YORK (AP) — Director Arthur Penn, a myth-maker and myth-breaker who in such classics as "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Little Big Man," refashioned movie and American history and sealed a generation's affinity for outsiders, died Tuesday night, a day after his 88th birthday.

...Penn's other films included his adaptation of "The Miracle Worker," featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Anne Bancroft; "The Missouri Breaks," an outlaw tale starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson; "Night Moves," a Los Angeles thriller featuring Gene Hackman; and "Alice's Restaurant," based on the wry Arlo Guthrie song about being turned down for the draft because he had once been fined for littering.

Although it won't likely be listed in many tributes, Penn also directed a highly-underrated horror thriller in 1987, Dead of Winter, that I have never forgotten (and always appreciated).  I saw it in a theater in Montclair, New Jersey with my Mom and Dad, and enjoyed the picture very much, especially the double performance of Mary Steenburgen and a creepy supporting turn by the great Roddy McDowall.

Bonnie & Clyde is an undisputed masterpiece, a daring blend of comedy and violence that at first romanticizes its action and then turns around -- after brilliantly making the case for the titular outlaws as heroes -- and punishes them with unbelievable, shocking violence.

And as expressively-edited and fast-paced as the classic Bonnie & Clyde remains, Alice's Restaurant was the deliberate opposite in approach: a free-wheeling, loosely-structured, loosely-plotted comedy that epitomizes the counter-culture era in America.  I love this film so much that I named one of the main characters in my series The House Between after Guthrie and his "character" in Alice's Restaurant, Arlo. 

If you were to watch Bonnie & Clyde, Dead of Winter and Alice's Restaurant, you'd get a terrific sense of Penn's versatility and talent.

Arthur Penn was really one of the greats, and I hope that film scholars and students will use the sad occasion of his passing to re-screen the director's films, and remember his prodigious talent.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Now Available: Music on Film: This is Spinal Tap

I'm proud and very excited to report that my latest film book, Music on Film: This is Spinal Tap, (Limelight Editions, 2010), is available as of today.

This book launches the Music on Film book series, a collection of small (100 -145 pages) volumes devoted to important film titles from cinema history.  

Another upcoming entry is  Music on Film: West Side Story by the great Barry Monush (Everybody's Talkin': The Top Films of 1965-1969, Screen World, etc.).  And I'm already on deadline for my second contribution to the series. 

But I just received my author copies MoF: This is Spinal Tap and the book is gorgeous, and beautifully presented. Limelight did a bang-up job.

Here's the official word on the book:

From The Publisher: In 1984, four comedians - Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Rob Reiner, and Harry Shearer - unleashed This Is Spinal Tap, the world's first "mock-rockumentary" and a joke that has lasted into the 21st century and inspired a generation of imitations.

Now, award-winning film journalist John Kenneth Muir (An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith) escorts the reader through a quarter-century of heavy metal laughs, offering a detailed history of the film's genesis and an up-close look at the reasons why this beloved rock-and-roll movie comedy has endured for so long, - and even met acceptance in the rock-and-roll culture it lampoons.

Features interview material with the cinematographer, editor, and some supporting cast members of This Is Spinal Tap as well as "King of Nostalgia" Joe Franklin.

About the Author: John Kenneth Muir (Charlotte, NC) is the author of Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest and Company (Applause, 2004) and The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia (2007). He is the creator of the independent web series The House Between, which was nominated for Best Web Production in 2007 and 2008..

If you can swing it, order your copy of Music on Film: This is Spinal Tap today!

The Cult-TV Faces of: Brock Peters (1927 - 2005)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Described in simple terms, Nicholas Meyer's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan has endured as such a popular film (and as such good Star Trek to boot) for nearly thirty years because -- at its beating heart -- it concerns the psychology of two great leaders; two larger-than-life men who take very different paths in life. 

One man, Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) exemplifies experience and, through his friends and crew mates like Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy), also wisdom.  

When Kirk doesn't acknowledge his experience, his "first best destiny," he fails.  When he remembers "why things work on a starship" -- such as relying on the advice of rational Mr. Spock -- he succeeds.  It's that simple.

The other great leader is Khan (Ricardo Montalban), a "prince" of superior resources, vast intelligence...and a soul twisted and corrupted by years and decades of obsession. 

Khan is a mirror-image of Kirk.  His ego and intelligence may be considerable, but he has little practical experience captaining a starship, and -- unlike Kirk -- he explicitly ignores the advice of his people, namely the wise-beyond-his-years Joaquin (Judson Scott).  Khan is Kirk out-of-balance, only with ten-times Kirk's strength and an unquenchable compulsion for vengeance.

Thus The Wrath of Khan is a essentially a 105-minute showdown between these two men, and a sustained, even intimate duel between their contrasting, mirror-image personal characteristics.  The spaceships and other high-tech trappings are but a colorful backdrop for what is, in essence, a very old human story. 

Above, I noted that both of these men are "larger-than-life."  Indeed, Kirk and Khan might even be described as paragons of  the human animal, and the way that the film mythologizes them, appropriately, is to connect both Kirk and Khan to the annals of human history, specifically to great literature of years and centuries past. 

Producer Harve Bennett has termed this quality Nicholas Meyer's "literate" approach to the Star Trek universe, and he's dead right. 

Again and again Meyer transmits to us important information about Kirk and Khan (and their lives) by contextualizing them in terms of great works of art such as John Milton's Paradise Lost, Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, and, of course, Herman Melville's Moby Dick

Khan's light reading: Moby Dick, King Lear and Paradise Lost.
 These particular books actually appear in the film themselves, in characters' hands and upon bookshelves. 

Passages from these books are quoted regularly by Kirk and Khan too. 

So, this is a future world deliberately linked to the present, and to the past as well.   Past is prologue,  history is real, and art tells us important things about ourselves and our human nature.

By carefully and purposefully forging this connection to the human experience as recounted through literature, The Wrath of Khan provides the audience -- citizens of the twentieth and twenty-first century -- an acute understanding of Kirk and Khan,  these "men of the future" (of the 23rd century). 

Thus these characters are not remote strangers to us. Rather they are part of a continuum of human experience (there's that word again...), and so we can ably identify with them.  We all know about Joseph Campbell and "The Hero's Journey," a template which so many films have adopted by now that ennui has become the inescapable result.

Delightfully, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan tweaks that approach.  Meyer's insistence on connecting Kirk and Khan to great literature simultaneously makes the characters sympathetic and recognizable, and elevates their tale to the realm of heroic poem.  But he doesn't walk us through all the stereotypes we now know by heart from Campbell.  He doesn't need to.

It's amazing to consider that The Wrath of Khan cost approximately one fourth of The Motion Picture (a film I resolutely admire, by the way), yet it is the lower-budged sequel that fans seem to consider "epic."  In large part this sense of grandeur is due to the explicit connections  Meyer makes with historical literature.

It was the Best of Times, it was the Worst of Times: The Heroic Poem of Admiral James T. Kirk.

A heroic entrance.
In the case of Kirk, Meyer connects the great starship captain to a dozen or so Hornblower novels of C.S. Forester written between 1937 and 1967,  and also Charles Dickens' 1859 chronicle of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities

In terms of universe and set-up, the Forester novels are likely of paramount importance.  Gene Roddenberry always stated that the tales of Captain Horatio Hornblower, an English sea captain, were instrumental in the creation of Kirk. 

To wit, Kirk and Hornblower share many common individual traits. They are both part of a benevolent military hierarchy, either the English Royal Navy or Starfleet Command.  Both are also commanding officers: "men alone" making decisions of life and death on a dangerous terrain, whether the ocean or outer space.
Seizing on the Hornblower allusion, Meyers presents Star Trek fans with the most nautical, jaunty version of the outer space mythos yet presented.   More than ever, Kirk plays the role of introvered Hornblower in The Wrath of Khan, proving an "unhappy and lonely" man with an overweening, overdeveloped "sense of duty." 

Specifically, Kirk -- now in middle age -- has accepted a post as planet-based admiral, an act of loyalty to his command structure that clashes with his personal (and sublimated) desire to once again command a starship.  "Spare me your notions of poetry Doctor, we all have our assigned duties,"  Kirk says to Dr. McCoy.

Throughout the film, the audience sees Kirk fighting this interior battle.  Should he put the needs of the command structure (Starfleet) ahead of his own personal needs (to fulfill his "first best destiny" as Enterprise's captain)?  He tries to convince himself he should, largely using his advancing age as a rationalization or excuse. 

"Galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young," he tells Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Sulu (George Takei) and Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) after the Kobayashi Maru simulation.

McCoy accurately notes that Kirk is "hiding" behind "rules and regulations" and during the events of the film, Kirk comes to understand that his experience is indeed something that is needed at sea, or rather in the final frontier.  His experience is the key to defeating a menace like Khan.

If the Hornblower saga provides Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan its nautical coloring (down to the use of a bosun in some sequences, and shots of torpedoes being launched from the ship...), A Tale of Two Cities provides the majority of the film's useful information about the enduring Kirk/Spock friendship.

In A Tale of Two Cities, two men -- Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay -- become intertwined against the volatile backdrop of the French Revolution.  Literary critics have theorized that Carton and Darnay actually form part of one larger whole: the psyche even, perhaps, of author Dickens.  In the end, Carton -- a man who has wasted his life -- goes to the guillotine and his death for "the better man," Darnay.

In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Spock is the Carton figure, going to his noble death so that Kirk -- the Darnay figure -- may live on.  Now, of course, Spock has not lived a wasted life like his literary predecessor.  Spock is a brilliant, wonderful being, no doubt. 

And yet, examined more closely, we can detect that Spock has, in some fascinating sense, "wasted" at least one important gift: his human heritage.  It was not until The Motion Picture and his encounter with V'Ger that Spock came to understand the benefits and wonders of human emotion and human friendship. 

"Jim, I should have known..." Spock admits, lamenting V'ger's inability to understand "this simple feeling" (friendship).

A Tale of Two Cities: Message, Spock?
So no, Spock's life is not a waste in the sense that Carton's surely is, but Spock has not exactly lived a full "human" life, either. 

Accordingly, both Carton and Spock sacrifice their lives for friends (Darnay and Kirk), and -- in that final act of martyrdom -- "redeem" themselves.  Carton saves a better man; and Spock makes a "human" decision to save his eminently worthy shipmates, and specifically Kirk.  In both cases, the decision to die a noble, selfless death defines these flawed men.  Sacrifice is the act which allows them both to transcend their mortal errors.

It should be noted, as well, that A Tale of Two Cities was originally titled "Recalled to Life" and ends with Carton living on, in a sense, but only in spiritual form...envisioning a future in which his noble sacrifice bears remarkable, personal fruit (the birth of Darnay's son with Lucie.)

In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Spock -- in some spiritual form (his katra...) -- goes on too.  He mind-melds with Dr. McCoy and is literally, in The Search for Spock, "recalled to life." 

But for here and now of Star Trek II, McCoy -- in the film's coda -- suggests Spock's spiritual immortality.  "He's not really dead, you know.  As long as we remember him."  

Similarly, it is not hard to imagine Spock's death as the impetus that brings Kirk together with his love, Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch) and his son, David (Merrit Buttrick).  Of course, it didn't quite turn out that way in the end, but as the events of The Wrath of Khan unfold -- before sequels set in -- it was certainly a valid speculation.

That Spock narrates Star Trek's famous introduction as a coda in The Wrath of Khan -- from beyond the grave apparently -- further enhances the idea of a "spiritual" Spock living beyond the material world (as was the case with Carton) and continuing in some "other" form.

Again, literary scholars have frequently suggested that Darnay/Carton forms a complete psyche, forms the basis for Dickens' "way" of viewing the world around him.  Likewise, Star Trek scholars have suggested the same thing about Kirk/Spock and also about Kirk/Spock/McCoy.  Specifically that -- taken as a whole -- the perspectives of Kirk and Spock (or of the aforementioned triumvirate) offer viewers a complete entity (Id/Ego/Superego) through which the world might be perceived and insightfully understood.
At film's end, a "lens" (representing Spock) is shattered.
In a beautiful touch, Kirk is given in  a pair of 400-year old spectacles, or eyeglasses, by Dr. McCoy early in the film, and we eventually see (after Khan's defeat) one "lens" shattered, broken. 

This is plainly because Spock is dead, and one of our ways of "perceiving" the universe -- one part of the Kirk/Spock psyche -- has been destroyed.  We can no longer "see" through that eye.  Kirk's glasses -- our glasses -- are damaged, and that's a great, symbolic touch.

In terms of specifics, Star Trek II is also book-ended by element of A Tale of Two Cities, with the opening and closing passages of Dickens' book proving crucial elements of the thematic undercurrents.  Near the beginning of the film, Spock gives Kirk A Tale of Two Cities for a birthday present, and Kirk reads aloud the first line.  "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

Spock's Sacrifice: It is a far better thing I do...
At film's end, as Kirk contemplates his friend's noble death/sacrifice, he recites aloud  the closing line of A Tale of Two Cities.  "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.  It is a far, far better rest I go to, than I have ever known."

Spock's sacrifice has thus resolved two problems in the narrative.  First, it has resolved Kirk's existential crisis, which is reflected in the opening, introductory quote "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," and given him a new lease on life. 

And secondly, Spock's sacrifice has resolved Spock's lifetime crisis, the fact that he "wasted" his life on the Vulcan way, instead of fully embracing his human heritage.  As I noted above, his final sacrifice (echoing clearly Carton's) erases the mistakes of his life span.

In life, Spock was always forced to hide and cover his human half.  He could not rest for fear of being  discovered (and taunted...) by Dr. McCoy and others.  Every day, Spock had to fear  that his cool Vulcan mask would slip and he would be exposed.  What the last line of A Tale of Two Cities suggests is that in embracing humanity -- and in embracing sacrifice/death -- Spock has done "a far better thing" than he ever did.  In death, he can finally find a "better rest" than he ever knew in worrisome life.

Surely, this is the most elegant and beautiful use of literature in a science fiction epic yet put to celluloid.  We learn everything we need to know about Spock and Kirk, and where they are emotionally and personally in their lives at this point through the book-end quotes from A Tale of Two Cities. 

Because film is primarily a visual medium, Nicholas Meyer also utilizes some terrific film grammar to make the point about Spock's sacrifice bringing a second life to his beloved friend 

In one instance, Meyer artfully cross-cuts between the birth of the Genesis Planet (forming in what's left of the Mutara Nebula) and Kirk desperately running through the corridors of his starship to say his final farewells to his old friend.  As Kirk's eulogy for Spock notes, the half-Vulcan's death "takes place in the shadow of new life." The lovely, if haunting images show us that dichotomy.

Yet it is not merely Genesis itself that represents this new life.  Spock's sacrifice is the thing that gives Kirk his second lease on life.  After Spock's sacrifice, Kirk feels "young."  He is no longer worrying about his life that "could have been...but wasn't" (as he declares with resignation in the Genesis Cave.).  Contrarily, he is musing on Spock's axiom that "there are" -- in life -- "always possibilities."

In other words, in direct defiance of Star Trek's TV-styled origins, Captain Kirk's viewpoint has changed and evolved.  He has suddenly -- for the first time in his life -- "faced death" instead of "cheating his way" out of death.  Spock has made Kirk realize just how valuable his life is; how valuable his remaining years truly are.  By facing death and acknowledging his mortality, Kirk is in a position now to no longer fear his own mortality.  At last...he can live. 

Again, I should stress that this realization would not be nearly as meaningful or resonant without the guidepost of Dickens' work; without the comparison of Kirk and Spock to Darnay and Carton and their own literary journey.

Better to Reign in Hell than Serve in Heaven: The Tragedy of Khan Noonien Singh

Better to Reign in Hell (on Ceti Alpha V) than serve in the Federation.
We have seen how Admiral Kirk in The Wrath of Khan is tied explicitly to the literature of Dickens and Forester.  

His opposite number, Khan, is also defined largely in terms of literature in the film.

The first such work to consider is Paradise Lost, written by John Milton in 1667. 

Mimicking the structure of Virgil's Aeneid, Paradise Lost's  numerous "books" (chapters, essentially) concern the War in Heaven and the expulsion of man from the Garden of Eden (a topic also covered in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country).

"Space Seed," the Star Trek episode that introduced Khan (Montalban), ended with the former tyrant happy to go into exile, far away from the "paradise" or Heaven-like utopia of the United Federation of Planets.  Specifically, Khan asked Kirk if he had ever read Milton.  After Khan's departure, Kirk quoted Lucifer's famous line from Milton -- upon being cast into the fiery lake of Tartarus -- that it was "better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven."

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan dramatically furthers the comparison between Khan and Milton's fallen angel, Lucifer.   Because of a catastrophic orbital shift, Ceti Alpha V has literally become a Hell -- an arid, hot desert world populated not by demons, but "monsters" like the Ceti Eel. 

If you recall your Milton, you know that Lucifer was cast to Hell in the first place for attempting an insurrection in Heaven, and that was also Khan's crime in "Space Seed:" attempting to take command of the starship Enterprise. Kirk (as God?) cast Khan down to Hell in response to this act.

Explain it to them! Khan is Ahab and Lucifer.

Of course, that banishment was neither the end of Khan nor the end of Lucifer. 

In Book 2 of Paradise Lost, Lucifer and his "rebel angels" (the makeshift, genetically-engineered crew of the captured Reliant in this case) learn of a new world, a new Eden being formed exlusively for man. 

Once more, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan strongly reflects this idea, as Khan and his rebel followers depart from Hell (Ceti Alpha V)and make for a new "paradise" created by the Federation. This new "world" is the not-yet formed Genesis planet, a miracle of sorts -- no less than "the power of creation" -- which promises an end to "cosmic problems" such as "hunger" and "over-population."  Khan wants a stake in that new Heaven.   He wants Genesis.  Whereas Spock's sacrifice gives Kirk a new beginning, Khan seems to believe that the Genesis Device can literally give him a similar second chance, an opportunity to rule a world of his own making.

On a general level then, Khan is to Lucifer as Kirk is to Hornblower.  Khan and Satan are both tragic who have lost everything.  They are both depicted as charismatic, magnetic personalities who are highly narcissistic and overconfident. 

It is also frequently stated that Hell is so painful a place because those doomed to eternity  there must cope with the enduring "absence of God."  Khan seems to bear a grudge against Captain Kirk, similarly, because of Kirk's absence over fifteen years.  "Admiral Kirk never bothered to check on our progess," he notes with anger.

In very specific terms, Khan is also a reflection of the Captain Ahab character in Herman Melville's great American novel of 1851, Moby Dick

As you will recall, that book told the story of a wanderer named Ishmael, and his fateful voyage aboard the whaling ship, Pequod.  The vessel was captained by Ahab, an obsessed man who had lost one of his very limbs (a leg...) to his hated  nemesis, a white whale.  As Ishmael soon learned, Ahab was obsessed with hunting down and delivering his revenge upon that the cost of everything else.

On no less than three occasions in Star Trek II, Khan recites or echoes dialogue from Moby Dick, specifically Ahab's dialogue. 

In the first instance, Khan  charts his obsession.  "I'll chase him around the Moons of Nibia and round the Antares maelstrom, and around Perdition's flames before I give him up," he tells Joaquin.

In Moby Dick, in Chapter 36, Ahab had similarly said of Moby Dick: "I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round Perdition's flames before I give him up."

No further explanation needed there.

In the second instance, Khan spies the Enterprise (limping away to the Mutara Nebula) and shouts.  "There she is!  There she is!  Not so wounded as we were led to believe...

In this case, Khan's excited utterance is a deliberate echo of Ahab's more ocean-bound exclamation "Thar she blows! Thar she blows!"  In both cases, the point of obsession (Enterprise or white whale) is visually recognized, and the final pursuit engaged.

Finally, upon Khan's looming death, he willfully quotes Ahab's last, vile words in Melville's novel.  "To the last, I grapple with thee; from Hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee." 

Even with death approaching, Khan cannot cut loose his obsession with Kirk; as Ahab went down forever attached to his quarry, the white whale.

What's so interesting about Khan, however, is that -- unlike Kirk, perhaps -- he quotes literature that provides a pretty negative didactic example.  He doesn't learn from it. 

If Khan truly sees himself as an Ahab figure (and certainly, both quotes lifted  from Ahab suggest that reality), then he must realize that, in life, he has been "cast" as the villain.  That's why I note above that this movie is, after a fashion, the "tragedy"of Khan Noonien Singh.  Khan knows literature well (like the Shakespeare tragedy, King Lear as well as Moby Dick), yet he is unable to escape from the orbit of that literature; from the role that fate has designated for him.  I submit this is because of guilt.  Khan must hate himself for the death of his wife almost as much as he hates Kirk.

Khan would have done well to listen to Joaquin: to take Genesis and start a new life.  But -- like Ahab -- Khan can not get over his obsession (and his guilt?).  The result of Khan's mono-maniacal compulsion to pursue a course of vengeance is the death of all his people on Reliant.   This is not a man you would want to follow, despite some attractive personal and leadership qualities. 

So, I submit, Khan knows he is a Shakespearean, Melvillian villain.  Literature tells him so. As the viewer contextualizes Khan as Ahab, so does Khan do the exact same thing.  He is willfully and deliberately playing the role of villain in the situation, invoking Hell and even Satan for his cause.  He did the same thing in "Space Seed," comparing himself to Milton's Lucifer.

We Learn by Doing. Or You Have to Learn Why Things Work on a Starship

Defeating Khan is an exercise in experience.
In regards to Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) and Sean Connery's return to the role of Bond in Never Say Never Again (1983), I wrote a lot about the idea of heroes like Kirk and 007 entering their later years. 

Some of the historical context for that idea came out of what was happening in the American public square. 

In the early 1980s, America was led by the oldest President in our history, Ronald Reagan.  But the same era witnessed the ascent of an affluent youth culture and new modes of expression in everything from movies (with the advent of PG-13) to television with the birth of the music video "clip" on MTV.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan reflects this uneasiness and tension between age (and wisdom?) with callow youth by landing a "trained crew" (our beloved Star Trek heroes) back aboard the Enterprise, but with a trainee crew, a group of fresh-faced kits who -- as of yet -- may not be able to "steer," in Kirk's words. 

This is the Star Trek movie, we must recall, in which we first met Lt. Saavik (Kirstie Alley) and Kirk's hot-blooded young son, David Marcus (Merrit Butrick).  Before The Next Generation, they represented the next generation.

Accordingly, much of the film involves the idea that with age and experience come wisdom.  This notion is repeated again and again in The Wrath of Khan, from Kirk's reminder to Saavik in the turbo-lift that "we learn by doing," to Spock's nudging of Kirk at Enterprise's departure that "for everything there is a first time."

In the crisis with Khan -- when Saavik professes confusion at Kirk's strategy to lower Reliant's shields -- Kirk admonishes the young officer that she must learn "why" things work on a starship. This is, again, another way of stating that experience is valuable. 

And yet the conflict or tension with "youth" is present and acknowledged too.   Kirk complains after the engagement with Khan that he must "be going senile," and tells Saavik to go on "quoting regulations."

In other words, Kirk may have experience, but he hasn't yet regained his confidence. 

That comes later

Finally, Kirk ultimately defeats Khan with his experience. Spock provides his captain a cunning analysis, the bread-crumbs of a winning strategy.  Spock notes of Khan that the villain is "intelligent, but not experienced" and that his pattern (in command of Reliant) "suggests two dimensional thinking."

In other words, Kirk may be growing old, and he may need glasses (he's allergic to Retinax...), but he can still beat a physically stronger man with a "superior intellect" by remembering his history; by using his experience.  In 1980s America this was not a small thing.  People accused the young MTV generation of having a "short attention span," for instance.  In some ways, the passing of the torch and the value of experience play out in Star Trek II. 

Without, hopefully, sounding nasty or elitist, I sometimes worry that folks like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan so much  for the wrong reasons, "short attention span" reasons..   Or maybe I should just say, for shallow ones.

You know, it has space battles in it, where The Motion Picture did not.  There's also a charismatic villain in the film, unlike V'Ger in The Motion Picture.   

And truthfully, you can see how the Khan storyline, action and villain have been regurgitated unnecessarily in the Star Trek mythos repeatedly since this film proved so successful. 

Later on, Khan became the prototype for Soran, R'ualfo,  Shinzon, and Nero.  And like their illustrious predecessor, each of these pretenders to his throne came bearing a cosmic WMD (the Ribbon, tharalon weapons, Red Matter, etc.)

Truthfully, you can even watch Wrath of Khan today, and detect some of its flaws, too.  For instance, the Reliant goes to the wrong planet, mistaking Ceti Alpha V for Ceti Alpha VI. 

Talk about sloppy mission preparation!

Then there's the fact that Mr. Chekov never actually met Khan in "Space Seed," the sometimes oppressive use of TMP stock footage in terms of the special effects, and the idea that device meant to re-shape planets can actually -- absent the resources of a world -- create one.

You can argue, debate, and retcon these points to your heart's content. I know I do.  But in the final analysis a movie shouldn't have to be explained, or ever appear, on the surface, internally inconsistent.

Still, none of these issues makes the movie a failure in any way, though I always have to laugh when people nitpick The Final Frontier to death ("they got to the center of the galaxy in hours!") but then turn around and act as though Wrath of Khan is immaculate perfection in terms of technicalities.

Getting controversy out of the way: Aren't you dead?

Yet I admire The Wrath of Khan deeply and thoroughly  The death of Spock (and his goodbye to Kirk), never fails to move me.  And heck yeah, the space battles are tense, viscerally-presented set-pieces 

I also enjoy how playful the movie is, down to its acknowledgment of the real-life context surrounding it (particularly the outcry over the death of Spock).  That controversy is joked about in the text of the film itself, and the air bleeds out of it; the balloon of apprehension burst. 

One line from Shatner and a delicious, raised eyebrow from Nimoy is all it takes:  "Aren't you dead?"

I also credit The Wrath of Khan for escaping the gravitational pull of TV-thinking.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture ended with, essentially, status quo.  As Harlan Ellison famously noted in his review of that film for Starlog, the human adventure wasn't beginning...the door got slammed on it.  The guest stars perished, but otherwise, the movie's climax took the leads back to square one.  It could have been an episode in an on-going series. 

With his diabolical, wonderful and artistic sensibilities,  Meyers introduces blood, gore and mortality to the mythos in a way not previously seen. Later franchise movies continued this process with the death of David and the destruction of the Enterprise.  But as a consequence of Meyer's aesthetic sensibilities, while watching The Wrath of Khan one clearly gets the idea that the stakes are a lot higher than ever before.  I remember a review of the film stating that Khan attempted "universal armageddon" and "nearly got away with it too."  Indeed.

Since the movie, by and large, concerns Kirk's realization that he has never faced death (and never experienced the freedom that comes after facing death and putting mortality aside...), this is an appropriate aesthetic choice.  Blood spatter on Captain Kirk's uniform; an engineering trainee burned and scarred; a team of scientists hanged from a control room roof, their throats slit.  It's almost grim. 

Finally, my favorite, purely cinematic moment of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan involves Kirk's realization that there's no cheating death this time.  Meyer strings together a series of sequential zooms, to James Horner's expressive score, as Kirk asks "distance from Reliant," and Sulu -- hopelessly -- comments "we're not going to make it, are we?"

Without Spock's sacrifice, no.

That moment, with the zooms-to-close-up on Uhura, Chekov, Takei and Shatner, sells the threat in a palpable, cinematic fashion.   We have never seen such fear on the crew's faces.  We have never before experienced the team vetting a "no win scenario."  It's a beautifully orchestrated moment, and one rarely commented upon.  Meyer's insistence on blood, guts and mortality -- real stakes -- makes the moment all the powerful.  We sense that this Star Trek movie plays for keeps.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is arguably the greatest Star Trek film ever made.  Perhaps it took the death of Spock, plus a strong thematic connection to our shared human experience-- our most prized literature -- to bring forth such extreme "life...from lifelessness."

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Thriller A Day Keeps the Bogeyman Away...

If you're a fan of Boris Karloff's 1960s horror anthology Thriller (as I am...), I can highly recommend the series review site, A Thriller A Day.   In fact, I'm now officially a "follower!"

The site -- by authors Peter Enfantino and John Scoleri -- reviews a new Thriller episode each day, just as the blog title promises.

But more than that, the accomplished writers also regularly conduct interviews with the likes of Gary Gerani (who wrote the landmark TV reference book, Fantastic Television back in the 1970s...) and Steve Mitchell who produced the special features on the DVD set along with Gerani.

There are many fascinating insights about the series to be found in the interviews and the reviews, and the site is already up to Season One, Episode 19, so don't miss out. 

Friday, September 24, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Fort Apache: The Bronx (1981)

In advance of reviewing Escape from New York (1981) for J.D.'s much anticipated John Carpenter Blogathon at Radiator Heaven in October, I've been screening some American films from the same epoch that similarly portray the Big Apple as a crime-infested war-zone. 

I've already reviewed Walter Hill's fantasy comic-book The Warriors with this specific context of 1970s-1980s "urban blight"  in mind, and also  made brief mention of Wolfen (1981): a horror film that utilizes the real-life rubble of the on-the-decline Bronx as a home for shape-shifting, nomadic werewolves.

Today, I want to remember a non-genre effort from the same year as Escape from New York, Daniel Petrie's Fort Apache: The Bronx (1981), starring Paul Newman, Ken Wahl, Ed Asner, Rachel Ticotin and Pam Grier. 

Although I was only eleven when the film was first released, I still remember the widespread public controversy this film generated.   Police advocacy groups felt that Fort Apache: The Bronx was vehemently anti-cop (because it portrays Danny Aiello as an out-of-control, murdering law enforcement official...). At the same time, some people complained about the film's less-than-flattering depiction of the Bronx's Puerto Ricans and African-Americans.

Another group also widely disapproved of Daniel Petrie's film: movie critics.  The consensus of the day seemed to be that Fort Apache: the Bronx was episodic and loosely-structured...more like a regular old TV show (Hill Street Blues?) than a legitimate movie. 

In retrospect, however, it seems plain that the film's much-complained about loose narrative structure is actually its greatest strength.   Fort Apache: The Bronx  isn't a neat, canned cop movie in which a crime is presented and then solved, clue-by-clue, by heroic, investigating cops.

 Life isn't really  like that, so why should movies have to be? 

On the contrary, Fort Apache: The Bronx is an involving, slice-of-life, workaday peek into the existence of a lonely, aging cop in the Bronx -- Murphy (Newman) -- as he contends with with prostitutes, muggers, and corruption on the police force  Accordingly, the film never pushes an overly-plotted Hollywood-style narrative, and the result is a cinematic work-of-art in which the characters feel more realistic; more true, and which life (like real life...) is full of  unexpected eddies and tributaries that must be navigated.
Director Petrie makes the most of his laid-back narrative approach, never force-feeding on the audience arguments about abstract ideologies. At its heart, the film does indeed present two approaches to law enforcement -- liberal and conservative -- but both prove equally ineffective, and the movie never comes down in favor of one over the other.  Both are treated sympathetically, and both are shown to have unwanted repercussions.

Instead, Petrie is a fine observer, not a propagandist.  He consistently deploys the tenets of realistic filmmaking (authentic location shooting; deep focus long shots, and pans within the frame etc.) to chronicle the life and times of a man with great conscience, but not necessarily great courage. 

What is this, the gunfight at the OK Corral

Welcome to Fort Apache.

Fort Apache: The Bronx was filmed in the Bronx, the northern-most borough, at a time when it was in serious decline and chaos: a garbage-strewn wreck of  20th century modernity.

Specifically, a wave of arson had occurred in the late 1970s.  "The Bronx is burning," announced sportscaster Howard Cosell, famously, and in this case the crimes were believed  perpetrated by desperate landlords hoping to get their money out of failed properties and investments.  

Unemployment in the Bronx was also through-the-roof and the region saw a sudden and dramatic shrinkage of municipal support at the turn of the Carter/Reagan decade...meaning that police and firefighters were understaffed, overworked and stretched to the limit.

A police officer in Fort Apache tartly describes the Bronx of 1981 as a "40-block area with 70,000 people packed in like sardines, smelling each others' farts, [and] living like cockroaches.

He then ticks down a list of considerable problems including "youth gangs," families that have been "on welfare for three generations," "high unemployment," the "lowest income per capita" and "the largest proportion of non-English-speaking" denizens in the city. 

And the men and women policing this population? 

The "natives" grow restless.
"We've got the connivers, the slobs, the shirkers. Guys who beat up the wrong Guinea. Gave a diplomat a parking ticket. Screwed a Big Mouth Hooker.  Or shook down the wrong peddler," says Captain Dugan, in the same breath that he calls the Bronx "Siberia."

On the very day that the new captain arrives at the 41st Precinct in The Bronx (Ed Asner's Captain Connolly),  he is also informed of the office's widely-held nickname: "Fort Apache." 

This shorthand has arisen because the police officers consider the precinct to be not a police station, but rather a "fort in hostile territory." 

Historically, of course, we recall Fort Apache as the site (in Arizona) of a sustained battle of some duration between Native Americans and an American army cavalry outpost in September of 1881.  Not coincidentally, that's almost exactly a century before the action of this 1981 film.

As it happens, Connolly's (voluntary...) transfer to the Bronx occurs on the very occasion that a "cop killer" has murdered two rookies...and another battle of some duration is set to occur.  History is about to repeat itself. 

Law enforcement assumes it is "open season on cops" after the brutal double homicide, and that the murders are a deliberate political (and revolutionary...) statement against police.  Yet the truth is somewhat different...somewhat more random.  
Charlotte's (Pam Grier) web of destruction.

To wit, the fearsome, anonymous cop-killer is actually a strung-out junkie prostitute named Charlotte (Grier). 

Importantly, she boasts no rational, ideological or even racial motives for her violent crimes (she also cuts a john's throat with a razor blade in one memorable scene...).

Rather, Charlotte is simply a symbolic force of chaos; the spark that ignites an explosion of fear and retaliation throughout the Bronx.  She is a reminder in that if you live in a powder keg, motives are incidental.  One little spark...and flames erupt.

As Connolly assumes command of the 41st Precinct and deals with the specter of a cop-killing bogeyman, he orders a huge wave of  arrests.  The police bring in and book prostitutes, bookies, and other petty crooks literally by the bus-ful.  The idea is that by shaking the trees, so-to-speak, something will fall out; a clue about the identity of the cop killer.

"You're just making thing worse," third-generation cop Murphy (Newman) insists, but Connolly continues to go by the book, in the process actually escalating the tense situation.   "You're going to war," Murphy points out, again linking the situation of 1981 to the historical Fort Apache battle of 1881.

When citizens riot at the precinct to complain of the new captain's heavy-handed tactics, Connolly orders  - without compunction -- "gas 'em," firing tear gas into the crowd.  Then things really spiral out of control.

Questions of conscience at Fort Apache.
Another cop, Aiello, murders an innocent kid...throwing him off a roof. 

Murphy witnesses the crime and must wrestle with his conscience about it.  Should he report his fellow officer and risk being considered a "rat" or "stoolie?"  Or should he keep his mouth shut?

While the cop-killer case causes further trouble for the police and citizens in the Bronx, Murphy initiates a romance with a beautiful Puerto Rican nurse, Isabella (Ticotin).

To his chagrin, Murphy learns that the brilliant and loving woman also happens to be a junkie...a heroin addict.  In emotionally-wrenching terms, Isabella describes for Murphy the reason an intelligent, empathetic person might use drugs: it's like a vacation from reality for her; one that she occasionally needs just to cope with daily life in the Bronx.

As the relationship between the police force and the community it serves degenerates to violence and paranoia and Murphy grapples with his conscience, the real cop-killer, Charlotte is herself murdered by drug dealers, rolled up into a carpet, and dumped...unnoticed on a heap of trash. 

The haunting final images of the film find Murphy and his partner, Corelli (Wahl) chasing a perp through garbage-lined streets in relatively close proximity to the cop-killer's corpse...but they never see it. 

 Petrie's camera pulls back to a long shot of the chase (through garbage and societal detritus), and then pans down to the carpet and the secret within. No cutting here: the use and preservationn of space in the frame is vital and important.  By preserving the integrity of the space in his shot, Petrie reveals how everything is connected in The Bronx; how the blighted environment literally precludes the resolution of an important case.

Taken out with the trash: the cop-killer is never caught.
So the movie's major crime is not solved.  It will never be solved. 

The cop-killer case is was never more than random.  The match that lit the flame.

What is important, the film establishes in its final freeze frame, is Murphy's response to the unceasing violence and tragedy all around him.  The film freezes in mid-leap, as Murphy is about to tackle the perp, and -- echoing in some canny fashion the final, famous freeze frame of Truffaut's The 400 Blows  (1959) -- the camera beautifully expresses the essence of this particular man. 

Once a policeman, always a policeman

Law enforcement is in Murphy's blood (he's a third generation cop, we learn...), and no matter how bad things get for him -- with the community or with his brethren in blue -- he's going to keep fighting the good fight.

It may be simplistic, but that seems to be the film's ultimate point-of-view regarding law enforcement ideology.  Connolly is a hardcore hawk (a conservative), but the film does not portray him as an ogre or monster.  On the contrary, he supports Murphy and willfully roots out corruption in his department.  At one point, Asner emotionally delivers a speech about the law-abiding people who live in the Bronx and deserve the safety and protection that the law should and must provide.  He is an admirable man.

Connolly's approach is deliberately contrasted with Murphy's approach.  Murphy has been tagged as a "liberal" by his fellow officers and he believes that, given the miserable situation in the Bronx, the best way to go forward is with some level of understanding  and empathy for what this particular community deals with.  It's not necessary to bludgeon and bother the community every day, every minute...not when it is dealing with desperation, poverty and other problems.

These two men -- of vastly different stripe -- are both dedicated to protecting and serving, though they view the situation differently, and I like how the film never attempts to make either a "villain" or a "hero."  Rather, they are both pursuing a higher goal in the way they honestly believe is best, and again that strikes me as authentic and even-handed.  The final freeze frame -- of one cop in action, doing his job -- suggests the answer to such crime and poverty is individual commitment.  Personal dedication (in the form of Connolly and Murphy) -- not political agendas -- will bring better days.

"We're Living in a World We Never Made..."

No escape from the Bronx.

Fort Apache: The Bronx is an affecting film for a number of reasons, but first and foremost because the audience comes to recognize Murphy and Isabella as good, likable people.  They are not so very different from us at all. 

Accordingly, we root for the characters to succeed, and for their relationship to succeed as well.  Together, they could share some sliver of hope; of happiness.

Yet, that's not a realistic hope given where and when the characters live.  To intimate this, Petrie often shoots the film's star-crossed protagonists from behind bars as if to visually represent or symbolize their entrapment and eventual doom.

Deep focus cage.
You just know that for Murphy and Isabella, things aren't going to end well, so we consistently see them through these myriad visual "cages."   Strung-out Isabella through the panels of french doors in her apartment, for instance.  Or Murphy -- like a gorilla at the zoo -- shaking the zigg-zagged bars of the precinct windows.

It's not a world that either Isabella or Murphy made, but they are victims to its eddies and tributaries, as I wrote above.
The loneliness of the long distance cop.

In some of the best of these cage-styled  compositions, Petrie employs deep, or long focus, so we see not merely the cage and the characters trapped within....but the chaos whirling outside; the oppressive world crushing them: riots, violence, drug-dealers, etc.

Petrie also powerfully and regularly utilizes real locations in long-shots of his star, Paul Newman, navigating the streets of the Bronx.   He does so not just to foster the film's sense of authenticity or realism, but to reveal -- again -- the crushing effect of the "larger world" upon Murphy and the other characters. 

Again and again we see Murphy walking the garbage-strewn streets alone; pacing, deep in thought,  before a world of  desolation, rubble and destruction.   Society at large has abandoned this place; this "hostile" territory.

I should add that these shots are not faked; not augmented with Hollywood fakery in the slightest.  This is what the Bronx looks like in 1981 (on the centennial of the Fort Apache battle...), and in seeing it, we start to understand the suffusing sense of despair evident in the film. 

Another long shot of Murphy in the ruined Bronx.

No one should have to live or work on this blighted landscape...and yet -- if you were born there -- how do you escape it?  If you have no income to speak-of, how do you pick yourself up and just walk away from what little you own?  How do you get a job, if there are none available? 

Over and over, the surfeit of long shots on location  establish and emphasize the most dangerous "enemy" lurking in Fort Apache

That enemy is not the mad hooker murdering cops and pimps; she's just a side-effect of the environment.  The real enemy is a failed, even cursed borough, and the strange society that has grown up in it under the shadow of ubiquitous fires, pervasive violence and utter poverty.. 

The Bronx is burning.

The overall aura of Fort Apache: The Bronx is, finally, one of resignation and forbearance.  The movie assiduously observes how things are in "the moment" (Murphy's moment in 1981, specifically).  It reflects conditions on the ground, so-to-speak.  My argument about the film is that this vibe has been persistently misunderstood as lassitude; as languor or lack of energy. 

Alone again.
The loose narrative structure and the oppression of the surroundings are meant to overwhelm us (the viewer); but in some cases, critics seemed to think that they also overwhelm the film, or Petrie himself. 

I don't see that; and nor do I see the film as a collection of cliches, as others have suggested. 

By taking the "crime investigation" aspect out of the drama (and by downplaying action as much as possible), Fort Apache: The Bronx actually squeezes out many commonly-held cliches of the cop movie format, leaving audiences a plain view of a city in chaos, and the people who inhabit it.  Perhaps the movie works best as a time-capsule, then.

Fort Apache: The Bronx is a movie about a world Murphy and others in the Bronx "never made" but have to live in  and navigate every day.  They have a responsibility to make it better, and in the end, that's what the movie is about. 

The final freeze frame suggests that, at the very least, Murphy is on the job and will stay on the job.  That's a start.

20 Years Ago: The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

“They are an army unlike any other, crusading across the stars toward a place called UnderVerse, their promised land, a constellation of dar...