Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Superhero

Monday, November 29, 2010

Irvin Kershner (1923 - 2010)

The AP is now reporting the death of Irvin Kershner, one of the great genre directors of the 1970s and 1980s:

Kershner is indeed well-known for directing the film that many Star Wars fans argue is the strongest of the six-strong cycle: 1980's The Empire Strikes Back.  But Kershner also directed the still-impressive Never Say Never Again in 1983, Sean Connery's long-awaited and commercially-triumphant return to the screen as James Bond, 007.

In additions to those titles, Kershner directed the wickedly satirical and nihilistic Robocop 2 (1990), which met with negative reviews during its release, as well as the stylish American giallo, Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), written by a young John Carpenter and starring Faye Dunaway. 

Over the years, Kershner also helmed genre TV episodes for sci-fi series such as Spielberg's Amazing Stories (1985-1987) and SeaQuest DSV (1993-1996).  He retired from filmmaking in the mid-1990s.

Looking over just a few of Kershner's movie titles today, one can detect how superbly this director was able to marshal huge action scenes in his films and -- at the same time -- humanize familiar, iconic characters and their relationships. 

Never Say Never Again presented a more human, "aging" version of James Bond, and certainly The Empire Strikes Back deepened the famous Star Wars characters tremendously, so much so that Return of the Jedi (1983) felt somewhat juvenile and light-weight by comparison.

Irvin Kershner will be remembered for his superlative contributions to modern film franchises for years and decades to come, and I hope that fact brings his family some measure of comfort on this difficult day.  This man will be missed.

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

Director W.D. Richter's cult-classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984) is the cinematic equivalent of purchasing a comic-book on a whim and then trying to figure out what is happening in that specific issue when you have zero familiarity with previous chapters. 

And I mean that entirely as a compliment. 

As Vincent Canby wrote, regarding the film, "Absolutely nothing in ''Buckaroo Banzai'' is quite clear, nor is it supposed to be, though most of it is very funny, beginning with the opening sequence."

Indeed, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai begins, and it's off to the races.  Characters and their backgrounds -- or even contemporary relationships, for that matter -- are not explained to any substantial degree by the screenplay from author Earl Mac Rauch. 

Rather, the film assumes from the first frame that audience members are simply long-time, knowledgeable fans of science fiction/comic-book movies, and it trusts them to keep up.  The film commences in media res, and as though we are all fans of that resourceful renaissance man, a neuro-scientist/particle physicist/martial artist/rock-n-roller named Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller).  

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai then rockets forward from that assumption without looking back, delving full-speed-ahead into a genre world of aliens from the eight dimension, tragic heroic histories, the death of a beloved franchise character (Clancy Brown's Rawhide) and other familiar plot twists that deliberately reflect the cliches of the comic-book/sci-fi genres.

The result of this intelligent, take-no-prisoners approach is surely one of the funniest genre movies ever made; one that, even today, roars across the screen with an unmatched sense of confidence and good vibes.

"Is anybody out there not having a good time?" 

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is the tale of a great hero known the world-around.   Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) is the subject of comic-books and arcade video games, and even the organizing factor behind a Boy Scouts-type organization called "The Blue Blazer Regulars." [correction: The Blue Blaze Irregulars]

One day, after performing difficult brain surgery, Buckaroo test-drives a new vehicle (The Rocket 88) that can travel five-hundred miles an hour.  While driving, Banzai also tests a device that he and his cohort Professor Hikita (Robert Ito) have perfected: an "oscillation overthruster" which can transition matter from our universe into the space-between-spaces as it were, the "formless void" of the 8th dimension.

Unfortunately, this technological breakthrough attracts the attention of twisted Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow), a man who, in 1938, actually pierced the 8th dimension and was possessed by the spirit of an evil alien Lectroid conquerer, a galactic "Hitler" named John Whorfin. 

Now, Lizardo requires Banzai's oscillation overthruster to return to the 8th dimension and rescue his comrades trapped inside.  From there, it's time to wage war on his peaceful home world, "Planet 10."

After his technological breakthrough in the desert (driving inside a mountain...), Buckaroo Banzai performs at a night-club in New Jersey with his gang/band, the Hong Kong Cavaliers and is surprised to spy in the audience a woman named Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin), a dead ringer for his much-mourned wife.  Turns out Penny is her long lost, heretofore unknown, identical twin.

The peaceful Black Lectroids from Planet 10 -- who appear to humans as African-American Rastafarians -- contact Banzai and his people to warn him about the threat of Lizardo/Whorfin.  Worse, the Black Lectroids will initiate a false nuclear conflict with Soviet Russia within a day if Whorfin is not stopped by Banzai. 

The aliens can take no chance that this murdering psychopath could return to their world...

Banzai tracks the evil Red Lectroids and Lizardo to their headquarters in Grovers Mill, New Jersey, at the Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems factory.  Through a little computer research, the Hong Kong Cavaliers learn that Yoyodyne is an alien front company, and that Orson Welles' famous War of the Worlds radio program in the late 1930s was no hoax...but rather the vanguard of a real alien invasion.  Several dozen Lectroids came to Earth and adopted names such as John Bigboote (Christopher Lloyd) to engineer the release of their comrades from the Eighth Dimension...

"Laugh while you can, monkey-boy."

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai unique approach to storytelling is epitomized perfectly by a little throwaway line occurring about an hour into the proceedings.
Two of Buckaroo's team members (The Hong Kong Cavaliers) have gone in search of an evil Lectroid -- a being from the eighth dimension -- when they happen to enter Banzai's scientific laboratory.
A new team member dressed as a cowboy -- New Jersey (Jeff Goldblum) -- spots a ripe watermelon on an industrial-looking device and asks, "why is there a watermelon there?"
The answer? "I'll tell you later."
It's the punch-line to an in-joke we're not privy to (regarding a previous Banzai experiment, no doubt), but as first time visitors to this cult-universe, we don't get it.
And we're not supposed to get it.
We're simply supposed to understand that Buckaroo and his team have shared many intense, crazy adventures together, all with a science-fictional bent, all with real-life consequences for each of them.

In other words, the watermelon is a touch that adds history to the universe, but no further clarity.  It's a detail indicative of a shared past; but without any context about that particular shared past.
The question becomes, of course, why would anyone dramatize a story in this fashion? Why would a filmmaker remove virtually all the explanations, exposition, and meaningful context from a sci-fi film's narrative?
The answer is right there in Vincent Canby's review, quoted above.
If an artist knowingly creates distance between the audience and the action on screen, said action becomes...funny. 

It's the thematic equivalent to that old Hollywood approach to lensing a pratfall in a comedy film.   If you film a comedian slipping on a banana peel in close-up, we register that character's agony as he or she hits the hard sidewalk. Ouch! The audience feels sympathy.
But if the cameraman steps back -- shooting from a distance (from a long shot) -- the action instead appears humorous.  We laugh.
That's really Buckaroo Banzai in a nutshell. The filmmakers have knowingly stepped back from the context of the cult-universe of their hero and central figure, Buckaroo Banzai.  It is a stance which allows us to observe all the goings-on not as intense action; not as life-or-death incident;  but as inherently amusing; as satire.  Specifically, the creators' distance from the wild-eyed, over-the-top narrative enables the audience to see the film as a comment on comic-book conceits.
At this relatively distant vantage point, the audience is free to laugh at the absurdities on display.  And commendably, the directorial approach to the material echoes that thematic approach.  Often, Richter literally stands back, heavily utilizing master shots and long shots to tell his bizarre story.  It's a perfect example of form echoing content, and it allows the audience a wide-angle perspective of Buckaroo's world so we can take in all the details, from the wacky, cobbled-together architecture/set design of the Lectroids to the almost-Duran-Duran aesthetic of Buckaroo's rock band.

"Buckaroo, I don't know what to say. Lectroids? Planet 10? Nuclear extortion? A girl named "John"?

Although it hasn't often been described in such fashion, it seems apparent today that the one-of-a-kind Buckaroo Banzai qualifies beautifully as a "camp" entertainment. 

Now, that's a descriptor that gets bandied about too loosely today among some Internet journalists, particularly in regards to 1970s science-fiction TV series that the pop culture judges haven't aged well. 

But the term "camp" actually indicates a tongue-in-cheek aesthetic, an approach in which something is knowingly played as straight as possible so as to exaggerate its inherent qualities.  Camp co-opts serious subject matter (such as comic-book tropes in this case), analyzes that material, and then makes the material humorous by playing it so solemn and earnest that laughs are generated. 

In other words, by taking material seriously to such a dramatic extent, the "inherent ridiculousness" of the concept seems to burst forth. 

Film critic Pauline Kael, writing in The New Yorker, understood the film's approach very well. 

She termed Buckaroo Banzai an example of  "unmoored hipsterism," and today that seems like the  very best descriptor possible, especially since "camp" -- fairly or not --  boasts such negative connotations for fans of superheroes, comic-books and sci-fi.  And in point of fact, some scholars now consider "hipsterism" the actual appropriation of the "camp" aesthetic from the gay subculture in which it first sprang, matured and gained pop cultural notoriety.

Regardless of what you call the particular style, however, this is surely the vibe of Buckaroo Banzai.  The film takes genre/comic-book conceits so seriously -- but  without any meaningful context whatsoever --that these familiar conventions emerge as recognizable, and then as funny, because we've seen them before...too many times to count. 

Consider, for example, the mid-film apparent demise of the character named Rawhide (Clancy Brown).  He is one of the Hong Kong Cavaliers -- one of Banzai's lieutenants -- and there's an ostensibly sad moment in which he goes down to Lectroid venom/poision, and his friends mourn.

But, of course, because this is the first and only Buckaroo Banzai film, the audience has shared no adventures, no previous missions, no time with Rawhide outside this movie and its particular narrative. 

Divorced from context, the trope of the beloved character's death lacks any psychic weight or larger emotional meaning.  Instead of being sad in this instance, we actually think specifically about the cliche, and how so many movies use it to manipulate audience emotions heading into the third-act denouement.

Imagine if the first time you ever encountered Mr. Spock -- the first time he was ever featured on-screen -- was in the film The Search for Spock (1984).  You would have no idea what the big deal was; why he is important; or what was happening to the character.  The character and his issues in the story would suddenly become less important. 

Instead, how he is used as a cog in the film's narrative wheel would become the primary issue of concern.  To put it another way, you'd be thinking of mechanics instead of emotions.

Again, this is the "distance" from the action that The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai knowingly generates and cultivates.  Divorced from the meaning of the trope (the death of a beloved character), the moment just becomes another throwaway exercise in false continuity; an exercise in genre form, with no attached emotional meaning.  We are asked to reflect on form, on tradition of the form, not on the specifics of the plot.

Over and over, Buckaroo Banzai plays out this joke.  Buckaroo is apparently in deep mourning over the death of his wife, and in this movie, he accidentally (!) stumbles upon her identical twin, Penny.  Because we never saw Buckaroo with his wife and never saw her demise in any previous (alluded to...) adventure, this subplot again becomes about the form of pervasive sci-fi cliches rather than any specific character context.  The surprise twin! The doppelganger! The woman who looks exactly like a lost love!  You've seen this idea played out in everything from Dark Shadows to Fright Night (1985).

But removed from the emotionality that historical context and previous franchise entries could provide the audience, the sub-plot again becomes about a concept -- a cliche -- and the movie positions it all as a joke.  Penny and Buckaroo fall in love almost instantly, as the form demands. They are meant to be together.  It plays not as real romance, but as humorous commentary.

Silly dialogue such as "Take her to the pit!" similarly recalls pulpy sci-fi magazines of the 1950s, and in general Buckaroo Banzai has a great deal of fun mocking the conventions of serialized comic-book adventures. 

In particular, John Lithgow is brilliant as Dr. Lizardo -- an alien version of Hitler we're told, -- who comes off as absolutely absurd.  There is nothing remotely menacing about this character, though he could take over an entire planet, apparently. 

But as played here -- with no overall context backing-up his menacing villainy -- Lizardo is simply a twitching, sneering, thick-tongued cretin, not a world-ending maniac.  We don't fear him; rather we laugh at his outrageous qualities.  So in this circumstance, we are asked to consider the qualities of comic-book villains.  Separated from a history of evil deeds, they can come off as incompetent, and therefore funny, especially since they often fail so egregiously.

Finally, the consistent distance from context makes Buckaroo Banzai a comedy about the genre itself, and its most-frequently hauled out conventions.  I often call the 1984 Richter film  the This is Spinal Tap of genre films, and that's because it serves so ably as a parody of an entire strain of literature and film  Not the rock milieu, as is the case with the Reiner film of 1984, but the conventions of comic-books and science fiction movies as they existed in the mid-1980s. 

However, this is the important thing: the film is not mean-spirited about its sense of fanciful parody.  On the contrary, the stand-back approach of the filmmakers' (both in terms of form and content) assumes a deep fund of knowledge on the part of any audience

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai assumes we can keep up; that we will recognize such conventions as the death of a beloved character or the surprise appearance of an identical twin, and understand the joke.  Plus, the movie's pace is downright delirious, so that Buckaroo Banzai is unfailingly smart and fast-moving at the same time.

That's why, in the lingo of the film, Buckaroo Banzai is really something of an "inter dimensional breakthrough." 

It serves as both a straight-forward comic-book adventure and even as a post-modern, humorous comment on the longstanding literary and film conventions that make a hero like Buckaroo -- a hero in the mold of James Bond or Doc Savage -- so appealing and influential in our culture.

And that's why -- yes -- I still hope to see Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League in theaters one of these days. 

Because no matter where you go...there you are.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Zardoz (1974)

My  friend, Johnny Byrne (27 November 1935 – 3 April 2008) -- an Irish poet, philosopher and writer on science fiction TV series such as Space: 1999 and Doctor Who -- often termed the decade of the 1970s  the "wake-up from the hippie dream" of the 1960s.

In other words, the counter-culture revolution which was formed in large part due to opposition over the Vietnam War,  failed to re-shape the world and the direction of the human species. The dreams of the post-Camelot world gave way to the hard realities of the disco decade.

Instead of a new social order, the world seemed on the verge of social breakdown instead.  Words like "malaise," and terms like "crisis of confidence" seemed to dominate the debate.  Gasoline shortages slowed down America, and garbage collection strikes left trash piled high in the streets of London. 

The dreams of finding a better way of living seemed to give way to excessive consumption, personal decadence, hard drug use and even cult insanity, much like that exemplified by Charles Manson and his "family."

Space:1999 (1975-1977) very much concerned the concept of the "wake-up from the hippie dream," at least in metaphorical terms.  The series was often about humanity broaching new and radical forms of life -- and ways of living -- in episodes such as "Guardian of Piri," "The Last Enemy," "Missing Link," "Mission of the Darians" and so on. 

In the end, the human Alphans always clung tightly to what one might term established "human" values.  They were not co-opted by the Utopian but often coldly cerebral dreams and thinking of the Zennites, the Bethans, the Pirians, the Darians or other races which had "perfected" themselves.  

Moonbase Alpha was itself an experimental commune of sorts, but one that cast off both the failures of "20th century technological man" and the alien thinking of various, highly-advanced intergalactic cultures.

In this way, Space:1999 was a remarkably balanced presentation; noting both the perils of blindly accepting tradition/convention and the dangers of shifting the established social order to something untested and seemingly "alien" (as many in the Silent Majority viewed the tenets of Eastern Philosophy, which gained a new foothold in American intellectual thinking during this epoch.)

All of this description is but contextual prologue to my analysis of director John Boorman's challenging Zardoz (1974), a brilliant and highly idiosyncratic science fiction production which, like its contemporary, Space:1999 arrived smack-dab during the "wake-up from the Hippie dream."

Specifically, the 1974 film concerns the serious problems of a post-apocalyptic counter-culture order of "Eternals" -- essentially an egalitarian commune -- and the eventual, violent re-assertion of the conventional nuclear family unit through the presence and actions of a revolutionary in the commune, a macho outsider and "Brutal" named Zed (Sean Connery).

Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert termed Zardoz "an exercise in self-indulgence (if often an interesting one) by Boorman, who more or less had carte blanche to do a personal project after his immensely successful Deliverance. Boorman seems fascinated by stories which are disconnected from the ordinary realist assumptions of most movies."

Film scholar Jay Cocks of Time Magazine appreciated the cinematic wizardry of the film, if not necessarily, the details of the world Boorman created.  He wrote: "The startling beauty and tension he can work into a single shot --say, of Connery rising out of a pile of dark grain holding a revolver --  are the work of a film maker who is rather a wizard himself."

These critical snippets get at some of the trademark if extremely controversial brilliance of Zardoz; both its unconventional manner of presentation in terms of traditional cinema narratives, and its unique ability to foster suspense through individual moments of resonant, extremely powerful imagery. 

Today, the film succeeds mainly as a critique of the counter-culture, of the commune experiment of the 1960s-1970s and, simultaneously an all-guns blazing defense of the traditional family structure, or what some left-leaning scholars might not-so-happily call "the Patriarchy."

The narrator of the film, the puppet-master behind the god Zardoz (the wizard of oz so-to-speak) introduces the film as "rich in irony and deeply satirical," and what he seems to suggest, simply, is that mankind's long search for a better way of living -- for immortality itself -- is a fruitless search. 

Man has already discovered the way of life that works best for him, and it is the conventional family structure.  Everything else is a dead end; a blind alley. By film's end, the unsuccessful "new" order has been invalidated and overturned, and tradition re-established.

There's also an argument here against the evils of Communism.  Zed and his macho, cowboy-styled Executioners (all men, by the way...) ultimately rebel against their false God, Zardoz and the hidden puppet masters, the Elders, when the advanced society turns the Brutals from hunters to workers: slaves cultivating crops and delivering them to the God Head. 

This is an unacceptable way of living to the formerly "free," savage, Brutals and so rebellion results.The Eternals interfered with their destiny to be killers...turning them into farmers serving a higher class, and populist revolt is the solution.

"Who conjured you out of the clay?"

The false god, Zardoz calls to the Brutals in the futuristic landscape of Zardoz.

Zardoz involves a futuristic society of the year 2293.  A small egalitarian commune of "Eternals" has established a new order of life amidst the breakdown of civilization.  After a new Dark Ages occurs, a group of scientists wall themselves off from the rest of barbaric humanity with a force field called "The Vortex," and then establish the control of an artificial intelligence called "The Tabernacle."  

Each Eternal is surgically-implanted with a crystal in his or her forehead, and it can link to the Tabernacle and its vast repository of knowledge at the speed-of-thought.  Each Eternal also carries a communication ring, for issuing orders and transmitting holograms about scientific and mercantile matters.

Disease and death have been banished from everyday life in this futuristic commune, and the Eternals are truly immortal.  They have lived hundreds of years.  One cost of this immortality: Eternal males can no longer achieve erection, and therefore there is no possibility of children; of offspring. 

This is the last generation; but it shall last forever.

Another dark sign: the Eternals mercilessly punish those who assert individuality amidst their democratic (Marxist?) community. They banish these "Renegades" to an old-folks home after rapid-aging them years, sometimes decades.  The Renegades live in this home -- senile and lost -- forever banished.

Eve worse, the community of the Eternals has come to prize its own eternal continuance over the well-being of other communities, over other human beings.   The rest of humanity dwells outside the force field "Vortex" in poverty and primitivism. The Eternals keep the "Brutals" in line by providing them a false god named Zardoz.  Zardoz -- a giant, floating stone head -- orders these Brutals not to breed, telling them that "the penis is evil," lest the environment become unbalanced, with too many Brutal mouths-to-feed. 

Similarly, Zardoz informs the Brutals that "the gun is good," because it can be utilized to reduce the Brutals' numbers. 

Both the evil of the penis and the good of the gun are methods of population control; so that the Eternals may retain their grip on power, and a life of ease and luxury.

In Zardoz, one curious Brutal, an executioner named "Zed" (Connery) sneaks into the floating Zardoz monument and thereby penetrates the Vortex.  After Zardoz lands in a rural landscape, in the Eternal commune, he finds himself an object of both curiosity and hatred by the Eternals. 

One woman named May (Sara Kestelman) wants to study Zed, especially after learning that he is a genetic mutant with the potential of great intelligence (greater even than that of the Eternals).  Another Eternal, Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) sees Zed as a primitive virus or disease who could pollute the commune and even destroy the Eternal way of life.  A third, apparently disinterested party, Friend (John Alderton) sees Zed simply as a means of passing the time. 

"Let's keep it," he suggests, "Anything to relieve the boredom..."

Zed undergoes a kind of evolution or period of enlightenment in the Eternals' commune.  Friend shows him the Renegades in the old folks home, as well as a breed of "Apathetics," Eternals who have slipped into virtual catatonia for lack of physical stimulation and any change in the same routine. 

Then, Zed learns that he was actually bred and selected by the puppet master behind Zardoz, Frayne, to destroy the Eternal way of life; to defeat the Tabernacle and bring the gift of death back to a civilization that serves no purpose but its own, endless continuation.  He is "The Chosen One."

At film's end, Zed breaches the Vortex and his fellow Brutals swarm into the commune on horseback, with guns blazing.  In a scene that plays more like an orgy than a massacre, the Exterminators destroy the Eternals, who are grateful to see their endless, pointless lives finally come to end. 

Meanwhile, May escapes to the outside world, carrying "knowledge" back to the ignorant Brutals. 

As for Zed, he and Consuella reconcile...and become lovers. 

Finally in Zardoz's final time-lapse montage, we see this duo -- this man and woman (Adam and Eve?) - form the crux of a new family unit...one that will produce offspring, and ultimately a new, better chapter in human history.

"A better breed could prosper here. Given time..."

Zed (Connery) sees his savage past replayed for Eternal consumption.

It is not difficult to interpret Zardoz as director John Boorman’s carefully and occasionally humorous critique of the unconventional, untested "hippie" life-styles developing in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  In particular, the film seems to take dead aim at the Zeitgeist of that period by presenting the Eternal Community as, essentially a 1960s-style commune run amok.

Let’s pause for a definition and history lesson there. Communes are small groups of people living together for a common purpose, but not in a traditional family unit. Nearly a million people lived in communes in the early 1970s, and the goal, largely was to keep the outside world at bay.

In Zardoz, of course, the Eternals (a tribe of perhaps fifty) actually maintain a force field separator – the Vortex – between their commune and the outside world, a literalization of that goal of keeping the world at bay.

Timothy Miller, writer of The 60s Communes, Hippies and Beyond, wrote an illuminating definition of a commune in his 1999 book from Syracuse Press. In the introduction (pages xxii-xxiii,) he noted that communes feature a sense of common purpose and separation from the dominant society, some form or level of self denial and suppression of individual choice in favor of the group, a geographic proximity, and notions of economic sharing and critical mass. In this case, critical mass means simply that communes are relatively small in size, fifty or so individuals, as I already labeled the Eternals above..

The Eternals of Zardoz fit this definition perfectly, not just in terms of their separation from the Brutals, but in other important fashion. Like many communes, the Eternal society is egalitarian in nature, meaning that decision is made by a group, and all members of the commune have equal access to resources and decision-making.

Throughout the film, for instance, we see the Eternals “voting” on the final disposition of the intruder in their midst, Zed. Should he be put down, outright, as Consuella desires? Or held for further study, as May wishes? Everyone in the commune votes on it, and Zed is given a new lease on life, seven more days.

In terms of geographic proximity, the commune in Zardoz consists largely of a single mansion and its out-buildings, though there is also an old folks’ home for “Renegades” and a stable for the “Apathetics” within walking distance

In addition, the Eternal mansion and grounds fit very much the pop culture stereotype of  1960s-1970s communes. They are a place ofstrange music, weirdly dressed people, and psychedelically-fueled behavior.”

In this case, however, the behavior is not psychedelic so much as psychic. Each Eternal is joined to an artificial intelligence (a super computer?) called the “Tabernacle” which sees to their needs and desires. It’s like having the Internet and a web search inside your own head, ready to be activated by vocal command. 

But more importantly, when Friend is labeled a "renegade," he is psychically assaulted -- with exaggerated hand gestures -- by his former comrades.  This is weird and trippy; and not entirely unlike some drug-fueled, hippie-styled dance.

Zardoz sees the unconventional structure of a commune as being counter-productive to a healthy human existence. The Eternals are immortal, but they have lost -- in their all-consuming quest for permanence -- any sense of the spontaneous, any sense of the moment. They are bored, and some of them, like Friend, actually long to die. For them, that is the only possible release from a life of eternal, emotionless intellect.  The new form of the democratic commune has, in fact, made life stagnant and empty.

The joys of sex and procreation have also been forsaken in this futuristic commune. Without children, there is no real sense of the future. Only the continuance of the present, the status quo. Without children, a culture cannot be healthy, because it can not look past its own selfish needs at the needs of the race; at the needs of a future generation.  This is another example of the Eternal's stagnation.

Even sleep itself has been vanquished in the Eternal commune, replaced by active, second-level meditation. Interestingly, Zardoz positions sleep – and dreaming – as an essential quality of healthy humanity. Consuella observes Zed sleeping and then awaking from a dream, and it is clear that he finds dreaming restorative.  It is a "changed" mind-state, a release from the drudgery of the Eternal existence, and without it, the Eternals are empty.  They have no change; so they cannot brace transformation; transcendence.

The Tabernacle informs Consuella that "Sleep was necessary for Man when his waking and unconscious lives were separated. As Eternals achieved total consciousness, sleep became obsolete, and Second-Level meditation took its place. Sleep was closely connected with death."

Sleep was closely connected with death; perhaps that is what makes life meaningful; the omnipresent threat and presence of mortality in our daily cycle.  With this "state" of consciousness gone, the Eternals have forsaken some essential quality of humanity.  Death has been banished not just from their physicality, but from their very psyche. 

"Every society had an elaborate subculture devoted to erotic stimulation." Or "The Penis is (not ) Evil."

Consuella sizes up Zed's manhood; while a screen behind her charts the trajectory of his erection.

Zardoz is not likely to win any accolades from feminists.  In the film's most daring, even brazen sequence, Consuella studies Zed's penis, and looks for the connection between mental stimulation and physical erection.  In fact, a large viewscreen behind her actually plays arousing, pornographic imagery for Zed to respond to.  But instead, he grows erect at her presence...a fact which greatly disturbs the Eternal. 

And no, I'm not kidding about any of this.  You'd never see a scene like this in a movie today.

And that's kind of a shame.

As I've written above, Zardoz creates a comparison between the unchanging, stagnant Eternals (a largely feminized culture, dominated  by May and Consuella, I mean...) and Zed, the Brutal....the male ideal.  The Eternals don't shift from consciousness to sleep.  They don't dream.  Zed does both.  Zed is proud of his physicality, he doesn't discount it, and indeed, Sean Connery spends the bulk of the movie wearing nothing but a red jockstrap.  Hie is a walking, talking phallic symbol.

But importantly, Zed is able to change his body; as the movie explicitly points out inthis sequence.  Unlike the other Eternal men, his penis goes from flaccid to erect (and Zardoz accommodatingly -- and amusingly --shows us a view-screen diagram of this transition).  

Consuella reports clinically about the penis, and its role in human culture: "There seems to be a correlation with violence, with fear," she notes of male sexual arousal.  "Many hanged men died with an erection. You are all more or less aware of our intensive researches into this subject. Sexuality declined probably because we no longer needed to procreate. Eternals soon discovered that erection was impossible to achieve. And we are no longer victims of this violent, convulsive act which so debased women and betrayed men."

Again, Consuella sees sex as a "violent, convulsive act" which "debased women and betrayed men," yet the sex act is undeniably part of who we are as a species.  It is the process through which life continues and evolves; the act of procreation.

Zardoz suggests in some ways that like sleeping/waking, flaccid/erect is a kind of miracle of the human imagination and ingenuity -- even if it can be linked to male violence -- and that, well, it is the key to our future.  The male mystique?  Perhaps, perhaps not. 

The film makes no bones (*ahem*) about the fact that Zed is an unrepentant rapist of women during his life as a Brutal.  But the film also seems to state that changeability (from flaccid to erect) is part of the human process of transformation that is essential to a healthy human race.  And indeed, it precedes the most miraculous transformation of all: from an empty womb to the creation of a new human life.  That's the (traditional) role of females.

In Zardoz, even the destruction of the Tabernacle is put in decisively masculine, sexual terms.  "You have penetrated me. There is no escape. You are within me," says the defeated machine. "Come into my center. Come into the center of the crystal!" 

That's not the end of it, either.  May desires Zed.  She sees salvation through intercourse with this "superior" genetic specimen.  "Inseminate us all, and we'll teach you all we know, give you all we have. Perhaps you can break the Tabernacle."

Again, I remember many reviewers being really, really offended by this idea, noting that the female Eternals longed for the potent "magic" underneath Zed's "loin cloth."  That's a simple way of putting it, when the film is really about the process of change, and how we can change even our physicality (in terms of attaining an erection).   It's a metaphor.  The idea of human evolution and change is ultimately what allows Zed to  grow beyond being a simple savage, to defeating the Tabernacle and ending the Eternal culture.  The dichotomy between sleeping/waking is just as important, but not as dramatic, I suppose.

So, Zardoz, in simple terms, is a clash of cultures.  In one, the penis is "evil" for what it brings (more babies!). In another, it is "good" because it represents the way man can change himself, and even continue himself. 

I should further add, I am not subscribing or advocating any particular point of view here; only reading the text of the "film" and attempting to interpret the meaning of the visuals and themes.  I encourage you to screen the film and come to your own conclusion about what Zardoz means.

Zardoz and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony

The feminine gaze?

Zardoz ends with the traditional family structure visually re-affirmed. Zed and Consuella move into the stone God head, Zardoz, mate with one another, and have a baby, a son.

The film then cuts to a time-lapse family portrait featuring the couple and their boy over the years as they age, the son goes off to find his own family and destiny, and the long-lived parents finally die.  Zed and Consuella -- in the natural order of life -- become bones, then dust.  The implicit message: this is how it is supposed to be, for human beings.

This climactic time-lapse family portrait is scored to Beethoven’s  impressive Symphony Number Seven, written in 1802.  The master work is widely held out as a “perfect” symphony by critics, and is also known for reflecting a sense of energetic spontaneity.

Consider then, the conjunction of image and song in this finale. With the traditional family re-affirmed visually in the blocking: the perfect triumvirate of father, mother and child, the music serves the same purpose. The perfect symphony is heard, reinforcing the notion that this is how things should be. This is the family structure that will save mankind, going forward.

And in terms of spontaneity, this is how we must face life, isn’t it?

Not with all the knowledge in the universe in our possession; not as some kind of boring, stagnant egalitarian democracy…but as thinking, feeling changeable (transforming...) humans who live in the moment. This dazzling final sequence gets at that notion with the spontaneous-sounding symphony, and the idea of each moment lived most fully…and then gone.

It’s a perfect, rousing note to go out on, and it reflects entirely Boorman’s critique of unconventional living arrangements (like communes) and idolizes the traditional nuclear family as the vehicle for a productive future. 

Again, I don't have to tell you that this idea is very unpopular with some. Stephanie Goldberg of Jump Cut, for instance, wrote: "ZARDOZ can be read as a wistful if handsome attempt to build a labyrinth around a crumbling male supremacist ideology."

She has a point.  

The film undeniably forwards a conservative argument, a return to traditional values as the key to continuing mankind in a healthy fashion.  As The New York Times observed: "Zed...arrives to overthrow the élitists and bring mankind back some 300 years."  Yep, it's a return to traditional values all right.

The test of a great film (and a great science fiction film) is not so much whether we individually agree with every argument therein; but whether the film successfully makes its case.  I would argue that Zardoz succeeds on this basis.  It gorgeously, humorously, brazenly, erotically, skillfully presents its arguments about human nature.

And Boorman directs the picture with his usual, incomparable sense of finesse. A director is "a fake god by occupation - and a magician, by inclination," the film suggests, and in Zardoz Boorman masterfully presents this imaginative dystopic universe, proving, perhaps -- at least to conservative critics (who hated the movie when it was released...) -- that "God" [the natural order of man?] has a place "in show business too."

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving 2010!

Dear readers,

I hope you all enjoy a healthy and happy holiday with your loved ones this Thanksgiving Day. 

Eat some turkey.  Drink some wine.  Hug someone you love.  Watch a good movie, or watch a bad movie that you enjoy.

This year -- as is the case every year -- I am profoundly thankful for all of you, the readership of this blog. 

I appreciate you stopping by, and look forward to continuing the conversation on film and TV after Thanksgiving.

Warmest wishes,
John K. Muir

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK #123: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Pangs" (1999)

Many horror and sci-fi TV programs boast a Halloween-themed episode -- like Star Trek’s “Catspaw” -- or even a Christmas episode, such as Millennium’s heartfelt “Midnight of the Century.”

But in broad terms, relatively few cult TV programs boast Turkey Day editions in their episode rosters.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) remains a notable exception to that rule. During its generally-underrated fourth season, this WB series from  creator Joss Whedon presented a funny and involving Thanksgiving installment titled “Pangs.”

The episode -- penned by Whedon and Jane Espenson, and directed by Michael Lange -- first aired on November 23, 1999.

Hard to believe that's already eleven years ago...

 In this particular installment Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and the Scooby Gang investigate a murderous demon after the buried Sunnydale Mission -- believed destroyed in the earthquake of 1812 -- is accidentally unearthed.

Or rather, Xander (Nicholas Brendon) discovers the mission by falling into a hole during the dedication and ground-breaking ceremony of U.C. Sunnydale’s new and expensive “cultural center.”

Unfortunately, by breaking into the sealed subterranean chamber, Xander accidentally releases the vengeful spirit of a Chumash warrior named Hus (Tod Thawley). 

Hus's Native American people suffered imprisonment, forced labor and terrible disease when the white man arrived from Europe and quickly populated the American continent. Now, the demon’s first order of business is “re-creating the wrongs” done to his native people all those years and centuries ago.

Translated, this means that the demon gives Xander malaria, smallpox and syphilis. “I am vengeance,” declares Hus. “I am my people’s cry.” 
As Buffy tracks down the vengeful and murderous Hus, she also broaches another challenging undertaking.

She prepares a traditional, home-cooked Thanksgiving meal at Giles’ apartment.

In particular, Buffy recalls the happy holidays from her youth and -- during her first year away at college -- desires to recreate that experience.

Buffy talks meaningfully and wistfully in the narrative about the “sense-memory” of Thanksgiving that occurs every time she smells a roasted turkey.

The socially-minded Willow (Alyson Hannigan) is upset, however, because she believes Thanksgiving is really just a celebration of “one culture wiping out another.” It’s a “sham,” Willow complains, upset.

Buffy’s response? Perhaps it is a sham…but it’s a sham “...with yams.”

Giles (Anthony Head) and the recently neutered Spike (with a behavior-modification chip in his noggin) are bothered by Willow’s unflattering description of the autumnal holiday. They both see the situation more plainly. “You had better weapons…and you massacred them,” Spike (James Marsters) tells Willow of the Native-American population.

Simple as that. Or is it?

The debate raises an important question. Is it right for Buffy to “slay” Hus when he has a legitimate grievance against our ancestors?

What’s worse, isn’t he right to be upset that -- on his people’s former land – the conquering people are now building a “cultural center,” in effect a celebration of the genocide of the indigenous folks?

What remains so terrific and funny about “Pangs” a full decade later is that Buffy’s attempt to host a happy holiday dinner is undercut at every turn by these grave philosophical disagreements in her family, a unit which certainly does include the demonic Spike at this point.

The topic turns overtly political after a fashion, and everyone who has ever returned home for a family holiday knows that politics is the source of much indigestion at real-life gatherings, at real-life holiday feasts.

In-laws who hold different viewpoints are suddenly thrust together for a meal at the same table -- and there’s usually alcohol involved too -- and boy, the sparks can really fly.

The philosophical discussion underlining “Pangs” concerns a question not unfamiliar to most of us in modern American culture. Can a wrong in the past be repaired by a wrong in the present?

This idea has been discussed much, especially near the end of Clinton’s second term, specifically in relation to America’s ignoble history of slavery. Are modern Americans -- folks living right now -- to blame for  their ancestors' misdeeds several generation ago? In terms of the Native American genocide, the same question is raised. 

And if reparations forced upon a blameless current generation aren’t particular just either, does a simple apology to the families of the wronged feel like enough?  Is that the best we can muster?

Obviously, there are no simple answers to such deep questions of American history, but I love how Buffy the Vampire Slayer takes the context of Thanksgiving and holiday gatherings and then makes the dramatis personae debate the conflicted nature of the holiday, each according to his or her own personal beliefs.

Nobody is bad. Nobody is evil (well, nobody besides Spike…).  Everyone just boasts a different perspective on what remains a controversial subject.

Here -- treading deeper into the quagmire -- some hurtful comments are even made about a “minority” living in Buffy’s modern, diverse Sunnydale: demons. Xander lays down the law, and it sounds perilously like bigotry. “You don’t talk to vengeance demons, you kill them!” he stresses, angry and sick.

Well, of course, this remarks hurts Anya’s (Emma Caulfield's) feelings. She’s a demon after all. they? Not all of them are evil, are they?  What about Oz?  What about Angel?  And on and on.  Is killing them on sight the answer?

Finally, Hus and a “raiding party” of demons arrive at Buffy’s Thanksgiving meal, and there’s a colossal battle between the Slayer and a demon she has zero interest in killing. Buffy would prefer to offer an apology, rather than fisticuffs. To the direct-minded Spike, however, this approach is folly. “You exterminated his people,” he reminds Buffy of Hus.  An apology ain't gonna cut it.

Finally, Buffy does fight with lethal force, and the implication seems to be that some hurts, some breaches, just can’t be resolved peaceably.

Ultimately, even the politically-correct Willow feels like something of a hypocrite. When the Native-American demon spirits attack, she’s among those who pick up shovel and fight for their lives. As we all would under the same circumstances.

But the coda in "Pangs" involves a hope for the future instead of a conflict over the past.  In the episode's last scene, the threat of Hus is nullified and Buffy and her friends (including Spike) sit down together -- demon and human -- for an enjoyable "family" feast.

In some way, this final image of an ad-hoc, modern American family consisting of a demon, two vampires, two Brits, a Valley girl, a witch (and lesbian) and a construction worker seems to get at the point of the narrative's debate.  Just the fact that these diverse folk break bread at the same table may provide the key to healing old, historical wounds. 

Perhaps enemies old and new must share a Thanksgiving table, a special meal together, and start fresh. Build new, better memories. Let go of the angers of the past, even if they are justified. Otherwise, as Hus learns, the only possible future is death.  At least breaking bread, and passing the cranberry sauce, is a start.

As Xander happily notes at the conclusion of "Pangs," it’s the perfect Thanksgiving in Sunnydale after all: “a bunch of anticipation, a big fight, and now we’re all sleepy…”

Happy Thanksgiving, my friends!  Be safe and enjoy your holiday with your loved ones...

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...