Monday, February 28, 2011

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Control Room

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Tenth Victim (1965)


In the early 1950s, sci-fi author (and now legend...) Robert Sheckley (1928 - 2005) penned a story entitled "The Seventh Victim." 

Published in Galaxy Magazine in 1953, Sheckley's tale depicted a post-World War Six future world in which an "Emotional Catharsis Board" had established a worldwide "hunt," or "game" during which mankind could satisfy his need for violence by hunting down human "victims" as a licensed, carefully regulated hunter. 

In fact, after seven successful hunts (alternating turns as hunter and victim...) a person could achieve great wealth and even join an exclusive hunter's club.  

How did such a world come about?  Well, it was believed that the Hunt (established originally by men for men) could curb the violent tendencies of a "large percentage" of men and prevent any further world wars.

The protagonist in "The Seventh Victim" is Stanton Frelaine, a New Yorker who finds himself unable to kill his  assigned victim, a young actress named Janet Patzig who, for some strange reason, does not defend herself or even hire "spotters" to help her target her would-be-murderer. 

Curious about this unusual young woman, Stanton befriends Janet and eventually falls in love with her.  Finally, Stanton confesses to Janet that he is her "hunter" but that he wants to marry -- not murder -- her. 

"You don't kill the girl you love," he  informs her...

From this description, you might guess the ending of the story.  Or maybe not

But, in keeping with Sheckley's literary canon, "The Seventh Victim" is a futuristic satire of sorts, an absurdist tale about mankind attempting (with questionable results) to exorcise his "high degree of combativeness" through an officially sanctioned and legislated sport.

In 1965, The Seventh Victim was re-fashioned as a motion picture called The Tenth Victim that starred Marcello Mastrioanni and Ursula Andress. 

Made in Italy, The Tenth Victim is directed by Elio Petri (1929 - 1982), a former neo-realist.  As you may recall, the Italian neo-realist movement in cinema occurred immediately post-World War II, and some of its trademark stylistics include a focus on location shooting, non-professional actors in major roles and a narrative focus on poverty and difficult economic situations.

By the 1960s, however, thanks in large part to talents such as Antonioni and Fellini (who gets name-dropped in The Tenth Victim), the Italian neo-realist movement gave way to a more individual cinema that focused on internal existential angst rather than the external difficulties of life in a more-prosperous Italy.  It was a big shift, but perhaps a natural one given improving economic conditions in the country.

The Tenth Victim arises from this second movement: a more colorful, dynamic cinema, but also one that questions many aspects of modern life.  Petri was well-known as a political/social filmmaker, and in The Tenth Victim he is abundantly aware that he is forsaking the neo-realist obsession on stark reality.  In one specific scene, for instance, the film's main character, Marcello Poletti (Mastroianni) is heckled (and nearly stoned) by a cult of neo-realists who object to the hedonism and romanticism of another cult, the local "sun worshippers."  This is Petri's play statement on his sci-fi film: he knows he's forsaken his background and heritage.  But bloody hell, those neo-realists are such downers...

This all sounds like inside baseball, but you don't have to remember the details of the Italian cinema to enjoy The Tenth Victim and contextualize it in terms of dystopian science-fiction cinema (a current obsession of mine). 

Indeed, this forward-looking film from the 1960s has much in common with later American films on the topic, such as Death Race 2000 (1975). In both ventures, the government gleefully administers a violent contest (the cross-country race there; the Big Hunt here) that is judged, after a fashion, a "social good," but which actually appeals to our most base and awful instincts as a species.

In terms of social commentary, The Tenth Victim also serves ably as a comment on overreaching government, on our thirst for violence, and also -- perhaps most dramatically -- the unending battle between the sexes. 

On that last front, the story by Sheckley suggests that women may be far more effective (and cold-blooded killers...) than are men. And indeed, one might detect a sexist aspect to the film since Poletti is hounded relentlessly throughout by three women: his wife Lidia, his mistress Olga (Elsa Martinelli), and his would-be terminator, Caroline Meredith (Ursula Andress).  The final moments of the film also explicitly compare marriage to "death," which is certainly a funny joke if you take it in the spirit intended.

Weighed in total, the satirical The Tenth Victim boasts a wicked sense of humor from its tour-de-force first "hunt" all the way through its surprising last shot "bang," and it eminently deserves its reputation as a 1960s cult classic. 

"I'll tell you, this year it's trendy to kill women..."

As The Tenth Victim commences, American hunter extraordinaire, Caroline Meredith (Andress) makes her ninth kill, luring her "hunter" to the Masoch Club and then -- during a striptease -- murdering him with her double-barrel brassiere gun. 

The Ming Tea Company is so impressed with Caroline that they offer her corporate sponsorship for her tenth and final kill.  

Caroline agrees to the company's terms and sets off to Rome, where she is take out her tenth victim, a hunter named Marcello Poletti (Mastroianni).   With the Ming Tea film crew in tow, Caroline decides to murder Poletti at the Temple of Venus (the Goddess of Love...) and with the Colosseum in the background. And yes indeed, this locale is symbolic.

Meanwhile, Poletti -- who has just completed his sixth hunt -- is growing twitchy about his upcoming role as victim in the seventh.  He's recently annulled his first marriage to Lidia and is being hounded by his mistress, Olga.  When a third woman, Caroline, enters his life claiming to be a TV interviewer doing a story about sexy Italian men, Poletti is immediately suspicious of her, fearing that she is his new hunter.

Caroline and Marcello orbit each other suspiciously and Poletti sets up his own product placement deal with Coca 80 to murder her.  His plan is to lure Caroline poolside at the Big Hunt Club, and then -- using a spring-loaded chair -- to eject her into the jaws of a man-eating crocodile.  At that point, Poletti would look to the camera and say "You always win with Coca 80..."

Things don't go exactly as planned, however, and Poletti ends up at the Temple of Venus, face-to-face with his would-be murderer and now lover.  Will she kill him?  Or has Poletti let himself be trapped in this fashion?

"Legalize Your Homicides"

If you've been keeping up with this blog, you know I've been screening dystopian films of late; films such as ZPG (Zero Population Growth), Westworld, THX-1138. Zardoz, and the like. 

As is the case with many of those efforts, The Tenth Victim predicts a future world in which governmental efforts to help solve a problem in fact succeed only in creating a corrupt new regime and civilization.

In The Tenth Victim, a new agency called "The Department of the Big Hunt" (sanctioned by a global moral institution, "which moralized this century") has put an end to all war with the advent of this strange murderous ritual.   Loudspeakers at the Bureau constantly trumpet the wisdom of this war-ending Big Hunt. 

"To avoid the dangers of the big wars, register with the Big Hunt," crows on announcer.  "Legalize your homicides," "One enemy a day will keep the doctor away," suggest others. 

My personal favorite of these violent government platitudes suggests a unique resolution to the problem of over-population: "Why control the births when you can increase the deaths?" 

I also like the announcer's urging to "live dangerously...but within the law."  Good advice, no?
  
As director, Petri does an admirable job diagramming the absurdly violent nature of this new world order, especially during a scene set at the Bureau.  As Poletti walks down the front stairs of the building, a woman in a white dress (a victim) is shot in the back by her (male) hunter.  A police strolls by and cites the sanctioned hunter...for a parking violation.

What this scene suggests is that there is still rule of law in this future...it's just a very different sort of law.  Murder is legal in this future world...under certain circumstances.  The funny (or sad...) thing about this whole dystopic set-up is that today it doesn't seem all that far from the truth in modern, twenty-first century America. 

In South Dakota and Nebraska, for instance, lawmakers have recently debated a law involving "justifiable homicide," making murder -- under certain circumstances -- legal.   After the tragic Arizona shootings of last month, representative Trent Franks (R-Ariz) publicly "wished" that there had been "one more gun that day in the hands of a responsible person." 

And all of this comes after a national election in which we heard endlessly about Second Amendment "remedies" that could be used to overturn the results of lawful elections.  Don't retreat, reload, right? 

In The Tenth Victim, a hunter decries new Big Hunt regulations in Rome which prevent gun-men from opening fire in restaurants, hospitals and "nursery schools." Caroline responds proudly that such restrictions on personal freedom have not yet been approved in America, and Poletto shakes is head and notes, simply, that "America is...something."

Legalize your homicides indeed.  In this country, you can bring a gun to church if you want.  

So, If Zardoz was a brilliant right-wing picture about the danger of unconventional family units (specifically the 1960s hippie communes) then The Tenth Victim is a left leaning picture about, at least partially, a world in which the NRA makes all the laws.

But the really forward-thinking aspect of the film involves how Poletti ties the pervasive violence of the culture to mass media, and to business interests.  Specifically, both hunters in the film gain corporate sponsorship, and both sponsors actively encourage colorful, on-camera murder. 

In a very funny scene set aboard a helicopter, Caroline and her Ming Tea TV producers scout locations for the next kill, debating studio interiors versus exterior locations.  At first, the producers want to kill Poletti near the Vatican, but the Pope doesn't approve of the Big Hunt.  Then, they discount the Colosseum as "too run down." 

After the company settles on the Temple of Venus as a locale for Poletti's death, set-designers hoist up a giant sign in the background of the shot, reading "MING TEA."  

Subtle.

Then, before long, the equivalent of Solid Gold dancers (all waving prop guns around...) appear to make the murder scene even more colorful.

Watching these sequences, you can't help but think of the last decade of reality television programming, of being "voted off the island," or of being "fired" from a job.  This Big Hunt (not unlike a certain Amazing Race) is all about big business.

I also found the film forward-thinking in two other instances.  In one scene, an announcer declares that "The National Association of Homosexuals" has officially sanctioned the Big Hunt, suggesting a world in which gay rights are already established by law. Again, today we have seen the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and the President's first attempt to overturn DOMA. 

And secondly, one scene dramatizes Poletti reading a comic-book from his expansive collection of  such works.  The last few decades, in real life, have seen the mainstreaming of comic books in our culture, and as a critical part of modern Geek life.  The Tenth Victim gets this idea right as well.

There's even a subplot in the film about Poletti hiding his elderly parents in his home (in a secret room...) so that the State can't take them away and murder them; an idea we saw talked about last year  in all that fiery "Death Panel" debate.

Finally, I really got a real kick out of the moment in which Poletti flashes Caroline a small card that read simply (in three languages): "I am a victim." 

Talk about an embodiment of the victim mentality!  Today, we don't actually have card-carrying victims anywhere, but so many folks play the victim role to the hilt, even without the official cards.  Everyone seems to have a grievance: about government, about insurance, about employers, about freedom. You name it.

"When people are in love, they make mistakes..."


Against the gun-crazy background of The Tenth Victim, director Poletti also tells a unique story about men and women. 

In the film's bravura first sequence, Caroline lures her (male) hunter to his untimely death...at a strip-club.  She strips down before him -- to a silver bikini -- and he is so taken with her physical beauty that he doesn't see his own death coming.  She shoots him with a double-barrel bra, and that's the end for him.

Later in the film, Caroline similarly manipulates Poletti.  She rouses him to jealousy when she suddenly drops him as a lover and picks a local stud to dance with and interview for her fake TV show.  Poletti falls for the ruse and ends up at the Temple of Venus, at the business end of Caroline's pistol.  He survives by his wits; but the fact of the matter is that Caroline gets him where she wants him.

When you add these sequences to those other scenes in which Poletti must balance his continued survival with the demands of his nagging wife and demanding mistress, two things become plain.  One, men are depicted in the film as being not particularly cunning, bright or capable.  And secondly, that women are...well...barracudas.  

In other words, Poletti is thoroughly out-matched throughout the film, in all corners of his personal and professional (Big Hunt) life.  This  idea is faithful to Sheckley's short story, and  might be interpreted in two ways.

It's either anti-woman for painting them as manipulative hunters or it's even-handed because it also paints men as not-too-bright creatures who let their emotions (and urges...) get in the way of good decision-making.

The film's final scene, which finds Caroline and Poletti on a "wedding plane" bound for America explicitly compares marriage to death.  Caroline hasn't murdered her prey.  Instead, she marries him.  Either way, he is trapped, the film suggests, and the last shot: --  of a gun firing celebratory flowers into his face -- makes this fact absolutely plain.  Talk about shot-gun weddings...

Again, it's not a big stretch to view The Tenth Victim as being sexist. But on the other hand, women are often unfairly described in the media as overtly (and irrationally...) emotional, and that's not the case here.  On the contrary, in The Tenth Victim, it's the man who can't see past his emotions; and the woman who takes the upper hand through the traditionally male trade/profession of "hunting." 

So it comes down to, I suppose, how you choose to interpret the film.  You could see it as either anti-woman, or anti-man, if that's your game.  But I think that -- more than anything --  this film is about the dance that men and women do; the endless circling and sizing up. 

The Tenth Victim is more a movie about the way that we fall in love and express that love than one about putting any group down.  The line of dialogue from the film -- "when people are in love, they make mistakes" -- is sort of an on-camera explanation of the characters' behavior throughout, and a sympathetic one at that.

Today, The Tenth Victim serves as a perfect  1960s companion piece to Death Race 2000 (1975), The Running Man (1987) or the recent Gamer (2009). If you're intrigued by the idea of a future society where violence is sanctioned and even encouraged, there's much to enjoy and reflect on here. 

Where the movie version differs most significantly from Sheckley's literary vision is in terms of outrageousness.  The hunt in the short story is simple: it's an intimate seduction.  But the hunts in the Petri movie are deliberately outrageous and over-the-top, thus contributing to the film's sense of fun and humor about itself and its central concept.

We've come a long way since the swinging sixties, but The Tenth Victim suggests that even in the future, our thirst for violence won't diminish.  Today, nobody wears double barreled bras and there's no Big Hunt on TV,  and yet the film seems strangely much more plausible than it did in decades past.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Pop Art: Universal Task Force Edition




Tuesday, February 22, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Westworld (1973)


In 1984, Arnold Schwarzenegger portrayed an emotionless, homicidal android  in James Cameron's The Terminator...and an iconic movie villain was born. 

But in the decade before The Terminator arrived in theaters, there was another silver screen model for relentless android villains: Yul Brynner's 406 model "Gunslinger" from the 1973 Michael Crichton  (1942 - 2008) sci-fi/horror thriller Westworld. 

And like Schwarzenegger after him, Brynner returned to this iconic role for at least one theatrical sequel, 1976's Futureworld.  The Westworld franchise also spawned a TV incarnation years after the original film, 1980's short-lived Beyond Westworld

Today, a remake of the original Westworld is being planned for theatrical release in 2012, though it has apparently been in the works for a decade or so at this juncture.  At one point, there was even talk of Schwarzenegger taking on the role of the Gunslinger, which seems appropriate given  the actor's career history.

Gazing back at the original Westworld today, it's not difficult to determine why audiences responded so enthusiastically to the film and its seemingly unstoppable, silver-eyed bogeyman. 

Indeed, the film still excels as a lean, efficient thriller, and the movie capitalizes ably on a  universal human fear (also marshaled in the Halloween films) of being pursued by a seemingly inhuman being that absolutely won't stop; no matter what. 

Like Michael Myers himself, you can shoot, stab or burn the Gunslinger android and it doesn't seem to phase him one bit.  And again like The Shape, the Gunslinger wears a mask of sorts; an inexpressive "human" face that reveals nothing of his internal motivations, needs or desires. He's impossible to read, beyond the fact that he absolutely wants to kill you.

After the thrilling action elements of Westworld, there's also a fascinating science fiction premise operating here, one specifically involving modern human morality.  In this regard, the film concerns an amusement park called Delos where rich patrons can pay 1,000 dollars a day to relive past epochs in "Western World," "Roman World" and "Medieval World." 

More than that, these patrons pay for the right to have sexual intercourse with subservient androids (with no consequences...) and even kill those androids (again with no consequences) in the various theme parks.  Clearly, there's a statement here about the activities that human beings consider entertaining.  Is it okay to commit violence when the target of such violence is a machine?  Is it okay to engage in casual sexual relations with a slave, too?  

Also, though it isn't heavy-handed about it, the film comments broadly on technology and the use we put it to.  There's the suggestion here that the androids are beginning to develop some sense of awareness of themselves and their rights as intelligent beings.  

And their uprising in the film -- though terrifying -- seems justified given their cruel treatment at the hands of the wealthy elite.  In many ways, Westworld forecasts Terminator and also the re-made Battlestar Galactica of the last decade in exploring such a notion.  It's a science-run-amok Frankenstein story in which the technological children of man, perhaps rightly, turn on their biological parents.

Westworld received decidely mixed reviews upon release in the mid-1970s.  Newsweek's Paul D Zimmerman wanted the film to go further than it did, noting "What's the point of fantasy if it's rated PG?"  Meanwhile, Pauline Kael assessed the film "moderately entertaining."   Audiences were more enthusiastic, and today the film is indeed considered a genre classic.

Uniquely,  Crichton returned to the narrative template of Westworld while fashioning his most famous novel (later a movie), Jurassic Park.  In that instance, another high-tech amusement park also fell prey to a rebellion by its denizens: genetically-engineered dinosaurs.

"The best amusement park in the world...."

Westworld opens with a TV commercial that promotes the concept of the amusement park Delos to future clients. 

Here, in this world, you can escape complex reality and live another life all together. 

In Western World, Roman World (a place of "sensual, relaxed morality"), and Medieval World, visitors can indulge their most elaborate fantasies all while interacting with robots programmed to act, talk and even "bleed" just like humans.  You can kill, or fuck, for sport.

When the commercial's spokesmen interviews visitors to Delos, they enthuse about the amusement park, noting that it is "the realest" thing they have ever done.  One senior citizen raves about having played "sheriff" in Westworld for a week.  Another client, a woman, blushes at her memories of Roman World.

After the advert ends, and a hover craft lands at Delos, two visitors to the park, the macho John (James Brolin) and the neurotic Peter (Richard Benjamin) choose Western World as their "world of choice" and are shuttled by tram to a re-created town mimicking conditions in the American West of 1880. 

In short order the pair indulges in whoring and gunfights..and even murder.   On two successive occasions, Peter is confronted by a bald, dressed-in-black Gunslinger (Brynner), an android who seems to have it in for him.  And in both instances,  Peter bloodily guns the robot down.

While John and Peter enjoy their week in Westworld, the scientists tasked with overseeing the vast Delos grounds toil in subterranean environs to repair and service hundreds of androids.  A new concern soon arises.  Android breakdowns are on the rise, almost as though an infectious disease is passing from one android to another.  The scientists watch concerned as android behavior begins to turn...rebellious.

Instead of shutting down the park, the scientists opt to continue observing.

This delay in decisive action proves to be a mistake, since the androids revolt and begin to murder the Delos guests.  In Westworld, the Gunslinger returns one last time, looking to even up the score.  He murders John in a shoot-out.  The machine then sets off on a relentless pursuit of Peter through Roman World and Medieval World. 

A desperate Peter now must utilize every survival instinct and weapon at his disposal (including hydrochloric acid and fire) to survive the machine's endless attacks.

"The realest thing I've ever done..."

The first thing to acknowledge about Westworld is that the  Michael Crichton has directed the low-budget picture with a real sense of competence...and most importantly, consistency.

For instance, all of the scenes set in the underground complex utilize lengthy camera pans.  These pans (of high-tech machinery, infirmary beds for the robots, whirring reel-to-reel computers, etc.) cover a tremendous amount of territory and successively give one the impression of Delos' massive control apparatus. 

We return to this underground complex several times in the film, and Crichton universally deploys these lengthy pans; not just to provide the setting a sense of scope, but also to keep things moving in the film. 

We're constantly aware, via these frequent panning shots, of the momentum necessary to keep Delos operational.  Underground, nothing ever stops.  And the nighttime "clean-up" scene in Westworld with vehicles and workmen gathering the "dead" androids for repairs likewise adds to the film's sense of reality; to the sense of a real-life park at an apex of activity.

Inside Westworld,  Crichton adopts a different technique to film the "fake" cowboy moments; the moments that seem to be straight out of old Western films and TV shows.  In this case -- for bar fights and shoot-outs that aren't real -- he deploys slow motion photography so that immediately our minds seize on the concept of movie Westerns; and of a history of being entertained by them.  These heightened, almost exaggerated (and again, lengthy) sequences remind us that this world of Delos is all but  "play acting;" that the world Peter and John engage with in Delos is not real or authentic.  It's a game.

When things turn sour inside Westworld,  Crichton makes another pivot in terms of stylistic flourishes.  He does away with the artificiality of the slow motion photography and relies instead on staging and shooting tricks we most closely associate with the horror genre.  He thus adopts first person subjective shots, tracking shots, and even stages a decent "jolt moment" as Peter backs up into terror.   All of these moments combine to ramp up the tension, and carry us through the film's exciting climax.  There's even a sting-in-the-tail/tale involving the (scorched) Gunslinger as he gets up for one last kill.

It isn't so much that any of this workmanship represents revolutionary or trail-blazing filmmaking; it's merely that Crichton's approach is economical and adroit; efficient and well-done.  Without being show-offy, he almost universally finds the right shot for the right scene, and the result is that Westworld moves effortlessly from set-piece to set-piece with a bit of good visual grace to go alongside the film's subversive and extremely witty sense of humor.

"There are no rules..."

If Crichton proves deft as a film director, it's fair to make the same case for him as the film's screenwriter. 

Even though Westworld features a fairly straight-forward narrative that devolves into a last-act chase sequence, Crichton has nonetheless layered on social commentary in a way that proves both appealing and funny.  These touches earn the film a serious appraisal in terms of the genre and what it can accomplish.

Specifically, Westworld ponders the human race and its unlucky creation, the androids of Delos.  First let's consider the humans. 

These are creatures who pay an exorbitant fee to escape from reality into a more primitive, less comfortable past.   That fact alone says something about us, doesn't it?  Specifically, it says that we've built ourselves an uncomfortable modern world in which the only outlet or escape is a fantasy that looks to the past; to "less complicated" times.  Ironically, we romanticize that past and yearn for the "simplicity of it" instead of making the present more tolerable and liveable. 

As Star Trek's Mr. Spock would say...highly illogical.

In this more primitive past, the vacationing guests at Delos can indulge sexual and violent fantasy, all without feeling the slightest bit of guilt or remorse about the behavior because the target of these fantasies is a machine...and we don't consider machines to be life-forms. Again, this is a statement about us as a species.  We find killing...fun.  And we consider machines to be subservient; not our equals.

Intriguingly, Delos also makes it possible for people lacking in any real survival skills or abilities (like Dick Van Patten's character) to buff up their egos and feel like larger-than-life heroes.

Yet  those feelings of heroism and bravery stem from killing machines who are programmed to be slow on the draw; or by bedding female androids who are not entitled "to refuse a guest's seduction."  

In other words, it's a stacked deck. 

There's no danger here and no real adversity either.  And where there's no adversity, there's no growth and no learning.  Again, it's all just a game, a delusion to make a guest feel "special" when in fact the androids have no choice but to die on cue or submit to sexual advances.  As a species, we're easily fooled into believing we're pretty terrific, aren't we?

And that's where Peter (Benjamin) proves an interesting character.  He's a neurotic, insecure lawyer still hung up on his ex-wife (who took him to the cleaners during their divorce).  He's the stereotypical modern "sissy" man, and he feels "big" about himself for bedding an android, and for shooting down an android gunslinger.  

He thus mistakes the world of Delos for one that really matters. This error becomes plain to him when the androids malfunction and commit murder.  Suddenly, Peter is thrown into a situation that is all-too-real, and he must use his wits, imagination, constitution and other human gifts to survive the day.   His previous (and short-lived) confidence was based on a sham.

But at the end of the film, a battered, sweating, exhausted Peter realizes the truth.  That he survived something "real" and that it wasn't at all a game.  Rather, it was terrifying.  The last shot of the film is a close-shot of Peter recognizing human folly.  He recognizes his own folly (in treating the game like it mattered) and the Delos creator's folly: in believing that nothing here could ever possibly go wrong.

In terms of the androids, the film hints (and just barely so...) the idea that the machines are gaining an awareness of how badly they are being used by the human guests.  In Brynner's case, one gets the sense that the android is tired of losing to a sissy human who he knows he could beat in any fair fight.  The androids here are "sex models" and gunfighters, and every single day they have to die or put out so that men like Dick Van Patten or Richard Benjamin can feel better about themselves.  Men like the character played by James Brolin are not much better: macho thugs who see people simply as receptacles for their urges and appetites, both sexual and violent.

It's an unflattering portrait of modern man.

In this scenario, as in films like Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, audience loyalties become increasingly divided.  It's not right to enslave any creature, and yet nor do we wish to see humanity subjugated before an enemy.  Westworld offers a very interesting take on all this, and I agree with reviewer Zimmerman that the film would have been even better had it been R-rated; so that we could understand even better the plight of these machines who suddenly realize it isn't so pleasant to be cast as the villain (or the prize...) in another creature's fairy tale.

Finally, I just have to comment on Yul Brynner's famous performance.  He gives new meaning to the term "steely eyed," and brings an intense sense of physicality to the role of the android gunslinger.  He moves with a strange but purposeful carriage (even while riding a horse) and successfully evokes the feeling of something that is more than human.  Although his face rarely shows expression of any type, there is also something in Brynner's gait and stance that implicitly suggests an under-the-surface malevolence.  Even though he is an emotionless machine, he's clearly a bad ass.  

This is a really accomplished performance, and Brynner isn't just portraying a machine...he's portraying a machine with a (data?) chip on his shoulder.  He's a lot of fun to watch in this movie.

When I wrote Horror Films of the 1970s back in the years 1999-2000, I finished off a review of Westworld with the thought that "what man has forged to serve him will dominate him unless stopped, or conversely, treated with common decency."  Today that conclusion still seems apt.

Someone organize those androids at Delos a union...before it's too late.

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week



"Boy, have we got a vacation for you..."

- Westworld (1973)

Monday, February 21, 2011

One Planet; Two Futures


If you've been reading this blog in the last few months, you know I've been focusing many of my cult-movie reviews on dystopian science fiction films (Z.P.G., THX-1138, Zardoz, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and Gattaca, so far).

The reason?  Well, the mysteries of the future endlessly fascinate, don't they?   Two roads diverge before us, and we cannot travel both, to paraphrase the poet Robert Frost.

In that spirit of curiosity about the shape of things to come, I read two very intriguing news stories this morning about humanity's possible future.

One article portrays a rather grim future, where income disparity grows worse and food supplies run scarce (Soylent Green?). 

The other gazes at the next (mostly-positive) step in human evolution, perhaps: "Singularity" (which is also a term from the 1990s series, Dark Skies, by the way.).

Here's the link to the grimmer of the two future stories, titled: "Planet could be 'unrecognizable' by 2050, experts say."  And here's a snippet:

"...a growing, more affluent population competing for ever scarcer resources could make for an "unrecognizable" world by 2050, researchers warned at a major US science conference Sunday.

The United Nations has predicted the global population will reach seven billion this year, and climb to nine billion by 2050, "with almost all of the growth occurring in poor countries, particularly Africa and South Asia," said John Bongaarts of the non-profit Population Council.

To feed all those mouths, "we will need to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we have in the last 8,000," said Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

"By 2050 we will not have a planet left that is recognizable" if current trends continue, Clay said.

And here's the link to a Time Magazine story I read via Andrew Sullivan's blog.  It is titled "2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal" and it lays out an amazing, optimistic vision involving man's ability to purposefully re-shape his world; and even his mortality:

"It's impossible to predict the behavior of these smarter-than-human intelligences with which (with whom?) we might one day share the planet, because if you could, you'd be as smart as they would be. But there are a lot of theories about it. Maybe we'll merge with them to become super-intelligent cyborgs, using computers to extend our intellectual abilities the same way that cars and planes extend our physical abilities. Maybe the artificial intelligences will help us treat the effects of old age and prolong our life spans indefinitely. Maybe we'll scan our consciousnesses into computers and live inside them as software, forever, virtually. Maybe the computers will turn on humanity and annihilate us. The one thing all these theories have in common is the transformation of our species into something that is no longer recognizable as such to humanity circa 2011. This transformation has a name: the Singularity."

So will the wonders of Singularity transform us all into immortal beings in 2045? Or will we be crowding public squares for scraps of leftover food in 2050?

Being that we have but one planet here, we cannot travel both routes. Is it in our hands, I wonder, to choose?  Or has our trajectory already been fixed?

Today I'll hope for the Singularity scenario, and ponder Robert Frost again, who notes in "Our Hold on the Planet" that if you take nature altogether since time begain -- including human nature, in peace and war -- that it "must be a little more in favor of man (say one percent or so...)."

Let's hope so.

The Cult-TV Faces of: John Glover








Friday, February 18, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: THX-1138 (1971)


George Lucas remains both the God and Devil of sci-fi film enthusiasts.  A God, because he gave the world Star Wars in 1977, and in the process changed both science fiction movies and Hollywood film making forever. 

A Devil -- at least according to some -- because Lucas also transformed his Star Wars empire into a merchandising platform and then made prequels that quite a few critics don't believe measure up to his original vision for the franchise. 

Also, Lucas has endlessly and fruitlessly tinkered with the Original Trilogy (see: Greedo shoots first, or CGI Jabba in the Star Wars special edition).

Intriguingly, the recent Blu-Ray release of THX-1138 "The Director's Cut" (first released on DVD in 2004) provides ample ammunition for anyone seeking to pigeonhole the controversial Lucas as either a cinematic deity or film demon. 

What this means in simple terms is that THX-1138 is still a staggering and beautiful vision -- a film experience unlike any other -- but that it has been unnecessarily compromised by the obsessive tinkering of latter-day Lucas.  

So the once austere, low-budget, and wholly impressive THX-1138 now bizarrely features CGI critters, CGI landscapes, and other digital flourishes that not only seem unnecessary; but actually detract from the movie's abundant raw power and sense of unfettered ingenuity.  A film that Lucas once described as a critique of "unbridled consumer culture" is now merely a product itself, seeking a slice of the market with the very latest in digital wizardry.

I don't like that one whit, and Lucas's continued insistence on trying to paint away the decades in his films-- the cinematic equivalent of the Peter Pan Syndrome -- makes ignoring these changes virtually impossible. 

So THX-1138 is a great science fiction film that, in my opinion, has been compromised by its own creator in its latest incarnation.

But don't let that stop you from seeing THX-1138 even in this new, bastardized form.  The original film thoroughly deserves the descriptor "classic," and if you enjoy post-apocalyptic and Orwellian science fiction, Lucas's vision still retains much of its power.  

Just look away when the CGI monsters start showing up...

"Our relationship is normal and conforming."

THX-1138 is the story of a very unhappy future.  Man has moved underground to a vast, overpopulated metropolis, and is under the thrall of not Big Government, but Biggest Government. 

This government keeps the populace on drugs at all time. To be sober and drug free in this world  is a crime called "criminal drug evasion."

The State also keeps tabs on its citizenry with video surveillance monitors, knowing everyone's location and activity at every moment.  There are even cameras mounted behind bathroom medicine cabinets.  

In this future world, the differences between men and women are also intentionally minimized by the State...a unique speculation on where "political correctness" could lead if legislated enthusiastically and allowed to run amok.  In the world of THX-1138, unisex hair-cuts and wardrobes mask all gender differences so that the people can concentrate only on work and "produce" goods.     Sex, or even sexual attraction are distractions from production. 

In terms of work, citizens toil in robot-making factories and at other mundane tasks seemingly around the clock.  And they are entertained at home by strange, pornographic holograms produced by "The Fantasy Bureau."  Their sexual needs are fulfilled individually, by what can only be described as masturbation automatons

Additionally, the citizenry are constantly encouraged to shop in their spare time.   One of the Government's mantras is "Buy more and be happy." 

In this world, the Government has actually replaced God too, and workers confess their sins to Big Brother in the attractive, artistically-rendered personal confessional booths dotting the city. 

"Blessing of the State," are offered by  this personal confessional kiosk...but just don't expect any privacy.  Every word, every idea is closely monitored.  All answers and advice from the State comes in the form of canned, off-the-shelf platitudes.

One day, a female worker in this dystopia, LUH-3417 (Maggie McOmie) goes off her meds and realizes that she is in love with her roommate, THX-1138 (Duvall). She take steps to get him off his meds too, and THX-1138 eventually reciprocates the powerful emotions.  The duo begins a sexual relationship, but sexual relations are strictly forbidden by the state....which is controlling the population levels, a la Z.P.G

In this world, you can't even choose a roommate, let alone whom you might want to love.

When the State grows aware of LUH and THX's personal rebellion, LUH is replaced at home by SEN-5421 (Donald Pleasence), and THX grows angry, wanting to know what has become of LUH.  He is then imprisoned in a vast white holding cell -- one with seemingly no walls.  There he sees LUH again, and she claims she is carrying his child.   

Finally, THX escapes and attempts to flee the city after he learns of LUH's death  In close pursuit are the ubiquitous, faceless police robots that keep the citizenry in line and patrol the streets.

In the end, THX-1138 does escape to the surface, not because of his own resourcefulness, necessarily, but because continuing the pursuit would cost the government too much money. 

 "Remember, thrifty thinkers are always under budget..."

"If you have a problem, don't hesitate to ask for assistance."

When I reviewed Walkabout (1971) here earlier in the week, I discussed the idea that the landscape of the Australian Outback was actually a character in the film, as well as a setting for the drama. 

THX-1138 remains impressive because George Lucas nails the same vibe here, but in a totally fictional world, one which he impressively constructed on a budget of only $700,000 dollars. Again, this is something of an amazing feat.  Here, every single component of a future world had to be constructed, from corridors to costumes to props, and the seams rarely, if ever, show.  He also makes excellent use of existing locations to give the film the necessary sense of scope.

Lucas embodies the world of the future, the world of The State, using a  potent combination of good editing, excellent camera work, insert shots and also alien-sounding jargon or dialogue. In conjunction, these facets of the film's presentation render it an almost overwhelming sensory experience.  This mechanized, impersonal world never feels faked or phony.  It is a believable in a most disturbing fashion.  In some ways, THX-1138 is very much a mood movie.  The overall impression of visiting this grim future world is as powerful (or more so..) than the character interaction or specific details of the narrative.

Most interestingly, Lucas non-conventionally and routinely breaks up the frame space of his characters by focusing obsessively on close-ups of computer print-outs, insert shots of sine-waves, and minimalist sets.  All of these high-tech shots enhance the impression of a world that has lost touch with nature; with Mother Nature herself, and human nature too.   It's a fascinating approach.  As we seek to identify more and more with THX-1138, that quest is often stymied -- intentionally -- by insert shots of technological gobbledygook, by shots of numbers, or read-outs, or electrical impulses coruscating on screens.

And the dialogue is a stew of futuristic nonsense, unintelligible and deliberately inhuman.  "Don't use the 714," "Wait for 32," "Skip the 1114," "See Index 24-941," and so on.  The obvious conclusion -- enhanced by the ubiquitous presence of robot police enforcers -- is that machines have overtaken this world, and human nature is being snuffed out by drugs, by conformity, by the tyranny of technology itself.

Ironically, Lucas makes this tyranny rather beautiful by the use of holograms, sine-waves, surveillance camera footage and close-ups of read-outs.  The only thing I can compare his approach to here is Robert Wise's use of similar high-tech imagery in The Andromeda Strain (1971).  In both cases, an artist's eye is applied to the machine world, and a strange sense of non-human beauty is fostered.  

THX-1138 also visually transmits the ideas of humans as being unimportant in their own world by applying a consistent white-on-white color palette.  Only the black robots and the flesh of bald human heads stand out from the washed-out, immaculate, computer-perfect background. 

This is one reason why I object so much to Lucas's twenty-first century revisionism.  In the new version of the film he layers on lush coloring (particularly gold) and this diminishes the movie's visual transmission of his theme: that humans have become background noise in their own culture.

One of THX-1138's most beautiful and emotional scenes -- the sex scene between THX And LUH -- reverses this approach, and for the right reason.  Here, shades of human flesh dominate and Lucas provides beautiful, extreme close-ups of passionate, remarkable human faces (and also bodies) intermingling. 

This heightened, human moment represents the very antithesis of the world largely portrayed in the film, and so it's right -- and clever - that Lucas reverses techniques to depict the love scene.  It becomes infinitely more powerful this way, almost epic as a rebellious statement against society's rules and regulations.  Again, I must point out that this selection of technique is that of an artist who understands the frame, and power of film in a potent way.

There's some beautiful paranoia in THX-1138, and it contributes a suffocating tension that drives the film.  Individual rights have been taken away to such a degree by this overbearing Big Government that a beautiful woman, LUH, is replaced by a man, SEN, as a roommate, and Duvall's character is supposed to have no feelings about that. 

Although homosexuality is never broached explicitly in the film, Pleasence's effete performance adds another layer of interest to the proceedings.  SEN seems as obsessed with THX as LUH was, and we aren't sure that sex isn't on his mind, either.  The message isn't anti-gay, to be sure, but anti-freedom, or anti-individual.  In this world, you can't choose who you co-habitate with; and the government could just as well hook you up with a man as a woman, and expect you to quietly conform.

THX-1138 is also clever in the fashion that the screenplay stresses how the surface appearance of individuality actually reduces the overall sense of human connection in the future metropolis.  Here, there are no churches where communities can gather to listen to sermons or lift collective voice in hymns.  The confessional kiosks, pointedly called "unichapels," determinedly seat only one; meaning that the communal aspects of spirituality have been deleted from the culture.  

It's very much the same story with sex in the film.  By offering pornographic home holograms and masturbation robots, the State has also made sex a single-serving, one-person activity.  Again, what's lost in this but essential human connection; the intimate link with another being.

The mantra about shopping -- about conspicuous consumption (buy and be happy) -- also makes the citizenry focus on self; not community.  What do I want to buy today?  What would please me?  The most important thought isn't  "how can I make the world better," but how can I make my life better.

There also appear to be no families in the film. The Government has thus removed community and human ties to such a degree that the individual has only one meaningful connection in his or her life: to the goods-selling, religion-spouting, sex-providing State.

Visually, THX-1138 is undeniably stunning.  Late in the film, Lucas imagines a prison with no walls.  It is just an endless vision of white...nothing.  This is a canny image that again undercuts convention and buttresses the movie's theme.  If a person is trapped in a jail cell with walls and bars, he knows that there is an outside; an escape.  If a person is trapped in a jail cell that seems infinite -- with no end and no beginning -- there is no hope of escape; no possibility of a way out.  In microcosm, the prison thus symbolizes the State: it is so all-encompassing in the lives of its citizenry that nothing else is visible.  There is no hope on the horizon.  There is nothing.

Stylistically, then, THX-1138 is a dazzling film  experiment.  Even if the narrative resembles, in some way, Orwell's 1984, Lucas's visualization of this dystopia grants the material a unique aura.  This really is a one-of-a-kind sort of science fiction movie, and one that continues to have resonance today. 

For instance, we have been told explicitly by our own government to go out and shop (after 9/11).  Our government has just re-authorized the Patriot Act, which allows the government expansive powers of surveillance without judicial oversight.  And in an attempt to reduce discrimination (always a good cause...), we have often been told that men and women are exactly the same, and THX-1138 reveals the logical end point of that belief: sex differences are hidden, and made unrecognizable in public so no prejudice can exist.

Even the idea of a society wacked out on drugs isn't so far off either, since we have been called a "Prozac Nation," from time to time.  Our society's way of dealing with unruly children is also to prescribe behavior modification drugs like Ritalin.  Again, THX-1138 spells out a future where such trends continue...and overwhelm us. 

Today, there is wide ranging discussion, debate and anger about what constitutes a "Nanny State" and how much government is too much government.  That idea too, is broached in George Lucas's first feature.


"Consumption is being standardized"

Given the immediately apparent strengths of THX-1138, it is bizarre how the Director's Cut undercuts them. In the original THX-1138, the film's trod-upon hero, THX (Robert Duvall) escapes from a totalitarian society in the last act, and in the super structure of his future megapolis encounters a rat.

In the Director's cut, he encounters a CGI scorpion instead.

In the original THX-1138, THX also runs into some some strange surface dwellers while attempting to escape captivity.

Today, those raggedy men have been transformed into hairy humanoid creatures who resemble the Lycanthropes from the Underworld film series.

The film's climactic chase scene has also been touched up with digital fx work to make it appear more modern, pacey and spectacular; and there also are plenty of new "vistas" of the underground city that would not have been possible to forge in the early 1970s.  Digital people have been inserted to make the world seem more populated than before.

It's as if, for some reason, George Lucas is obsessed with one-upping Logan's Run (1976).

But here is the real problem: These special effects "upgrades"  simply make THX-1138 neither fish nor fowl. Those who would find THX-1138 a fascinating enterprise are not in it for the monsters or creatures; not in it for the chases or special effects. And those looking explicitly for such superficial qualities won't have the patience for the rest of the film anyway, which is a thoughtful meditation on freedom and love, not a fantasy cartoon set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

I unhappily write this denunciation as an ardent Lucas fan and frequent defender, and also a longtime admirer of THX-1138, as I hope you can see that from this review.  I still believe the director's freshman film is something of a masterpiece, a great dystopian film from the age of great dystopian films (Soylent Green, The Omega Man, ZPG, Zardoz, Death Race 2000, Logan's Run, etc.)

But I also submit there was no need to update THX-1138 in this fashion, and indeed, to do so violates the text of the film in some crucial way.  The new cut is re-packaged in a way that the film's Big Brother would heartily approve of; making the sublime obvious and unnecessarily removing the austerity of the piece.  Our imagination once did the heavy lifting in THX-1138, augmented by a director's powerful artistic choices; now it's just ILM flexing its imaginative chops.

Another inescapable fact: this is a vision of the future as imagined in the early 1970s. THX-1138 is a product of that time, down to every last decision Lucas made in terms of editing, wardrobe, camera movement, sound effects etc.   Why, Lucas even calls it in the special features, a "parable of the year 1971" and careful listeners may recognize President Nixon's speeches informing some of the dialogue.  That's the context, of the picture according to the director himself.

So to insert  a rich and warm golden filter over several sequences of THX on his job at the assembly line, for instance, or to expand beyond the restrictive sets for expansive digital vistas, only muddies the thematic waters. Lucas can add new special effects till he is blue in the face, and this will still be a film he made in 1971.

Why? You can't untangle a film from its creation, from its historical context, no matter how hard you try. All you're doing is re-vamping it with the latest fad. This isn't artistry. This is some kind of need to have your work perceived as "current" or "contemporary." In ten years, THX-1138 will require another special effects paint-job, if all you care about are special effects.

Or more simply put, what was so wrong with the 1971 rat?

Why is a CGI scorpion better?

All of this is four-decades-later tinkering is immensely troubling, and THX-1138 "The Director's Cut" is a textbook example of how Lucas's latter-day choices actually cloud and compromise his prodigious, natural skills as a filmmaker.

So to put the matter succinctly, I remain incredibly impressed with what Lucas imagined and delivered on a limited budget in 1971.

But the 2004 version?  It's an unnecessary revision of a great work of art. 

Somewhere, in the glittering gold spanking new special effects of THX-1138, you can almost hear a little voice -- perhaps that of Lucas himself -- urging us "Buy more now.  Buy and be happy..."

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...