Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Davy Jones (1945 - 2012)

I'm saddened to report the news that Davy Jones, singer for the Monkees, has passed away at the age of sixty-six.  He apparently died of a massive heart attack.

I believe this terribly sad news is going to hit many folks of my generation (and a little older) pretty hard. Young Davy Jones was one of the earliest of the pop-culture/teenage "heart throbs," immortalized not just on The Monkees (1966 - 1968) and in the film Head (1968), but in a popular episode of The Brady Bunch, "Getting Davy Jones" (1971) as well.

I remember watching The Monkees religiously in reruns as a kid, well after the initial Beatles and Monkees crazes had died down.  And yet the series was still popular in the mid-1970s when I watched, and I remember owning at least one Monkees album.

Like Star Trek, Gilligan's Island, Lost in Space, The Twilight Zone, The Brady Bunch and I Love Lucy, The Monkees remains a Generation X touchstone, and Davy Jones was a crucial element of it.  Today, I still remember Ben Stiller's 1990s riff on The Monkees, called "The Grungies," and how it satirized the offbeat stylistic/humorous flourishes of the 1960s series.  I suppose certain people will always consider The Monkees a TV-cash-in on The Beatles, but the great thing about television is that it offers you the opportunity to get to know characters in a series more intimately than a film does, over a period of weeks, months, and years.

That's what happened with The Monkees.  The group -- Mickey, Peter, Mike and Davy -- came into our living rooms and quickly become friends.  They never left us, at least not in our memories, and we never forgot them.

One thing is for certain, Davy Jones brought a lot of joy into the lives of my generation as it was growing up, and losing him now is a difficult proposition.  My sympathies go out to his family for the loss of a tremendous talent.

Below I've embedded some of Mr. Jones memorable musical performances.

Rest in peace, Davy Jones...












Support My Blog Button Now Working...

Hi Folks,

I've had some very generous readers here attempt to send me donations for the blog, using the button appearing on the right side-bar.  Problem is, it hasn't been working right.

I've tried over and over to get it operational, to no avail. So I finally gave up the ghost and switched to Paypal for this service.  But the donation button to the right is now (at last...) working properly.

So without sounding too craven (I hope...) donate away!

And thank you very much for your support.

Now back to your regularly scheduled blogging...

best,
John

Memory Bank: Star Trek Fotonovels (Mandala Productions; 1977 - 1978)


With the dawn of the home video market and the VHS format also came the death of the niche publication known as the "photonovel."  

If you grew up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, you'll no doubt recall that photonovels represented an essential part of "fandom"  during that span.  Since you couldn't easily watch your favorite films or TV programs any time you wanted, save for the convenient or lucky rerun, the photonovel offered one the valuable opportunity to revisit favorite productions like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers or even Outland. 

In essence, the photonovel was a visual re-telling of a movie or TV episode that featured hundreds (perhaps even thousands...) of frames or stills from that production, as well as "balloon" dialogue (like a comic book) from the script or teleplay.  

The photonovels were gorgeous to look at, featured details you might have missed while watching the film, and also served as an important lesson in film grammar  In other words, you could see, moment to moment, how directors and editors had chosen to compose the action in various productions.  If you were an aspiring filmmaker or film critic, this last plus was a real kick.

In 1977 and 1978, an outfit called Mandala Productions, working for Bantam, released ten episodes of Star Trek in the photonovel or "fotonovel" format.  These episodes included "City on the Edge of Forever," "Where No Man Has Gone Before," "The Trouble with Tribbles," "A Taste of Armageddon," "Metamorphosis," "All Our Yesterdays," "The Galileo Seven," "A Piece of the Action," "Devil in the Dark" and "Day of the Dove."  

Each thick-bound fotonovel from Mandala featured "over 300" color photographs from the episode adapted, and even more than that.  Each fotonovel also featured reader mail and a cast list with descriptions of important characters.  Even better, following each adaptation was a "glossary" that provided definitions for things such as "sensors," "Pergium," "Thermo-Concrete," and more. 

Some editions even featured interviews with guest cast (Mariette Hartley was featured in #6: "All our Yesterdays"), a story quiz, and a sneak preview of the next Fotonovel.

As I wrote recently, I spent the better part of some of my youthful summers on six-week-long camping trips across the U.S., traveling from New Jersey to California and back.  I've seen just about every state in the country, save for Alaska and Hawaii at this point.  

Anyway, since we were making our family journey in a Ford van, we often went for long driving spells from state to state.  Regardless, I was away from the TV -- horrors! -- for long spells of time, and so these Star Trek Fotonovels went with me.  My edition of "Day of the Dove" has fallen apart, and my favorite edition of the bunch, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," is close behind it.  I loved "Where No Man..." so much because it was a pilot episode, and therefore filled with oddities such as the goose-neck screens, the phaser rifle and the transparent communicator.  The fotonovel gave me the opportunity to eat all of the detail up on this "alternate" Trek tech.

I've kept my Mandala Star Trek Fotonovels to this day, though of course, Star Trek is now available for our viewing pleasure on DVD, on Netflix, on Amazon and elsewhere.  

Still, there's something absolutely wonderful about experiencing the series in this colorful paperback format...





Collectible of the Week: Alien Resurrection Movie Edition Action Figures (Kenner; 1997)



No bones about it, Alien Resurrection is my least favorite "pure" Alien movie.  There's something vaguely cartoonish and campy about the affair that I find troublesome and irksome, though I readily admit there are moments and scenes I cherish.

But none of those moments feature Dan Hedaya, I assure you.

At the very least, the crew of the Betty gave us an early glimpse of Joss Whedon's Firefly concept. and as usual, Sigourney Weaver was terrific as Ripley.

Anyway, in the year of Alien Resurrection's release (also the year of Starship Troopers), Kenner -- a company that had already released some terrific Alien and Predator-styled toys in the early 1990s -- released a "movie edition" set of six action figures from the fourth Alien movie.  These were relatively large figures compared to the earlier editions, about six-inches in height.

The toy box described the film's milieu in rather verbose terms:

"The Future.  An old enemy.  The perfect predator.  A zealous assembly of scientists and officials conducting the experimental wedding of human and alien genes...A band of renegade space smugglers and the mysterious appearance of a woman linked to an alien species dangerous beyond calculation!  The result is a peril reborn and more shockingly monstrous than ever before!"

Kenner produced two protagonists for this variation on their Aliens line, the aforementioned Ripley, described as "warrant officer" and "alien behavioral expert," and Winona Ryder's android, Call, described plainly as the "mechanic of the Betty Ship."

The alien side was represented by the warrior ("drone to the Alien queen,") the battle-scarred alien ("combat ravaged warrior drone"), the Aqua Alien ("genetically enhanced aquatic alien") and finally, the Newborn ("genetic human/alien hybrid").

The likenesses on the human(oid) characters are pretty good, and alien drone, Newborn and battle scarred aliens all look pretty awesome, as you can hopefully see.

The aquatic alien was not featured in the film, though there was an underwater scene in the film designed and executed as an homage to The Poseidon Adventure.  I understand that the Newborn alien is pretty unpopular with Alien fans because, heck, why mess with perfection when it comes to these xenomorphs, but it's certainly a ghoulish-looking thing.

Another nice touch: many of the figures come complete with awesome miniature toys, including facehuggers, a small alien queen, and...a blood-spattered chestburster. 

Now, my son Joel has never ever seen any of the Alien movies...I would never allow that at his tender age.  But he loves the monster action figures, particularly the Newborn and the chest-burster.  Except he just thinks the chestburster is a red-speckled worm monster/baby alien...

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote: Cinematic Joan of Arc(s)


Monday, February 27, 2012

Cult-TV Theme Watch: The Carnival

The Latin words "carne" and "vale" mean, literally, "farewell to meat" or "farewell to flesh."  This definition showcases the religious origin of carnival celebrations (in relation to Lent), but also proves illustrative in understanding this popular cult-tv trope.  

The carnival or circus are realms of letting go; of shedding civilization and embracing basic desires and drives.

Historically, carnivals -- worlds of masquerades and celebrations -- were  frequently used to mock sacred church ceremonies and officials.   Carnivals are also sometimes considered "upside down" worlds, ones literally cloistered or secluded from mainstream society.  In these colorful, raucous worlds, we don't understand all the rules and so we feel endangered by them.

In other words, the carnival is a separate, alien realm where letting go -- expressing desire -- constitutes the norm.

Accordingly, the carnival has been a location of "the Id Unleashed" in cult television history.  In The Twilight Zone's "Perchance to Dream" (1959) by Charles Beaumont, a man, Edward Hall (Richard Conte) with a dangerous heart condition dreams of a nightmare carnival world where a luscious female siren, Maya (Suzanne Lloyd) beckons him.  

If he surrenders to his dream desire for this almost feral cat woman, his own body will kill him for it.  The narrative's conflict occurs between desire (represented by the carnival) and reason/science/medicine.    Do we obey our Id?  Or our sense of logic and rationality?  Here, the world of the carnival is equated with human dreams...and nightmares.

One Step Beyond's "The Clown" by Merwin Gerard and Larry Marcus treads along not entirely dissimilar lines.  In this tale, a husband's (Christopher Dark) jealousies and passions -- the Id again -- consume him and at the carnival, he murders his innocent wife, Nonnie. (Yvette Mimieux).  But the murderous husband is then haunted by a vengeful, undying clown figure, Pippo (Mark Shaughnessy).  It's as though the unloosing of the Id has opened up a doorway to other, inescapable terrors.  

Once you give into desire, it can consume you.

In The Fantastic Journey (1977) episode titled "Funhouse," wayward travelers in the Bermuda Triangle discovered a strange fun house and carnival operated by a mysterious magician, Marcus Apollonius (Mel Ferrer).  

On the surface, the carnival appeared harmless.  Below the surface, Apollonius and his minions plotted to possess the living, namely Dr. Jonathan Willaway (Roddy McDowall) and Lianna (Katie Saylor).  

Important in this narrative is the deep gulf breaching surface and substance, appearance and reality. Here, the "safe" fun house and its magician are but masks for dark and malevolent forces.  What's underneath the facade of the carnival?

Only terror...

In tales such as The Evil Touch's "The Trial" and The X-Files' "Humbug," the carnival represents an alien society with an alien set of beliefs and laws. 

Navigating the world of the carnival involves successfully  countenancing these beliefs.  In the carnival, you find not only clowns, but geeks and freaks, and each is a representative of an alien system of thinking and behaving.  To those of the normal world, the carnival might as well be another planet...

From 2003 to 2005, HBO aired Carnivale, a series set at a traveling carnival during the Great Depression.  The hero was a man named Ben (Nick Stahl) who joined the carnival, and was headed for a meeting with a monstrous preacher, Justin (Clancy Brown).  

In this case, a sort of "reverse" dynamic existed, showcasing the Carnival not entirely as a place of evil, but as a setting or "home" for the protagonists.  Meanwhile, conventional organized religion, represented by Brown's character, seemed authentically malevolent by comparison.

What remains so odd about the carnival in cult-television history is that it has become so frequently a domain of terror. Although carnivals and circuses are ostensibly supposed to be fun places, they are actually the origin places of monsters (Tales from the Crypt: "Lower Berth") or living, breathing, unending nightmares (Star Trek: Voyager: "The Thaw.")    

The sub-textual message of carnivals in cult-tv must therefore be that we should fear these places.  

We should fear the shedding of our "normal" life, and feel anxious about those who make the carnival their home terrain...

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Carnival/Circus

Identified by Dave Colohan: The Twilight Zone: "Perchance to Dream."

2

3


4



5


Identified by Dave Colohan: Dr. Who: "Carnival of Monsters."



7
 


Identified by Hugh: The Super Friends: "The Incredible Space Circus."
 


9
 


10
 


11
 

Identified by Hugh: Dr. Who: "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy."




13
 


Identified by Dave Colohan: The X-Files: "Humbug."
 


Identified by Jay-Jay: Star Trek Voyager: "The Thaw."


Identified by Dave Colohan: Carnivale (2003 - 2005).



17
 

Television and Cinema Verities # 8



"...[F]ilm operates on a level much closer to music and to painting than to the printed word, and, of course, movies present the opportunity to convey complex concepts and abstractions without the traditional reliance on words. I think that 2001, like music, succeeds in short-circuiting the rigid surface cultural blocks that shackle our consciousness to narrowly limited areas of experience and is able to cut directly through to areas of emotional comprehension. In two hours and forty minutes of film there are only forty minutes of dialogue."

- The late director, Stanley Kubrick, in an interview with Joseph Gelmis from 1969.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

CULT TV BLOGGING: The Fantastic Journey: "Turnabout" (April 7, 1977)


It's funny how the world plays tricks on you.

When I began cult-tv blogging The Fantastic Journey some weeks ago, I thought immediately of the episode "Turnabout," a seemingly archaic battle-of-the-sexes episode in which the women of a province in the Bermuda Triangle zap away chauvinist men to a null-zone after suffering many personal and sexual indignities at male hands.

I had expected to write how "old" and tired this familiar story is.

After all, narratives such as "Turnabout" have been seen before many times in cult-TV history.  It's the old role reversal tale: the women -- gasp! -- take over society, dislodging males from their (rightful?) perches of authority.

The Fantastic Journey's "Turnabout" is not even the last instance of this conventional tale.  Star Trek: The Next Generation offered a similar, horribly hackneyed story in 1987, entitled "Angel One," about a matriarchy of women lording it over poor men.

A war between men and women?  I mean, come on, right?  How cliched is that?

But by the time I actually watched "Turnabout" last week, the national news was veritably filled with utterly horrifying stories of prominent male "leaders" in our 21st century culture making bizarre decisions regarding women and their rights.

For instance, Congress held a committee meeting about birth control and no women were present.  Then, the leading Republican candidate for President, Rick Santorum, made the claim that women are "too emotional" for combat assignments in the military.  Then Virginia considered passing a law that would - literally -- force non-medically-necessary "trans-vaginal" penetration upon women seeking to have an abortion, a procedure that, regardless of how you feel about it in terms of morality, is still technically legal in this country.

Hey, I thought these people didn't believe in Big Government dictating matters of health to individuals, top-down?  Now I suppose I understand Newt Gingrich's warning about "right wing social engineering."

Anyway, given this new battleground in the war of the sexes, perhaps "Turnabout" isn't so old and hackneyed after all...

In this final episode of The Fantastic Journey to feature Lianna (Katie Saylor), the wayward travelers enter a new time zone.  Male hunters quickly capture Lianna and take her back to an advanced kingdom.

Varian, Scott, Fred and Willaway follow, and learn that Queen Hayalana (Joan Collins) is plotting a rebellion against her husband, King Morgan (Paul Mantee).

Willaway, Varian, Fred and Scott are kept on hand as "breeding stock" while Hayalana utilizes a powerful computer called "The Complex" to zap away the men.  "What evil magic is this?" Morgan asks dumbly, before his untimely disappearance.

Unfortunately, Hayalana and her women prove to be just as despotic as the male rulers were.  "Be silent or you will be de-materialized" declares the Queen, squelching all debate.  Then, she poisons the travelers' food so they can't escape.

But when the Complex begins to malfunction, Hayalana needs men after all.  She requires Willaway's help reprogramming the machine.  The travelers utilize this opportunity to broker a tender peace between men and women...

As is par for the course in The Fantastic Journey, Willaway gets the best line in "Turnabout."

When confronted with the facts that women rulers are as merciless as men, he pinpoints their hypocrisy.  "It's not the lack of compassion I hate, it's the lack of justice," he declares. Well said.  I should also add, this episode does a nice job of filling in some of the blanks of the Willaway character.  We learn, for instance, that he worked at NASA, JPL and Cal Tech.

Meanwhile, the Complex certainly seems a pretty conflicted computer.  It possesses a female voice but a male chauvinist attitude.

The seemingly self-hating nature of this machine aside, "Turnabout" doesn't win any points on the women's lib front since the women are incapable of solving their problems on their own

Instead, Fred and Willaway explicitly come to the rescue, time after time.  As for Lianna, she disappears for long spells in "Turnabout," and I fear it's because Katie Saylor had fallen ill during filming.

Yet another civilization of the week story, I find "Turnabout" one of the most tiresome and long-winded episodes of The Fantastic Journey.  We've seen the split culture in stories such as "Atlantium" and "Beyond the Mountain," to name just two.  And, once more, the characters aren't really involved in the story on anything other than a very shallow basis.  They must fix the civilization of the week so they can escape, and that's it.

It's just a shame that real life events in 2012 have made this old story relevant again.  In that light, "Turnabout" is certainly a cautionary tale.  Tread lightly, male moralists, or there will be "an end to male domination."

You tell 'em, sister.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Frozen in Space" (September 22, 1979)




In the second episode of Jason of Star Command’s second season, “Frozen in Space,” Jason (Craig Littler) and his new friend, the amnesiac alien, Samantha (Tamara Dobson), head to a small planetoid that appears to be the source of a deadly freezing beam.  


As Samantha and Jason seek out the beam’s source, Star Command nears destruction.  The base’s power systems frozen, it lurches dangerously towards a dwarf star…


On the surface of the inhospitable planetoid, Jason and Samantha meet “Tehor,” a monstrous minion of Dragos who is responsible for controlling the freeze beam.  


Realizing that she may be Star Command’s last chance for survival, Samantha pretends to be an ally to Tehor and Dragos, and betrays Jason.  In reality, her actions are an excuse to get the duo into the base and to the all-important freeze beam control system.

Straight-forward and to-the-point “Frozen in Space” by Margaret Armen is buttressed by some outstanding special effects work, and a dramatic through-line that is actually pretty impressive in terms of children’s television.  


In the case of the former, “Frozen in Space” features some dynamic miniature shots of Star Command under the burning shadow of a giant dwarf star.  There’s also a terrific composition here involving Jason’s Star Fire descending to the planetoid surface.

On the latter front, we get the newest chapter in Samantha’s on-going attempt to discover her own mysterious origin…and nature.  She wonders aloud: “what if my people are evil?”  Samantha wonders too, if she might be evil, on a personal basis.  


Jason’s encouraging reply suggests that she can be whom she chooses to be.  In that answer, one can detect how a good message is being transmitted to the kiddies out there in TV land.  


It’s not too heavy-handed, but Samantha’s plight reminds the viewer that people should be judged by the content of their character, not by stereotypes or other external factors which may not truly consider the measure of a man, or woman.  


Samantha also claims this week to be a person from a race called “the Capillos.”  I don’t remember if that moniker recurs or not in future episodes…

Other than the nice character development about Samantha proving to herself she is not evil in nature, “Frozen in Space” is a pretty rudimentary narrative affair with captures, escapes, and more captures.  My friend Mateo Latosa, editor at Powys Media, calls this brand of story a “run around.”  The characters run lots of places, rescue each other, get captured, and then defeat the villain…but not much meaningful actually happens.   The pure movement and busy-ness of the enterprise distracts you from the thematic emptiness.  The original Dr. Who, in the early years, did a lot of these “runaround” stories, and after a while they certainly grow tiresome. 


Here, Jason of Star Command seems more obsessed with action than interesting sci-fi storytelling: Jason smashes the freeze beam control panel by throwing a chair at it!  Not exactly a high-minded solution, though it certainly gets the job done.

Besides the narrative’s general lack of ingenuity, “Frozen in Space” features quite possibly the slowest, worst-aimed paralysis beam in TV history.  


Samantha and Jason (and WiKi) all attempt to avoid the ray, yet somehow manage to outrun and pivot around the bloody thing.  Dragos needs to upgrade his technology or something.

Probably the biggest disappointment of the week is that Jason and Commander Stone don’t get to interact, and continue their contentious process of coming to understand one another.  Stone is trapped on Star Command with Parsafoot, and Jason is away on the planet, so there aren’t many character fireworks.


But, of course, "Frozen in Space" is aimed at kids, not at adults seeking thematic complexity.  Hopefully things get a little more fun and elaborate next week...


Next episode: "Web of the Star Witch!"

CBS Saturday Morning Promo, 1979

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Films of 1982: Q: The Winged Serpent




One  reason I admire low-budget exploitation films so much is that, in many cases, writers and directors don't feel compelled to trot along happily with the Hollywood party line.

A three-act structure patterned after the Campbell Monomyth may be tiresome de rigueur for the big budget extravaganza, but filmmakers such as Larry Cohen or Tobe Hooper are subversives and non-conformists. They march to the beat of their own (distinctive) drums and, in the process, shatter audience expectations.

Not every film they make is great, but every film they make is theirs, not the product of committee.  I prefer that approach because I'd rather see a unique, oddball effort than a "product" that looks the same as everything else out there.  I've seen movies like Thor or Green Lantern a dozen times.  By contrast, there is only one Q: The Winged Serpent, to modify the tag-line from the 1976 King Kong.  The descriptors "strange" and "offbeat" don't even begin to do this 1982 film justice.

Q: The Winged Serpent, released in September of 1982, is a perfect example of a movie that, on cursory description, sounds like a lot of other monster movies, namely Godzilla or King Kong, but which as been gloriously corkscrewed by writer/director Cohen to play as a totally different, totally unique viewing experience.   

Most importantly, Cohen's point-of-entrance/attack on Q: The Winged Serpent is revolutionary.  The film features a small time crook, Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarity) as protagonist, if not "hero."   And it's not even that he's just a crook that's important. He's actually a coward too. In monster movies we've been conditioned to expect the square-jawed romantic hero, one who is courageous and noble.  Jimmy Quinn is a different...bird.

Additionally, Cohen -- on a low budget, no less -- reveals to audiences a visual aspect of New York City we've never really seen before in film.  It's an eagle's eye, roof-top view of the metropolis and much of the action occurs there.  Notably, such moments atop high-rises, including the vicious opening attack on a window washer, don't appear faked in terms of exteriors or stunts.  The real location shooting -- in Manhattan and atop the buildings -- thus grants the sense a film of gritty authenticity and legitimacy.  Watching Q, I appreciate the contrast between Jimmy Quinn -- a rat on street level --  with Quetzlcoatl, a winged monster in the sky.

Despite such virtues, critics by-and-large dismissed Q: The Winged Serpent.  Janet Maslin wanted to offer "only a very few words" about the film, as if it wasn't worth the energy of a full review.  She also viewed the script's humor as "inadvertent," an opinion I would strongly contest given the comedic sheen of Cohen's work in films including It's Alive (1973) and The Stuff (1985).  Meanwhile, Roger Ebert famously championed Michael Moriarity's tic-filled lead performance as Quinn while dismissing the rest of Q as "dreck." Chicago Reader's Pat Graham called the effort "curiously disengaged and sloppy."

Again, for me the very opposite holds true.

I find Q: The Winged Serpent absolutely engaging because of its droll, edgy, unconventional nature, and because Michael Moriarty absolutely rivets the attention, though often in deliriously oddball fashion.  The conventional and disengaged approach, in my opinion, would have been to feature stalwart, heavily-armed heroes of the military and U.S. government battling Quetzlcoatl throughout, with scientists theorizing about how to destroy the dangerous creature.  Instead, Cohen takes the extraordinary route of weaving the story of Quetzcoatl -- an Aztec God "prayed" back into existence -- into the life story of a neurotic, twitchy crook who, perhaps, feels more at home in prison than among free men.   Again, this is a character who might have a supporting role in a "regular" monster movie, perhaps even played as comic relief.  But here, Quinn is Q's raison d'etre.

Can a movie about a giant, man-eating serpent actually be a terrific and illuminating human character piece?  Larry Cohen seems to think so, and in Q: The Winged Serpent he explodes long-standing monster movie cliches to make the point.

"What else is God but an invisible force that we fear?"

In New York City, something strange is happening.  A serial murderer seems to be flaying (willing?) victims in accordance with ancient Aztec rites of human sacrifice.

Detectives Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) investigate these horrendous crimes at the same time that an urban legend multiplies in the city: the legend of a giant bird/serpent that strikes from the sky, and claims human prey as food.  People have gone missing, and blood has literally rained down upon the streets on occasion.

Meanwhile, small time crook Jimmy Quinn (Moriarity) has been seeking legitimate work at his girlfriend's (Candy Clark) insistence.  Unfortunately, he gets involved in a diamond heist (at a jewelry store called Neil Diamonds...) and runs afoul of both the law and his law-breaking cohorts.  After Quinn loses 77,000 dollars of diamonds in an accident, he hides on the top floor of The Chrysler Building and learns that the city's monster is no legend.


There, he discovers the nest for Quetzcoatl, the Aztec God of blood and human sacrifice.   Pursued by his former partners in crime, Quinn leads the crooks to The Chrysler Building...where they are promptly eaten.

The Quetzlcoatl attacks over Manhattan grow more numerous and brazen, and after Jimmy is arrested, he realizes he possesses a unique bargaining chip.  He offers to share the location of the monster's nest with the police if they give him a "Nixon-like" pardon and immunity, a million dollars, and exclusive book, movie and photograph rights to the monster's story...

"You are a betrayer and now you must humble yourself..."

At the center of Q: The Winged Serpent is Jimmy Quinn, the strangest monster movie protagonist you've ever seen.  He's a loser and a coward.  He "scats" at the piano, and creates his own bizarre musical numbers/voice-over narrations, such as the composition "Evil Dream."

Basically, Moriarity twitches and gesticulates his way through the film in a manner that captivates the attention, and feels strangely authentic and real.  Quinn is neurotic and afraid: a rat trapped in the "mean streets"/cage of The Big Apple.   But he's not just your average crook, either. He's a hustler with delusions of grandeur and a creeping suspicion he'd be happier in prison, a place where he would be taken care of by the state, and perhaps do no harm to others. He'x an ex-junkie, an alcoholic, a loser...and yet you root for him to succeed.

In Q: The Winged Serpent, the audience gets to see all sides of Quinn, and some are appealing and some not.  For instance, as I wrote above, Quinn is trying to go "legit," and so the movie showcases his efforts to make it as a musician.  Efforts which are, I would estimate, pretty dire.   You haven't really lived until you've watched Michael Moriarity scat at a small bar piano.

And then, further de-romanticizing our already-unconventional protagonist, Quinn and his girlfriend argue over the fact that, on many occasions, he has gotten drunk and hit her.  This is a key part of Quinn's character.  When in a position of power, he's not just a small time loser, he's dangerous...and mean.  We see it in his treatment of his girlfriend, but also in the way Quinn holds the City hostage, and, of course, in his brutal, deliberate act of feeding two criminals to Quetzlcoatl.  He brushes off the latter act as self-defense.

Quinn clearly is against-type in monster movies, as I've enumerated above.  But what makes him truly fascinating is his dawning sense of self-realization that he is, to put it mildly,  a creep.  Cohen gives Moriarity a great monologue -- a clear analog to an important moment for Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan's On The Waterfront (1954) -- where he reflects that he's been a bum all his life, and that if things were different, he would change that fact.  "All my life I've been nobody," he reflects, "now I can be somebody."

Moriarity's Quinn is the glue that holds together Q: The Winged Serpent, and more than that, the very point of the movie.  Here's a guy who discovers a man-eating monster, and decides to use that knowledge to better his position in life.

Importantly, Quinn's rather heartless approach to life is pointedly contrasted with the efforts of the ritualistic serial killer, who also uses the lives of others to remake the world in an image he prefers.

Amidst all of this selfish behavior -- a perfect reflection of the young, upwardly mobile values of the early 1980s -- Quetzlcoatl and its just-hatched offspring seem like true innocents.  The real "monster" in this monster movie isn't the man-eating beast with razor sharp talons, but the kind of man who would use tragedy and pain to make a personal fortune.  There may even be a debate here about human nature.  The Q operates by its nature (to kill in order to survive), but what about Quinn?  Is he just acting according to human nature, or is he representative of the worst of human nature?

The special effects of Q: The Winged Serpent are clearly of their age, featuring very-good stop-motion animation from Dave Allen.  The monster really look pretty good in several impressive shots.  One of my favorite compositions in the film involves a nifty jump scare in which Carradine turns his back on an open window, and the giant serpent lunges in behind him (above).  The film's final battle, with police battling Quetzcoatl from perches atop The Chrysler Building, is also strong, and evokes clear memories of King Kong (1933) and the Empire State Building finale.   But the monster scenes are largely not the point.  This is a movie about what might really happen if a crook discovered a monster, not a movie about a monster's reign of terror. 

Another perpetual joy in Q: The Winged Serpent is the witty screenplay. Cohen's staccato, rat-a-tat, authentic "city" dialogue has been termed tongue-in-cheek in some circles, but in fact it plays as funny because it is so deadpan and earnest, so true.  If a monster were attacking New York City, wouldn't you expect to hear people asking questions like: "Did you find that construction worker's head yet?"  It may seem silly, but it is situationally-appropriate. In short, Q: The Winged Serpent accepts and internalizes its bizarre premise, and that forges amusing dialogue (especially for David Carradine's character) from that real situation.

It's an equation that, for me, really works well.  This is one of those movies that may not seem great in a traditional or conventional sense, but which you just can't take your eyes or ears off of.

More than one critic has also pointed out how the 1998 Godzilla seems to play more closely on aspects of Q: The Winged Serpent than the Gojira mythos.  It's an interesting observation, and not entirely without merit.

For instance, both films end on the exact same cliffhanging note: evidence that an unhatched monster -- an egg -- remains even after the final, urban battle with the Mommy Lizard.

But where Godzilla was a colossal, focus-group tested, market-driven blockbuster, Q: The Winged Serpent is a much more intimate and human-scaled film.  Again, this  approach is just incredibly unconventional in terms of the monster movie sub-genre.  When you consider the greats of the form, you begin to detect how the classics play with form and expectations.  Such innovation may be done with special effects (King Kong [1933]), a blazing political context (Godzilla: King of Monsters), or a man-on-the-street point-of-view (Cloverfield [2008]).  I'd argue Q: The Winged Serpent belongs on that select monster movie list precisely because it is so odd and so personal ,and because it uses the story of a giant serpent almost as background noise for the character study of a memorable creep.

Because Q: The Winged Serpent so expertly grounds its wildest fantasy concepts with a study of Moriarity's sleazy little loser, this film from 1982 truly mimics the soaring behavior of its titular flying serpent.


Q: The Winged Serpent flies so close to the sun, it momentarily blinds you.  

Movie Trailer: : Q: The Winged Serpent (1982)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Rollerball (1975)



"Corporate society takes care of everything. And all it asks of anyone, all it's ever asked of anyone ever, is not to interfere with management decisions."

- Corporate Executive, Bartholomew (John Houseman) explains how it is in Norman Jewison's Rollerball (1975) 




Released the same year as the low-budget Death Race 2000 (1975),  director Norman Jewison's Rollerball is a dystopian film with many similar elements.  Both films are set in the future.  Both films involve "athletes" in incredibly dangerous contests, and both efforts suggest the notion of such violent contests as "bread and circuses" for the unhappy masses of America. 

When the chips are down, give us our gladiatorial games, and we'll forget that we don't have our liberty...

Of course, Death Race 2000 is more over-the-top, funny,and nasty in execution, and so Rollerball feels a bit reserved and staid by comparison.  And yet Rollerball is grave, impressive, and serious in its depiction of a corporate dystopia.   The film thrives on speed, acceleration and movement, and James Caan is a sturdy anchor in this tale of a world in which corporations use blood lust to control the people.

Not all critics agreed.  Writing in The Film Encyclopedia, Science Fiction (page 327), a reviewer complained the film was "overly complicated" and mixed "political intrigue and romance for no purpose." 

Others felt the film was just a cover for violence itself.  Writing in Sci-Fi Now (Octopus Books, 1977), author Alan Frank noted that the film merely created a "special environment in which the film's use of excessive use of violence can be made justified." 

By pointed contrast, recent assessments of Rollerball have been more positive.  Film Threat noted that Rollerball was "prescient about violence, corporations, and TV," and that's certainly a fair assessment.  The film is a valuable one because it questions what passes for entertainment, but more than that, what passes for "freedom" in an increasingly technological, media-saturated age.

"Ladies and gentlemen, will you stand please for the playing of our Corporate Hymn?"

 Rollerball's action takes place after the world's nations have gone "bankrupt," and after the destructive "Corporate Wars" have come and gone 

Now, corporations "take care of everyone," and the violent, team sport of Rollerball has been created by big business to remind people of "the futility of individual effort."  The goal of the corporations is to be essential to every individual's life, and for "the few" to make important decisions on "a global basis."

Unfortunately, there are serious downsides to corporate rule as depicted in Rollerball.  For one thing, all citizens are treated as powerless employees of the "Executive Class."  This means that your beloved wife can be transferred to another man's possession with the ease an on-the-job departmental transfer.  Indeed, this is the indignity that the world's greatest Rollerball player, Jonathan E. (James Caan) has suffered...and never forgiven.   He still loves his wife, but an executive in Italy had more power and stature...and took her.  And she was paid handsomely to leave Jonathan, rewarded with a villa in Rome, and extreme wealth. 

Early in Rollerball, the company -- represented by John Houseman's stern executive, Bartholomew -- also delivers another despotic edict: Jonathan must retire from the game for "the common good."   This demand doesn't sit well with Jonathan E., and he encourages his ever-increasing fame on the court, even in the face of attempts by the company to kill him.  

Before long, Jonathan finds the corporation changing the game's rules on him.  First, the Executive class eliminates penalties for rough play.  Then it eliminate replacements/substitutions, so that no injured players can leave the game in progress.  Then, finally, the corporate men push a game with no established time limit.  The final Rollerball game ends only when the last man is standing...

As you might expect, the Rollerball tournaments serve, in many ways, as the highlights of this classic sci-fi film.  Staged with meticulous attention-to-detail and with an eye towards speed and acceleration, these games grow increasingly violent throughout the film.  The set-piece against the Tokyo team, in particular, descends into a blood bath.  One player even catches fire before the game is done.

If possible, the film's climactic contest -- New York vs. Jonathan E.'s Houston team -- is even more vicious.  Scarlet blood is seen spilled all over the game arena, and in one horrible moment, the first aid responders are actually run down by a speeding motorcycle.  Then our protagonist, Jonathan, kills a player right in front of Houseman's character, and before a live TV audience.  

All the while, a packed house cheers and applauds wildly over the violent action... 

"Jonathan, there's one thing you ought to know, and nobody's said it, but I'm sure of it. They're afraid of you, Jonathan. All the way to the top, they are."

On one level, of course, Rollerball satirizes the hyper-kinetic, overtly-commercialized world of modern  organized sports, where the strongest, hunkiest lunkhead (Tim Tebow?) receives the most admiration based on the size of his... muscle mass.  

This notion of making athletes "heroes" is made clear in a Rollerball scene set inside a locker room, as Bartholomew speaks to the players' egos.  "They dream they're great rollerballers," he tells them, speaking of Executives.   "They dream they're Jonathan; they have muscles, they bash in faces."
 
On the other hand, and on a much deeper thematic level, Rollerball muses directly on the topic of freedom in a technological, mass-media Adams) makes a points relative to life in the 1970s and today.  Ella asks Jonathan why he simply doesn't do what the Executives want him to do especially since he would be paid handsomely for his compliance. 

Jonathan notes that it is a choice "between having nice things...or freedom."  Ella responds -- terrifyingly -- "But comfort is freedom."  

By contrast, Jonathan suggests the truth: "That's never been it. I mean, them privileges just buy us off."

In other words: Don't sweat things like individual freedom or liberty.  There are items to purchase, things to own.  Don't you want an Italian villa?

Incidentally, this very-Rollerball sentiment was mirrored rather dramatically in President Jimmy Carter's famous and much-derided "Crisis of Confidence" speech five years later, in 1979.  He said:

"In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose."

Rollerball depicts a society in which the people have indeed accepted control by a ruling elite...in return for being "provided for," in return for "privilege." 

But, in accordance with the President Carter quote, these same people have no sense of meaning or purpose. 

Part of the reason the people live with such an unjust arrangement is because of a deliberate black-out of educational materials and information.  Rollerball tournaments play endlessly on the television, and local libraries are impersonal computer centers that feature only "summaries" of important literary works and ideas. 

Instead, the corporations own history itself: "What do you want books for?," Jonathan's team-mate, Moon Pie asks innocently.  "Look Johnny, if you wanna learn somethin', just get a Corporate Teacher to come and teach it to ya'. Use yer Privilege Card..."

It's clearly an Internet-less world, and in one scene in the film, Jonathan E. goes to Geneva to visit a computerized archive where all the answers about "corporate rule" are purported to exist.  Not surprisingly, the computer librarian, named Zero, proves absolutely unhelpful. in providing such data.  In fact, the machine has lost the totality of the "13th Century" in terms of knowledge.  Thus, there is no place to turn to in this world to learn about history, science, or nature.  Everything is the game Everything is blood lust. 

Because as long as you think about the game, and which team is winning or losing, you aren't thinking about who is gaming the system and for what agenda.

Based on William Harrison's short story, "The Roller Ball Murder" (1973; Esquire), Rollerball runs for over two hours, and it features essentially two modes. The first mode reveals the kind of listless, purposeless, meaningless existence of "comfortable" citizens like Jonathan E.  The second mode involves the game matches themselves, set on a circular track.  The game play is urgent, pointed and murderous, a deliberate contrast to the film's lackadaisacal first mode.  I imagine that some audiences today would probably find these aspects of the film boring, but as the first mode concerns the existential angst of a futuristic gladiator, the insight into his daily life and routine is entirely appropriate. 

Uniquely, Rollerball also makes widespread use of classical music, including Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, and Adagio in G minor from Tomaso Albinoni.  These musical selections comment on the action  (and understand the action) in a way that the film's knowledge-challenged dramatis personae cannot.  The music -- so distinctly of the human past -- connects Jonathan E's futuristic struggle for freedom to such struggles in man's long history, and arises specifically from the Baroque tradition, dealing intentionally with the "affect of man."  The musical selection that opens the film, Toccata and Fugue, renders the accompanying imagery (of game preparations in the vast Rollerball stadium) almost religious in stature and transmits the idea that we are witnessing an important ritual being played out.

Rollerball's production design is, accordingly, relatively impersonal and dehumanizing in nature.  Citizens visit vast "luxury centers," mall-like locations -- places to shop -- in keeping with such kindred fare as Logan's Run (1976).  The Executive Suites as seen in the film are palatial and extravagant.  The opulent life-style of the executive class is revealed in one dinner party scene, and the sequence ends with the drunken, entitled elite mindlessly blowing up trees with futuristic guns.

The Rollerball arena is itself an important metaphor in the film.  The track is a loop, a track that never ends, with no end and no beginning.   Teams battle one another for supremacy, going around and around on this track endlessly (kind of like a NASCAR race, I suppose).  But one individual -- a Spartacus of the future age -- breaks out of this circular trajectory and takes the fight right to the stands. 

One spectacularly effective  composition in the Jewison film finds Jonathan E. braced against a transparent wall on the Rollerball rink. Behind him is Bartholomew, the executive, scowling.  And reflected on the transparent glass are out-of-control flames 

Here we have all three critical elements: the gladiator, the villain who is "untouchable" and the fire of revolt -- of individual achievement -- threatening to burn out of control.

The enduring genius of Rollerball, I would submit, is that it artfully exposes how powerful people become addicted to controlling the lives of others  The corporate stooges of the Executive Class wage full-bore, murderous war against a citizen because they want one player -- one damned player -- to retire from "their" game.  They apparently don't consider tolerating Jonathan E's presence for a few more years, followed, presumably, by a peaceful retirement.  Instead they seek to dominate and defeat Jonathan E. -- a champion and competitor -- and in doing so, incite his sense of competition. 

For Jonathan, "Four or five little things make one big thing," and the retirement demand, on top of the loss of his wife to an executive, constitutes a tipping point.  By pushing the stubborn and tough Jonathan E. to his line in the sand, the Corporate Culture only assures that Jonathan E. proves the very point they don't want established:

The will of the individual matters.