Saturday, July 28, 2012

Anti-Music Reviews Purple Rain: Music on Film

Music scholar and blogger Anthony Kuzminski puts my latest book, Purple Rain: Music on Film under his critical microscope at anti-Music.   Check out the whole piece, "Rock Reads," but in the meantime here's a snippet:

"Muir's text is straight and to the point and he packs a lot of punch and unbelievable information in 132-pages. Most other writers would flesh the book out to a few hundred pages for the sake of their ego, but even if Muir had done this, the book wouldn't have been any better. Once you pick it up, you will probably read it in no more than two sittings and revel at the luster of the film. The music from the film has gone into the stratosphere as possibly the supreme record of the last three decades (it was number two on Rolling Stone's "100 Best Album's of the 80's" and number one on Entertainment Weekly's "Greatest Albums of the Last 25 Years" in 2008). The music is so timeless and faultless that the film is often forgotten about. But reading Muir's book we're reminded that Purple Rain was more than an album, but a cinematic event."

Saturday Morning Cult TV Blogging: Ark II: "Robin Hood" (November 6, 1976)

This week, Ark II takes a step down in interest and excitement from “The Robot” and “Omega,” the two previous series entries.  Here, the titular vehicle and its crew enter Sector 25 to investigate reports of “hunger and widespread unrest.”

The team soon discovers that a group of outlaws have modeled themselves on the mythical Robin Hood and are fighting in Sector 25 an evil tyrant named Lord Leslie.  At first, Jonah is amused by the strange conflict and personalities the Ark II encounters.  He puts up a force field barrier between opposing armies during one battle.  But then, Lord Leslie captures the Ark II and Jonah’s crew is taken hostage.

While hoping to convince Robin and his merry men that “robbery isn’t the answer and neither is violence,” Jonah nonetheless requires their assistance if he is to retrieve the ark and its personnel.  

Fortunately, Jonah also has help – of a sort, anyway – from inside the Ark II.  The intelligent chimpanzee Adam has been taking driving lessons and, in a slapstick comedy scene, takes the craft on a wild joy ride, all the while firing lasers and even doing an embarrassed face palm.

Soon Jonah reclaims the Ark and the local villagers reject Lord Lesley.  Now Robin and his men will have to build a better society together, and Jonah marvels at how difficult it is to “keep the Lord Leslies of the world at bay.”

“Robin Hood” is a weird and borderline amusing episode of Ark II.  The idea of post-apocalyptic people taking on the characteristics of a hero from literature doesn’t seem that farfetched given other examples of this genre, like Star Trek’s “A Piece of the Action,” which saw an alien culture model itself on a book about the Chicago Mobs of the 1920s. 

But one of the more interesting and bizarre images to come out of Ark II is certainly “Robin Hood’s” visual of Lord Leslie’s flamboyantly-dressed minions riding trikes in the desert. It’s like The Road Warrior meets the Crusades…in the Planet of the Apes Forbidden Zone.

Also, this is also the only episode (at least thus far) to devolve into out and out slapstick humor, as Adam drives the Ark II into danger.  It’s a unique experience to watch the huge Ark moving erratically, knocking things over, and otherwise proving a real road hazard.  By the same token, these scenes reveal just how difficult it is to maneuver this unwieldy (but gorgeous…) cult-tv vehicle.  The Ark II is huge, and doesn’t look like it corners very well…

Next week: “The Cryogenic Man.”

Friday, July 27, 2012

Savage Friday: I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

I’m an avowed admirer of the Savage Cinema -- films that revolve around violence, and explore the impact of violence -- and yet I remain deeply ambivalent about the merits of I Spit on Your Grave (1978), a rape-and-revenge film that I awarded two-stars (out of four) in my 2002 text, Horror Films of the 1970s.  

The crux of the issue is how to “see” the film. 

Critic Roger Ebert famously gave I Spit on Your Grave a rating of “no stars” and called it a “vile bag of garbage.”  Contrarily, other critics, scholars, and historians -- including many women -- have championed the film as a “feminist” movie, and therefore one of apparent social value.

Horror historian Adam Rockoff wrote of I Spit on Your Grave that: “some critics apparently not knowing what to make of it chose to intellectualize the film as some feminist experiment, notwithstanding the fact that it wallows in the degradation and humiliation of women far more than any slasher film.” (Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film: 1978 – 1986; pages 64-65).

Oppositely, Hilary Abraham, author of “Changing from Victim to Survivor” in Violence Against Women in Families and Relationships suggests that the film’s victimized heroine “uses their [the rapists] misconceptions against female sexuality against them.  In other words, the rape-revenge film makes the gendered nature of violence explicit and unavoidable,” (page 49).

One former picketer of the film, Julie Bindel, recently penned a “mea culpa” titled “I was Wrong About I Spit on Your Grave.” Bindel concluded that the film was less harmful a fantasy than the Academy-award winning film, The Accused (1989).

Perhaps The Washington Times explained the controversial film mostly lucidly when reviewer Christian Toto described I Spit on Your Grave as “either the ultimate feminist manifesto, an exploitation film without a hint of artistic panache or a revenge yarn distilled to its core DNA.”

Ultimately how you see I Spit on Your Grave depends on your personal values, perhaps.  I’ll give you my take on the film after the summary below.  But the fact is…I’m still grappling with I Spit on Your Grave.

“Total submission. That's what I like in a woman - total submission.”

A young Manhattan-ite and writer named Jennifer (Camille Keaton) visits the countryside to begin work on her first novel.  She rents a home in the woods, and meets some of the locals, including the local simpleton Matthew (Richard Pace) and the gas station attendant, Johnny (Eron Tabor). 

Together with two other locals, these men just won’t leave Jennifer alone.  By night, they holler outside her windows.  And while she attempts to write her book, lakeside, they storm by on a motor boat, constantly interrupting.

Then, one day, the “pranks” escalate to full-scale terror.  The men abduct Jennifer from the lake, take her into the woods and gang rape her, one after the other.  After she has been raped in the woods, the wounded, bleeding Jennifer returns to her home only to find her assailants waiting there for another go.  They rape her again, leaving her barely alive this time.  One man, Matthew, is told to murder Jennifer, but he is unable to do it.

Jennifer heals slowly over the next several days, and then begins plotting a campaign of revenge.  After visiting a Church and asking God for forgiveness, she lures each of her assailants to their bloody doom…

“That’s so sweet it’s painful.”

I readily acknowledge that this savage cinema entry boasts a strong feminist slant, and that such a quality makes the film noteworthy, if not necessarily one of strong artistic merit.  Much of I Spit on Your Grave involves a victim who is deprived of control over her own life in general and her own body, specifically.   Thus, after the rape, Jennifer attempts to re-establish her own autonomy and very identity. 

In one affecting scene, the audience witnesses Jennifer scotch-tape together her type-written novel, long after the rapists have viciously torn it asunder.  We see the image in close-up as Jennifer applies the tape to the literary work, and metaphorically re-assembles a personal sense of order.

In my view, this moment is the finest and most artistic scene in I Spit on Your Grave because of the metaphor adopted. Jennifer is beaten, bruised and hurt, and the arduous process of picking herself up and putting herself back together begins with something apparently small: the stitching together (with that scotch tape) of a single page.  And yet, there’s nothing small in the imagery’s significance. 

Part of Jennifer’s difficult re-creation of self involves her returning to and nurturing the personal vision of herself as a writer and artist.  The rapists can rip apart her work, but she is still, finally, a creator…something which they will never be.  They can’t take her sense of artistic expression away from her, in other words.  It is part of Jennifer, and it is in that place of “self” that Jennifer first re-asserts her identity.  I found this act (and the visual gesture of putting back together) both meaningful and important.

Re-assembling the pieces of a life ripped apart.

Jennifer soon takes back her identity and power in other more external ways; sexually charged ways.  She chooses to lure the savage rapists to their doom by explicitly playing on their male frailties and their biased, sexist expectations of what a woman in 1978 “should be.” 

All along, Johnny believes – as he affirms near the film’s finale – that she “wants it” from him; that Jennifer is some kind of sex maniac flaunting her wares and that, she is, essentially “asking for it.” 

Thus to lead Johnny to his doom, Jennifer plays that (stereotypical) “woman” part perfectly, acting indeed like she “wants it.”  She picks-up Johnny at the gas station, flirts with him, and drives him to the woods…and then her house.  She even runs him a bath…with bloody results.  Johnny’s own stupid misconceptions and ignorance about women are the things that drive him to his doom, in other words.

Similarly, Jennifer murders Matthew – the simpleton – by becoming, essentially, his “girlfriend” and giving him a second (and final) opportunity to ejaculate, something which he failed to do during the rape for which he was belittled by his so-called male “friends.”  Again, Jennifer plays on a man’s personal insecurity to get close to him, and then twists the knife, or tightens the noose, as the case may be.

I Spit on Your Grave’s final scene finds Jennifer launching a full-on attack (with hatchet and motorboat) against the two surviving rapists.  She does so, interestingly, in a fashion that is the visual mirror image of her original abduction.  

In that instance, Jennifer was relaxing in a canoe when the men roared by her in a motorboat and lassoed her boat.  Without her permission, interest, or desire, they grabbed control of her life and tugged her into their orbit.  Her autonomy was superseded without question, without authority.  They took control of her life and re-directed it in a terrible way.

That’s precisely how Jennifer murders the last two rapists, only this time using the boat engine as a murder weapon.  But make no mistake: the climactic scene on the lake is a deliberate reflection of the earlier scene, an artistic comparison which suggests that Jennifer has at last asserted her dominance in the “relationship” with these barbaric men.  It’s the final step of taking her life back: going to the scene of the original crime and “stealing” back the power that was rightly hers.

They took her power.

And she takes it back.
The rape scene in I Spit on Your Grave lasts an uncomfortably long time and it’s all about dominance and control.  Here, Jennifer is denied control over herself, control over her ability to choose who she wants to be with, what she wants to do, where she wants to be…everything that we all take for granted every single day.  The rapists treat her like an object, like a thing to be used.  It isn’t easy to watch, yet I assert that the director doesn’t romanticize the brutality.  Instead, the rape is gut wrenching and brutal, and much of the action focuses on close-ups of the men: their ugly, leering, determined visages.  There’s nothing romantic about the nude Jennifer’s demeanor, either.  She is bloody, injured and dirty throughout it all, and one feels only sympathy and anger for what she undergoes.

Watching the film again this time, I indeed detected that director Meir Zarchi has taken real and noteworthy steps not to glamorous rape.  His “almost documentary style,” which “eschews all music except source music” and makes use of “practical locations” (Dominique Mainon, James Ursini, Modern Amazons: Warrior Women on the Screen: “Radical Feminism Meets the Exploitation Movie; 2006, page 324), suggests an earnest attempt to imbue the difficult material with some sense of reality.

And by focusing on that ugly reality, we see how terrible and despicable a crime rape truly is. 

Together in a pack, these men become a multi-headed monster more fearsome than any one of them alone.  That’s their (ugly) strength or power.  United in an animal herd, they root and cheer for each other, and try to prove their membership and manliness in the “tribe.”   As they set out taking away, piece-by-piece, Jennifer’s life and rights as an independent human being, one senses that they are inspired not by a hatred for Jennifer personally, but by the need to prove to one another, somehow, that they are superior to all women.  In their minds, Jennifer has transgressed natural law by coming out to the country alone, by dressing in tight clothing, even by befriending them.  And so they make an example out of her.  It’s really and truly a sickening view of men.

This is, as you might guess, powerful material.  The rapists are depicted as morally reprehensible imbeciles, and Jennifer’s decision to kill them is clearly contextualized in terms of her womanhood.  She is raped because of her liberated womanhood, and the manner she commits murder is also connected to her womanhood.  So indeed, it is not difficult to detect why people discern the film as a feminist one. 

And yet, finally, the achievement of crafting a feminist revenge film does not suggest, to me anyway, a very useful pro-social comment on the application and misapplication of violence.  

Is the ultimate point in I Spit on Your Grave that a woman can descend, if provoked, to the same level of barbarity as men?  If so, I’ll concede that point and spare myself the gory details.  I’m not at all certain this is actually a point worth making, any more than Death Wish’s point about (male-originated) vigilantism is one worth making.  Is the equality to act out of bloodlust and vengeance the social equality that women seek? 

By point of comparison, it is illuminating to remember other examples of The Savage Cinema.  The Last House on the Left (1972) culminates on a bloody freeze-frame of its shaken suburbanite combatants, while the soundtrack plays a song with lyrics that state “The Road Leads to Nowhereand the castle stays the same” signifying that the violence in the film has solved nothing and saved no one. 

Similarly, Straw Dogs (1971) ends with Dustin Hoffman noting that he “doesn’t know his way home” anymore, a line of dialogue which suggests he has been meaningfully and permanently changed by the violence he has endured and meted out.

Finally, John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) ends with its hero, John Voight, suffering the equivalent of PTSD.  Poor Ed dreams of some deep, dark horror waiting to emerge in his psyche because his violent nature has been summoned to the surface by the brutal events on the river.

But I Spit on Your Grave? 

It ends at precisely the moment that the rape victim murders the last of her four attackers.  Revenge meted, violence delivered, there’s nothing left to say, no other issues to address. 

I suggest this denouement is patently unfair to our female avenger, and that Jennifer deserves the same respect that male avengers are granted in the aforementioned films. In other words, she too deserves the opportunity to contextualize the violence in her life.  She has been injured, and she has committed murder to avenge that injury.  How does she feel about herself…now?  With the bloody deeds done?  Did violence make the pain subside or lessen? 

We are afforded no insight into Jennifer’s mind or feelings, and so I Spit on Your Grave squanders an opportunity to go from visceral exploitation film to socially-valuable or artistic commentary about violence in our culture.

By denying his (female) lead character this opportunity to reflect on her experiences, the filmmaker, Meir Zarchi also affords the audience no deep insight about the violence featured in the film.  Jennifer expresses no regret or even, contrarily, satisfaction, in her bloody actions.  Were we to see her experience a nightmare, or return to Manhattan and her life anew, or take a cleansing bath, or even…do anything that suggests catharsis/PTSD/re-joining the human race, it would be easier to parse the film as some kind of artistic or pro-social statement.  As it stands, we have only the discarded title Day of the Woman to remind us that there seems to be intent to make a worthwhile statement here.

At the very least, I can safely declare I Spit on Your Grave thought-provoking, because I have not been able to stop pondering it since I screened it again last weekend for the first time in a decade.  Certainly, the film pulls no punches, takes no prisoners, and commits fully to its brutal narrative.

In terms of my own understanding of the film, I feel that I Spit on Your Grave is worthwhile primarily for the way it allows its lead character, Jennifer, to reconstruct her life following the brutal attack, and take back, essentially, her “power” as a human being and as a woman.  This element of the film is actually handled sensitively and well.

Yet simultaneously, I feel that the larger and perhaps more point -- that violence ultimately demeans and degrades those who use it – is not well-expressed in I Spit on Your Grave, or even, factually, expressed in the slightest.

And that’s a shame, because the point could have been established by featuring one last moment with Jennifer; one last moment in which she can reflect on and consider her horrible experiences and show how they connect to our understanding of what it means to be human.  What has she learned about herself?  How will she deal with what she’s done? 

 I Spit on Your Grave is a film, I believe, created directly out of emotions of rage and anger.  The director has recounted the personal story of how he once helped a rape victim in the 1970s and saw that woman, essentially, victimized again by the police afterwards.  This film is thus a fiery response to those feelings of impotence, anger and guilt.  I can only assert that I Spit on Your Grave would have been radically improved if it had included a scene of Jennifer going to the police to report the crime, and being shunned and disbelieved by the authorities.  Then the film would have been a comment on how the rapists’ attitude about women was shared, to some extent, in a male-dominated culture.

So I Spit on Your Grave is not a film concerned with reminding us that violence is wrong.  It’s a film that is instead, seething.  It is a film that is enraged that the scales of justice have not been righted,and thus wants to bloodily rectify the situation.  It may advocate for feminism, which could be argued is a net positive.  But I Spit on Your Grave also advocates for vigilantism, which I personally count as a net negative.  The result is, for me, a wash.  Your mileage may differ.

In the final analysis, I can deeply appreciate the message of a woman finding herself again after having her freedom savagely ripped away by rapists.  But I can’t defend I Spit on Your Grave as adhering to some higher social principle if the film can’t see beyond the narrow bloody horizon of revenge. 

The great Savage Cinema movies are not about the violence meted, but about the human emotional and psychological response to the violence meted.   In I Spit on Your Grave, Jennifer gets to stand up for her sex, all right, against the most awful, terrible men imaginable.  Yet the film never allows Jennifer the dignity of reflecting on what she’s done, one way or the other, pro or con.  If we are to understand Jennifer’s story fully, we need to know how she views her own actions. 

Her final words -- “Suck it, bitch!” -- may satisfy the audience’s blood lust and sate a sense of anger, but the epithet isn't a morally satisfactory answer about what the men did, what she did, and how Jennifer feels about the traumatic experience.

Next Friday, the film that many insist initiated the "Savage Cinema" trend:  Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

(Savage) Movie Trailer: I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #15: "Any reviews I would retract, or regret writing?"

A reader who wishes to remain anonymous asks:  "Are there any reviews you regret writing, or that you would retract if you could?

Excellent question and one that I’m very glad you asked. 

I must admit that for a period of a few months in early 2009 I decided consciously to write reviews that were…snarkier.

I don’t do snarky well.  And I don’t even really like a snarky tone in terms of movie or TV reviews.  What was I thinking?   

I was attempting, I suppose, to be “zippier” and to grow a bigger audience by it.  But it was a bad, bad, bad idea. It was a betrayal of who I am, and what I believe about art and the role of film and tv criticism.

Fortunately, one (anonymous) reader called me on the carpet for my “new” snarky self and noted that I had (sadly) fallen prey to the “lower rungs on the genre criticism ladder.”  I defended myself aggressively in response, but in point of fact -- I can admit it now from a distance -- the anonymous reader was absolutely correct.  

After I posted the comment and my defensive response, I couldn’t stop thinking about what the anonymous reader had written. I thus vowed not to write snarky-toned reviews ever, and instead just be true to who I am as a writer.

Today I am proudly snark-free for three years running.  I don’t plan to suffer a relapse, but if I do, I hope another reader will call me on the carpet about it.

In terms of reviews I regret, there is indeed one review here on the blog.  In 2009 – My god, during the same period as my snark outbreak! – I reviewed the pilot of The Vampire Diaries and judged it poorly. I still maintain that the review of the pilot is accurate.  The pilot episode is awful.  I stick by my assessment.

But since I wrote that review of the pilot, I have watched every episode of The Vampire Diaries, and my assumption about it being a Twilight rip-off were absolutely off the mark.  Fact is, this prime-time vampire soap is witty, well-performed and has -- over three seasons -- successfully established its own identity and storytelling style.  I jumped to conclusions about the series from the (bad) pilot, and should have waited a couple of weeks to write a more fair-minded review.  By mid-first season, the series had actually become immensely droll, and even addictive in a soap-opera-ish kind of way.  In some ways, it really does work as a legitimate heir to Dark Shadows.

In fact, at the risk of now alienating some other fans, the writing on The Vampire Diaries is actually more consistently witty than HBO’s far more celebrated True Blood.  That series, while enjoyable, boasts an incredible variation in quality.  One week its good; the next its dreadful.  The second season in its entirety (especially with the Maenad...) was horrid.

So, I don’t know that I would retract my review of The Vampire Diaries pilot, because the pilot really is pretty bad.  But in drawing conclusions about the series as a whole, I was certainly off the mark.  It seems time to acknowledge that error.  I'm certain it won't be my last.

Twilight Zone Blogging: They Call Him Mr. Death

The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) is an anthology series and thus it features no continuing characters save for Rod Serling’s staccato-voiced narrator. However, in one memorable circumstance, a character does recur in the series. 

His name is Mr. Death.

This distinctive character -- this personification or embodiment of mortality -- appears in three episodes of The Twilight Zone: “One for the Angels,” “The Hitch-hiker” and “Nothing in the Dark.”

And in each installment Mr. Death serves roughly the same thematic and narrative purpose: to provoke first fear, and then, finally, a sense of acceptance about mortality. 

In other words, those characters that come to interface with Mr. Death in The Twilight Zone first consider him an existential “terror,” but upon closer contact come to understand that his presence, beyond being inevitable, is not so dreadful. 

In fact, Mr. Death -- in shape and deed -- is a reminder of the natural order.

My wife, a psychologist and therapist, often reminds me of her belief that virtually all Twilight Zone episodes concern Rod Serling’s fear of impending death or lost youth. So perhaps it is no surprise that Mr. Death is the only continuing character in the writer’s most famous canon. 

Uniquely, Mr. Death is never physically depicted on The Twilight Zone as a fearsome “Grim Reaper”-styled or “Charon”-type creature, but rather as a human being who appears, well, relatively mundane

He’s a well-groomed, Don Draper-esque businessman (Murray Hamilton) in “One for the Angels,” a handsome police officer (played by Robert Redford, no less…) in “Nothing in the Dark” and an amused, smiling Hitch-hiker (Leonard Strong) in the scariest episode of the bunch, “The Hitch-Hiker.” 

No matter how, specifically, Mr. Death appears to his prey in a physical sense, he is first greeted with the emotions of terror, dread and disbelief. 

In “One for the Angels,” an almost-seventy year-old street peddler, Lou Bookman (Ed Wynn) is shocked to learn that Mr. Death has scheduled him for “departure” at midnight. He categorically refuses to accept that Death has come for him, and then attempts to find a technicality in Death’s “law” that will allow him to remain on Earth.

In “The Hitch-hiker,” a woman, Nan Martin (Inger Stevens) on a cross-country trip has (unknowingly) died in a car accident, and keeps seeing the same Hitchhiker appear on the open road before her. She grows to dread seeing this figure, and the fear that she feels – and which the audience also feels – is a throat-clenching one. 

Who is this grinning stranger?  What does he want?  Why is he stalking her?  Why does she keep seeing him?

In “Nothing in the Dark,” poor old Wanda Dunn (Gladys Cooper) has spent the last few years of her long life locked away inside a dark, condemned basement apartment. She steadfastly refuses to reckon with the outside world – or any outsiders – for fear that Mr. Death will come for her should she open her door even a crack. 

All three cases reflect a similar notion: these protagonists steadfastly attempt to ignore and defy the fact of their own mortality, specifically through the recognizable and nearly Kubler-Ross-ian stages of bargaining (“One for the Angels”), denial (“The Hitch-hiker”) and even anger (“Nothing in the Dark.”)    

But by denying and rebelling against death, in fact, The Twilight Zone reminds us that these individuals may be denying the vibrancy of life itself…the meaning of our moment-to-moment existence.

The protagonists soon learn the error of their ways.  By denying Mr. Death, Mr. Bookman causes an unfortunate chain reaction. Since Death can’t take him, the personification of mortality arranges to take a little girl, Maggie, in his place. Bookman attempts to trick Mr. Death and delay him from this deadly rendezvous, in the process fulfilling a life of dream of making a “big pitch…one for the angels.” He knows that the vetting of this pitch will result in Mr. Death taking him from our mortal coil, but Mr. Bookman is able to see and detect a value greater than his own ending at this point: a little girl’s continued survival.  He sees detects how precious life is, especially for the very young.  He has already lived; she has not.

Nan Martin’s epiphany in “The Hitch-hiker” is that death has been her co-pilot all along, at least since her accident. Mr. Death thus represents a force she can’t escape from, no matter how fast she drives or how much highway her car covers. And this realization too, reflects our human condition. We’re all mortal, and death is part of the natural order of life. In the end, we can’t outrun it.

Old Ms. Dunn in “Nothing in the Dark” learns that her fear of death has cordoned her off from the rest of humanity unnecessarily.  She has tried so hard not to let Mr. Death into her apartment that her life has hardly been worth continuing, or living.  What is life if it is lived in perpetual fear of “the dark.” 

When Mr. Death “wins” -- as death inevitably wins -- he is not a gloating, cackling, monstrous victor.  Instead, he’s charming, and sometimes downright soothing. He politely informs Mr. Bookman that “he’s made it,” meaning he’ll be going to Heaven. He tells Nan Martin, without irony that she is “going” his way (a foregone conclusion at that point). And finally, Death offers beautiful, comforting words for Ms. Dunn:

You see. No shock. No engulfment. No tearing asunder. What you feared would come like an explosion is like a whisper. What you thought was the end is the beginning.

That last line suggests Mr. Death’s third “gift.”First he brings fear, then acceptance and finally…transcendence?  Mr. Bookman will go to Heaven…to join the angels, no doubt. Nan Martin too is being taken on a continuing journey (destination: unknown…), and Ms. Dunn faces not annihilation, but what Death describes enigmatically as “a beginning.”

Thus in all three Twilight Zone episodes featuring Mr. Death there exists, at least a little, the specter of hope, of an existence beyond this mortal coil where humanity can find something…different. Interestingly, other episodes of the series dwell on what that something different may look like (“A Nice Place to Visit,” for instance)

But for these three Mr. Death episodes, the most important thing to focus on is the paradigm he represents. I call it the inevitability of mortality and the natural order inherent in death.

In some horror films, such as Final Destination (2000), death is viewed as an ominous, vengeful, dark force. What I enjoy so much about The Twilight Zone Mr. Death episodes, however, is the Grim Reaper’s obvious humanity. He is by turns gullible (“One for the Angels”), jocular (“The Hitch-hiker”) and gentle (“Nothing in the Dark”).

In other words, when Death comes a calling for human beings, The Twilight Zone promises that he will arrive in forms that we automatically understand, recognize, and can relate to. 

The only proper end to a human life comes from a death that is also…human.

Message conveyed…in The Twilight Zone. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Memory Bank: The 4:30 Movie (WABC, Channel 7)

How did my love for the movies actually begin? 

Was it at the drive-in double features (where I saw Death Race 2000 [1975] and Legend of Boggy Creek [1973]) on different occasions?

Or was it at conventional movie theaters like the Clairidge, the Royale, Cinema 23, or the Wellmont (New Jersey venues where I first saw Logan’s Run [1976], King Kong [1976] and Star Wars [1977])?

It might have been at none of the above.

Perhaps my love for film commenced in earnest instead in my basement family room at 7 Clinton Road in Glen Ridge, New Jersey.  There, that love would be nurtured and renewed each weekday at 4:30 pm, circa 1975 to 1981. 

At that time, my Zenith color TV station was invariably tuned to Channel 7, WABC, and The 4:30 Movie.  I remember listening every day with great anticipation as “the Voice” (celebrated TV announcer Scott Vincent [1922 – 1979]) would usher in a new film or a new movie theme week in promos.

The anticipation would build as the daily 4:30 Movie intro began.  It was a short montage: a combination of the tune “Moving Pictures” with the unforgettable imagery of a camera-man seated on a chair, spinning about and turning the lens upon us, the audience.

This was The 4:30 Movie as it was in the New York area in those long gone days. 

The popular program ran from 1968 to 1981, until it was replaced by Judge Wapner and The People’s Court.  But for that span of a dozen or so years – of which I suppose I participated in roughly five or six – it was a mainstay of my house, and mainstay of my early education in genre film.

The 4:30 Movie often featured “theme weeks,” for instance.  There was Planet of the Apes Week, Matt Helm Week, Our Man Flint Week, Lassie Week, and even Gidget Week.   Then there were weeks devoted to actors such as Elvis, Sidney Poitier, John Wayne, Jerry Lewis, and my personal favorite…Vincent Price.

Over the years, The 4:30 Movie also offered Harryhausen Week, Sci-Fi Week, Superhero Week, Monster Week, and Supernatural Week.  Sometimes it aired genre TV movies (such as Night Slaves), and sometimes it also re-aired mini-series such as Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man.

It was via The 4:30 Movie that I first saw Irwin Allen’s The Lost World, The Green Slime, Mysterious Island, Monster from a Prehistoric Planet, The Fly, The Blob, Batman (1966), the Planet of the Apes films, Soylent Green, The Omega Man, Jason and the Argonauts, Yongary: Monster from the Deep, The Pit and the Pendulum, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and goodness knows how many others.

Now, these films were often split into two parts, over two days (like Planet of the Apes and Journey to the Center of the Earth), or edited heavily for violent content.

But it didn’t matter.   I devoured every new film with ferocity, curiosity and excitement.

When a sci-fi themed week was due to air, my indulgent and loving parents would prepare dinner on trays and bring it downstairs to the family room so I could watch The 4:30 Movie and not miss a moment.  I have lots of good memories of eating bean-and-bacon soup and sandwiches on weekdays, from 4:30 to 6:00, as a new cinematic universe was unveiled on the television.

I understand that The 4:30 Movie was exported and repeated in cities across America, so I’m certain that others of Generation X must possess similar memories of such programming.  For me, the program was a constant rotation of new, intriguing and even bizarre fare.

Today we live in a universe of media availability and plenty.  Yet there’s a part of me that would love to travel back in time to that family room basement in 1977, eat a bowl of soup with my folks, and enjoy Planet of the Apes Week one more time.

I understand the pure irrationality of this desire, believe me.  I can screen all the Apes films right now, uninterrupted and in their original aspect ratios, should I desire to revisit them. 

Yet as much as I adore those films, they never seem quite right without The 4:30 Movie preamble to start them off.     Below, you'll find that opening montage and a promo with the voice of Scott Vincent:

1970s Space:1999 Promo with Catherine Schell

Collectible of the Week: Dingbot (Tomy; 1984)

The Robot Age is here and Tomy is three steps ahead…”

So promised the Tomy Company in 1984 on the box for one of its memorable “Home Entertainment Robots:” Dingbot.

Dingbot’s story goes thusly: “Once upon a time…in the not so distant future, a robot was made and left alone to find his way.  His name was…Dingbot.”

Operating on one double A battery (not included), Dingbot is also described on his box as:

“...a fast traveling robot who bumps into walls and obstacles.  He chatters.  He turns his head.  He speeds off in another direction!  He carries his own floor plan (included) in his poseable arms.  He’s a funny robot who’s slowly learning the meaning of walls…He’s Dingbot!”

The cute little Dingbot -- who can fit in the palm of your hand, really -- was one of three Home Entertainment Robots released by Tomy at about the same time.  One was called “Verbot” (A voice-controlled robot) and the other, giant one was called “Omnibot” (“The Leader that operates by remote control and memory.”)

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had a fascination for these 1980s “real” robots who, basically, do nothing besides beep and bump into walls.  When I was a kid, however, I considered these robots a promised to be delivered upon.  They were the “beginning,” I believed of the revolution to come: household robots.

Alas, here we are in 2012 and the revolution has not yet occurred. I don’t have a robot maid or butler, or a robotic cook.  We’re still a long way from the world of the Jetsons.

But one of these days.  Definitely.  And in the meantime, Joel and I enjoy watching Dingbot bump into walls…

Game Board of the Week: Battlestar Galactica (1978; Parker Brothers)

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote: No Mouth Edition

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #14: Favorite villains?

A reader, Jose, writes:

"This is something that, obviously, I'm very interested in getting your views on.”

“Since your writing voice and passion are always so cheery, I'd like to take you to the Dark Side for a moment. In short: Who are your all-time favorite villains from the world of genre cinema and cult TV?”

“Favorite is a broad term... this could mean that you thought they were genuinely frightening or painfully inept and humorous, or just downright cool. Let us know why you're attracted to these black hats and femme fatales." 

Jose, that's a terrific question because a powerful or dynamic villain often represents the difference between a genre film's success or failure.  More often than not, the villain is the character who drives the film's action, eliciting the actions/response of the protagonist or hero in the process.  

In other words, the villain is really a narrative's catalyst.

I tend not to prefer very conventional villains, the ones who simply seek more wealth, or are motivated wholly by revenge or insanity.   

Instead, the villains I judge most intriguing are those that probably would not view themselves as villains at all.  Instead, they seek to somehow complete or perfect themselves, but they use methods that are, at best, questionable.

I realize that Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) are two relatively unpopular films in that franchise. And yet I find the brand of villainy embodied in both pictures rather compelling.  

V'Ger set out to find his Creator, and would let nothing stand in his way.  It was a mission of destruction, to be certain, but also one to establish identity...and emotional connection.  In this case, “villainy” is about filling a void inside one’s self.  

Similarly, Sybok in The Final Frontier is a villain who has lets his beliefs impair his judgment.  He too seeks to find "God," but can't see through his "arrogance and vanity" to realize he is engaged in a fool's errand.  When Sybok claims to “free minds” and “take away pain,” I see not a man who considers himself a villain; but rather a savior. 

In real life, these types of saviors are often incredibly deluded and dangerous, and yet, indeed, they are very dedicated or committed to a cause.

Another villain I find endlessly intriguing is Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) from the original Planet of the Apes (1968).  Chief Minister of Science and Defender of the Faith, Dr. Zaius is an absolute zealot and censor.  He mercilessly applies his power against any who oppose his beliefs, from scientists such as Cornelius to humans such as Taylor and Landon.  

And yet, from his perspective, no doubt, Zaius is absolutely correct to suppress certain information regarding Ape history.  Mankind did destroy his world, rendering a paradise "a desert" in the process.  And ape-kind did rise from man's world, thus owing his very culture to human-kind.  

Again, these are highly inconvenient facts if Ape City – and indeed, Ape Civilization itself --- is to thrive and grow.

I find men (or simians…) such as Zaius fascinating because, again, they don’t believe that they are doing wrong.  They don’t act out of evil, per se.  Instead, they have cast themselves as defenders or protectors of the status quo, and legitimately feel that if the truth were to come out everything that they hold dear would be threatened. Zaius actually believes that Taylor is “evil,” a pestilence that must be wiped out if his culture is to survive.

Commander Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell) in The Black Hole (1979) is another villain who I like.  He refused a direct order to bring Cygnus home to Earth because he wants to explore the world beyond a black hole.  

When this exploration is threatened again by mutiny, he transforms his crew into the equivalent of mindless zombies.  It's an evil act, no doubt, but Reinhardt's ambition “to know the truth” has no bounds.  It absorbs his humanity the way the black hole absorbs all light and energy.  

And then there's that weird moment in The Black Hole when Reinhardt confides in the crew of the Palomino, and begs them to save them from his own sinister creation: Maximillian.  This strange, almost throwaway line of dialogue suggests Reinhardt may be a megalomaniac, but he remains, also, a vulnerable human being.  

Reinhardt is a variation, of course, on Captain Nemo, a Jules Verne villain I have always found myself attracted to.  My favorite villain of all, Nemo is a man who is "done with society" and bears allegiance to no country, no nation, and no ideology.  

Instead, Captain Nemo creates his own world at the bottom of the sea: a world of knowledge and research and science.  I truly appreciate this idea of a man who has forsaken what he views as the world's corruption and created a bubble around himself that better suits his desires and needs.  

I've been described, myself -- by one of my best friendsno less -- as possessing a "complex and contradictory personality as an outgoing and imaginative hermit/misanthrope who has spent his entire adult life dedicated to the dissection of the stories, characters and images found inside the frames of television sets and film screens."  So perhaps I have something in common with Nemo, except that I construct my universe around and seek solace from film and television, not around the sea.  Nemo goes wrong when he begins to sink ships and kill people, of course, but still...there's a nobility and purity about the man.  Also, of course, excessive hubris...

In terms of the horror genre, my preferences are a bit different.  In short, I appreciate “monsters” or villains that genuinely frighten me. 

Personally, I find Halloween’s Michael Myers terrifying, at least in his original incarnation in 1978. 

Michael's motives are opaque, his visage is masked, and for long spells he is quiescent…merely watching others, waiting to strike.  Michael may resemble a human being in “shape,” but he seems only a shell, emotionally and intellectually. He's either very different from the rest of us, or very stunted.  

As you all know, I watch horror movies regularly and am rarely deeply bothered by them.  But I have experienced, over the years, recurring nightmares of Michael Myers.  There is something irrational – nay anti-rational about him. 

That anti-sense comes from the fact that he walks slowly and yet can still catch-up to you while you’re running; from the fact that he has a sixth sense about any hiding place you select; from the fact that no matter how many times you kill him, he always comes back to life.  I have written about Myers a lot here on the blog, but I feel that he is so effective a horror movie villain because his white mask is a blank slate, and we can impose our own fears and psychological issues upon that slate.  He is the ultimate horror movie Rorschach test. 

I don’t know if I have answered your question clearly enough, but in general, I really enjoy watching villains who are intelligent, boast a unique world view, and don’t consider themselves villains in the first place.  I would put HAL9000 in this camp.  I might even put Francis the Sandman in the same camp, as a dutiful soldier doing his duty, but, in fact, working for the wrong side.