Archive for the Television Category

And as timeless as infinity…

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , on April 11, 2017 by dcairns

I knew this episode of The Twilight Zone mainly from its spoiler-heavy synopsis in the intro to TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE. I’m going to be equally spoilerific here, since the episode is practically a twist ending in search of a story. Nothing, for the most part, happens, until the end. Well, that’s unfair. But so is the show.

Burgess Meredith, struggling to act through coke-bottle-bottom glasses, plays a humble bank clerk who loves to read. But he can’t read at work because he’s at work, and the customers unreasonably expect service, the bank manager expects satisfied customers, etc. And he can’t read at home because of a particularly shrill version of a Rod Serling wife, who HATES BOOKS (her role is greatly enlarged and monstered from Lyn Venable’s source story). This character is completely unbelievable, but slightly fascinating in her awfulness. How did this couple come to get together? A woman whose only personality trait is her hatred of all literature, all printed matter (she’s not even embodying a real cultural phenomenon, she’s way beyond anti-intellectualism or inverted snobbery or philistinism, she’s psychopathic) and a man whose only personality trait is his benign, blinking, myopic love of good books. It would serve them right if they met via a misprint. No other explanation seems possible.

Then, while Blinking Burgess is hiding out in the bank vault to steal a moment with a treasured volume, the bomb drops. The bomb, Dmitri. The atomic bomb.

Burgess is legitimately upset about this. He stumbles around in the wasteland, and though he never worries about his wife (after all, he was at work when she was vaporised, why should he think of her?) he’s certainly unhappy that the world has been destroyed.

In this version of Armageddon, there’s no fall-out to worry about, and plenty of canned food, but Burgess is still inconsolable, alone. It’s only when he finds the city library, its books scattered but somehow unharmed by the blast that seems to have reduced everyone to dust (great writing LASTS) that he cheers up. He finally has time to read, Time Enough At Last, to quote the episode title.

And then he breaks his glasses.

“This isn’t fair!” He protests, in almost inarticulate horror. And it isn’t — the usual EC Comics “poetic justice” which makes nastiness feel good, is wholly lacking. The only “poetic justification” the gag has is that it affects the audience horribly, and maybe that’s The Twilight Zone‘s purpose, its place in the culture of its time — to let us feel unpleasant emotions otherwise somewhat forbidden, unacknowledged anxieties. And if we can’t conceive of atomic holocaust and megadeaths, maybe we can conceive of one blind man surrounded by nothing but books, with all the time in the world.

(Note that the effect is much, much worse than in the story, where the character’s love of reading isn’t drummed so incessantly into our heads, and we aren’t even convinced he does like books — he merely think he might, if given a chance to read one.)

Even Rod seems to have very little to say — how to sum this up? It’s a perfectly constructed trap, an infernal machine of awesome nastiness. Get out quick, move on, nothing to see here.

“The best-laid plans of mice and men – and Henry Bemis, the small man in the glasses who wanted nothing but time. Henry Bemis, now just a part of a smashed landscape, just a piece of the rubble, just a fragment of what man has deeded to himself. Mr. Henry Bemis – in the Twilight Zone.”

This one is directed by John Brahm, who usually brought some kind of magnificent simplicity to the design side — here, the wasteland is very acceptable, but the library steps strewn with literature create a strikingly epic effect, on a budget. The combination of Burgess M’s extraordinary appearance and this extraordinary place makes every shot of the ending iconic.

Tickling the Rivalries

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2017 by dcairns

Really not impressed with Feud, Ryan Murphy’s miniseries about the Bette and Joan conflict on and around WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? One expects the thing to be camp and trashy, and that’s fine, I guess, but does it have to be so tone-deaf, so inaccurate? It was inevitable it would seize on every rumoured ruction from the set of that film, but the weirdly OFF stuff just keeps striking me — the young actress who asks for an autograph from Joan (Jessica Lange) and then says, “It’s for my grandmother. She’s been a fan of yours since she was a little girl.” Joan Crawford was in her mid-fifties. I think, in a show about actresses battling industry ageism, keeping the actual ages of the participants clear is important, and shouldn’t be thrown into confusion for the sake of, basically, a mean joke.

Also, it’s one of those shows that’s wall-to-wall exposition — writers of fact-based stuff today seem to struggle with delivering information convincingly.

I should say that Fiona quite enjoys the show, and is reading Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud. But this led to us running TORCH SONG, in search of some real Crawford kitsch, and my Christ it delivers.

We see THIS a few minutes in. Admittedly, we’ve already seen Crawford herself, who is scary-looking already at this pre-horror-movie point in her life, with what Fiona called “apricot hair” and pretty much an apricot face too. Still, the cardboard version is so startling it should have really come with a warning. A Horror Horn or something to let you know it’s coming. With usherettes dispensing laudanum.

Of course, what the misbegotten venture is best remembered for is something else, but I’ll be more considerate than the movie and give you due notice that a truly alarming image is coming your way.

Meanwhile — script is co-written by John Michael Hayes who wrote some of Hitchcock’s best, but had a regrettable tendency to archness. He’s joined by Jan Lustig, who has distinguished credits too, and by I.A.R. Wylie, who seems more of a Pat Hobby type — except the I. stands for Ida. “I’m going to give them the best that’s in me, no matter who, what or when tries to stop me.” That’s a tricky line to account for. Unless Crawford garbled it and they just left it in, whichever scribe was responsible must have known it was gibberish, but presumably they thought it was clever gibberish. It ain’t.

Crawford’s character is a complete bitch, a showbiz diva who fires a blind man and browbeats and insults everyone in (her) sight. (Or almost: she’s civil with her super-efficient secretary/PA, Maidie Norman, who’s black. The racial insult comes by separate post…) The fact that she’s apparently lonely and cries herself to sleep at night doesn’t redeem her. The movie seems to believe that we’re somehow going to root for her to find love, even though evidently her search for it will involve just being mean to people for ninety minutes. They haven’t quite worked out how to make nastiness a compelling trait, by revelling in it unapologetically.

People we do like in the film — Michael Wilding, the blind pianist, who just does his usual unassuming chap act; Marjorie Rambeau, who is magnificent as Joan’s lovely, boozy mom (“I didn’t know you was comin’ or I’d a gotten some high-class beer”); Harry Morgan, also mild and unassuming. Despite these laid-back performers around her, Joan keeps giving it both knees, as the Germans say. Which is appropriate to the role she’s been given

Her dancing here is better than her mad auntie gyrations in DANCING LADY — maybe she just couldn’t tap, or maybe skilled dance director Charles Walters has restrained her dancing in a way he couldn’t do for her acting. But he does allow her to perform “Two-Faced Woman” in blackface, so we can’t give him too much credit. Of all the mystifying errors of taste in this movie, this one… well, is that sufficient warning?

I’m trying and failing to imagine ways this could be worse. After Joan rips off her black wig to reveal her rigid apricot tresses, she could rip those off and reveal a bald cap, like Constance Towers in THE NAKED KISS, and then she could rip her whole face off and reveal one of the skull-aliens from THEY LIVE, and then she could rip that off and reveal Don Knotts. Nope. Still not worse than what the movie gives us.

Robert Aldrich eventually came to feel — rightly — that casting ageing actresses in horror roles was “kind of cruel.” SUNSET BOULEVARD and BABY JANE and their imitators play remorselessly on a legitimately disturbing theme, the point where the age-inappropriate goes so far as to surpass embarrassment, comedy, and pity, and break through into nightmare. TORCH SONG’s problems only very indirectly relate to Crawford’s age — only insofar as she’s no longer got the clout at the studio to get the best roles in the best movies. It’s true that she doesn’t look really attractive in it, and reviewers pointed this out, but that’s a flaw but not a fatal problem — the performance and the character are far more unattractive than her hard, unnatural look.

Still, it could’ve been worse. Joan recorded the songs herself, and was very unhappy when the studio replaced her singing. but she and we dodged a bullet. This YouTube clip compares the two vocal performances, but is far more interesting because it lets us hear Joan’s speaking voice — when she’s not acting or doing interviews (ie. acting). The feeling that emerges — which is a chilling one — is that she could have made an even more frightening Baby Jane Hudson than Bette Davis did.

It also opens up new and alarming possibilities for Faye Dunaway in MOMMIE DEAREST. Imagine if the regal tone dropped away whenever the media weren’t around… Maybe something as strange and extreme as that would have pushed Dunaway’s perf clean out the other side of camp and into the psychotic-uncanny?

Laughing at fading stars is a cruel spectator sport, whether it’s in BABY JANE or Feud — the horrible thing about TORCH SONG is that it’s useless for any other purpose.

It is a dimension as vast as space…

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , on April 6, 2017 by dcairns

And When the Sky Was Opened is one of The Twilight Zone’s great Air Force Angst stories. Other include the supreme The Last Flight with Kenneth Haigh (making a surprise jaunt stateside) and the similar but inferior King Nine Will Not Return with Bob Cummings (AKA the Butcher of Strasbourg). I was initially unsure what caused this harping on the aerial theme, other than the appeal of pitting a rational, manly, courageous authority figure against irrational forces he’s not remotely equipped to comprehend. It’s a good writing tip and I offer it to you for nothing: if you come up with an interesting dramatic situation, go looking for the worst person to put in it. But not the obvious worst person — something subtler.

But this episode hints at the spark that may have ignited Rod Serling’s fascination with this motif, for Leonard Rosenman’s score practically quotes Allan Gray’s sinister arpeggio from A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, another movie in which an airman must face off against mysterious and all-powerful universal forces, a story which similarly can be viewed as an account of supernatural interference or mental derangement.

Tip-top Zone helmer Douglas Heyes directs deftly, and his star is Rod Taylor, who enters his buddy’s hospital room at the start with an all-of-a-sudden move, as if hoping to catch the universe out. Then he hunts around while talking to his buddy, as if looking for clues. (Many dramatic scenes could be improved if at least one of the actors would prowl around in search of evidence.) What he’s looking for his confirmation of the existence of his best friend, who was on an experimental space flight (X20!) that crashed, was recovered safely along with Rod and his other pal, but has since disappeared. And he hasn’t just disappeared from the present tense, but from the past too. Like he was never there. Rod Taylor, it transpires, is the only one who can remember him existing at all.

What’s particularly frightening about this one, a Richard Matheson story adapted by Rod Serling, asides from Taylor and the other mens’ powerful performances, which make the whole situation credible and even moving, is the weakness of any explanation offered. In a flashback, Carrington (Charles Aidman), feeling that he’s vanishing (sort of like Michael J. Fox fading away in BACK TO THE FUTURE, but using no special effects, only acting) speculates that the plane shouldn’t have made it, that the fliers ought to be dead, and the universe is correcting its mistake. But that doesn’t fit the facts: the fliers are not being rewritten as dead, they’re being rewritten out of the timeline altogether. It seems like some kind of punishment for trespassing beyond the outer atmosphere, but nobody hints at this. The story sits there, smugly, staring at us and giving away nothing.

Part of what makes this superior to King Nine is that the focus is more on what will happen next rather than the meaning behind what’s just happened. Viewers experienced in the uncanny tale may quickly suspect that this one is never going to be explained — and it’ll be all the scarier for that. There just hasn’t been any set-up which could be repurposed to make an answer to the puzzle. Outer space is really a red herring. Instead of unravelling a mystery, Rod gets ravelled in one — it becomes clear that the universe IS correcting a mistake, sort of, and Rod is part of it. The episode begins with a shot of the space-plane under a tarp, but ends, after all three astronauts have been vanished, with a shot of the tarp lying flat on the ground, like the aftermath of a magician’s trick.

This covers similar terrain to Jean-Claude Carriere’s magnificent short film THE NAIL CLIPPERS — where a man checks into a hotel, unpacks, and loses his nail clippers. Then the overnight bag they were in. Then his suitcase. Then his wife. Then himself. The logic of a nightmare — also, a magic trick familiar to writers, who often erase unwanted characters, not only from the present tense, but from the past. “He’s been yanked off,” mourns Rod, using an actorly image instead — the vaudevillian tugged from the stage by a slyly approaching shepherd’s crook. The comic never does notice the crook until it’s around his neck.

Neither will any of us.

“Once upon a time there was a man named Harrington. A man named Forbes. A man named Gart. They used to exist, but don’t any longer. Someone, or something, took them somewhere. At least, they are no longer a part of the memory of man. And as to the X-20, supposed to be housed here in this hangar, this too does not exist. And if any of you have any questions concerning an aircraft and three men who flew her, speak softly of them, and only in… the twilight zone.”