Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Elaan of Troyius" (December 20, 1968)

Stardate: 4372.5

The U.S.S. Enterprise is assigned a delicate diplomatic mission. The starship must ferry the ambassador from Troyius, Petri (Jay Robinson), and the barbaric Dolman of Elas, Elaan (France Nuyen) on a slow cruise to Troyius.

During the mission, Petri will gloom the difficult Elaan for life on Troyius as the bride of the Troyian leader.

At stake are the peace and stability of the star system that houses both worlds.

Making the journey difficult, a Klingon D-7 cruiser shadows the Enterprise’s every move.

Soon, Elaan attempts to murder Petri, leaving Captain Kirk (William Shatner) to step in and complete the ambassador’s attempts to make the impulsive dolman ready for polite culture. His efforts are complicated by Elaan’s tears. These tears act like a kind of “biochemical” love potion, and Kirk is soon impacted by them, his thoughts clouded.

As Kirk battle with his feelings for Elaan, a traitor sabotages the Enterprise, and he and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) must determine why the wedding/alliance is of such importance to the Klingons.

“Elaan of Troyius” is a controversial entry of Star Trek’s (1966-1969) third season. Written and directed by John Meredyth Lucas, the episode features action and humor aplenty, and is based on many literary sources. It endures, finally, as a statement regarding Kirk’s strength of character (and superhuman?) resolve.

The central problem, of course, involves the fact that the episode -- to our eyes in 2017 -- plays as abundantly sexist. At one point in the action, Kirk notes that Spock’s planet (Vulcan) is the only world in the galaxy that can make the claim that it possesses logical women. That remark is sexist on its face. 

The overall plot -- that a woman must change her entire life and culture, to exist in polite society (and please a man) -- similarly might easily be interpreted in this fashion.

However, I do resist this interpretation, and would encourage others to do so as well.

Facts are facts: “Elaan of Troyius” was produced nearly fifty years ago. Thus it arose from a completely different historical context than the one we deal with today. Accordingly I don’t necessarily see the benefit or wisdom of judging a half-century old work of art by today’s standards, except to note that the episode appears, in 2017, out-of-date in terms of its approach to gender. 

Context -- the setting around the work of art -- is crucially important to any fair-minded assessment and understanding of that work of art.  What remains so amazing about Star Trek is the fact that it so often was ahead of its time (and still is…). That remarkable fact actually makes the more overtly sexist shows (“Mudd’s Women,” or “Elaan of Troyius”) seem doubly disappointing, I suppose. Star Trek gets so much right, so much of the time, that when it gets something wrong, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

 “Elaan of Troyius,” to some eyes, reflects the time the episode was made, and not the enlightened era the stories are supposed to represent (the 23rd century).

But why re-litigate a work of art from fifty years ago by today’s beliefs?  I fear very few works of art would pass such a test. This is why I do not favor, as I have written before, the application of the Bechdel Test to productions made decades ago. What’s the point of doing so? Decades ago we hadn’t made the progress we have made now.  Are we supposed to shun works of art that, made fifty years ago, don’t pass today’s benchmarks? That’s what I fear could happen.

I would hope that all of us can acknowledge that yes, aspect of this episode are quite sexist by today’s standards, but, simultaneously, that the episode wasn’t made in our modern environment, either. We can acknowledge the sexism, without judging the creators of the episode, or the episode itself, harshly.

So the question we must address about this episode explicitly involves Elaan. I fully acknowledge that Kirk’s line of dialogue about women is sexist, but is the depiction of Elaan sexist, overall?

Well, one could make the argument that it is not.

After all, Elaan embodies the high ideal of self-sacrifice for her people, choosing to live in marriage with a person she has every expectation she will despise. This act of sacrifice actually saves two planets: Elas and Troyius. This action proves that Elaan is not a prop or a pawn, but a remarkable leader.

It is sexist, I suppose, that Elaan is expected to bend her entire identity to her groom (who presumably is fine the way he is?); to adopt his culture and beliefs. But the fact of this sexist “deal” only makes Elaan’s virtue even greater, from a certain perspective.  She is the one losing out (both in terms of her freedom and culture), and therefore deserves great respect for choosing, as she does, the “needs of the many” over the “needs of the one” (herself.)

This is not to claim that Elaan is a saint. She knowingly seduces Kirk. She attempts to murder Petri. She recommends the wholesale destruction of her enemies. These are not the actions of an enlightened ruler. But in the end, Elaan follows through on her promise; on her duty and responsibilities.  I think it is too much to ask that she not entertain other possibilities, or that she “like” her destiny.  That seems sexist in its own way.

In many ways, this story is really all about duty. Kirk finds that the cure to Elasian tears is “duty;” his responsibilities to the Enterprise, and to Starfleet’s chain of command. He does not succumb to Elaan because duty is foremost on his mind. He too is a wise leader.  Elaan learns, through her association with Kirk, that duty is her highest responsibility as well. They have a lot in common, and these shared qualities have nothing to do with a love potion

The distasteful aspects of the episode -- Kirk’s line about women, which is a stereotype since it does not acknowledge or recognize women as individuals, and his slapping of Elaan -- are present here, no doubt.  Kirk also threatens Elaan with a spanking.  I’m not an apologist for these moments, excusing them, or wishing them away into the corn field. They exist because of the context of the late 1960’s and because of the literary sources underlining the episode.

The Taming of the Shrew, first written in the 1590’s, is about a man, Petruchio, who bends a non-compliant woman, Katherina, to his will. He basically breaks down her individuality, freedom, and identity to make her suitable. “Elaan of Troyius” casts Kirk as Petruchio, and Elaan as Katherina, but with a unique difference.

Kirk only reluctantly, and under orders, comes to the task of “preparing” Elaan for her new life.  And Elaan, in adopting alien customs, prevents war, and perhaps the annihilation of two cultures.  The stakes are huge, here, and both characters act in a way beyond the “self,” or above any overriding desire to conform to social norms. Kirk and Elaan act as they do -- in much the same way as their literary counterparts -- in other words, for peaceful, enlightened reasons.

The title of the episode, “Elaan of Troyius” is a lame, on-the-nose riff on the Helen of Troy story (The Iliad), and that work of art is another sexist tale, perhaps. Helen is a prize in that tale; one that is stolen, and one that must be reclaimed. She is the cause of a great war, not the resolver of a war, so that’s a key difference too.

I would argue that Elaan actually possesses a great deal of agency, because, in the end, she chooses a path that will benefit Elas, Troyius, and the Federation, even if is at her personal expense.

This is the strong aspect of the episode. The weakest aspects see Elaan acting like a child, not an adult. The innuendo is that all women are children who must be set right, at any cost, by a strong adult man like Captain Kirk.

Perhaps the best way to view Elaan, in this episode, is as a space-age Cleopatra. The historical Cleopatra is remembered as a wise ruler who, through her careful alliance with Rome, maintained Egypt’s independence from Rome for a lengthy duration. She maintained the prosperity of her country by managing its economy and currency, and is believed to have been a true renaissance woman, with an intense interest in the arts, as well as science.

The character Elaan, who we meet at the start of this episode is a savage, it seems, in terms of personal behavior (table manners, anger management) but like Cleopatra, she becomes the focal point of Empires (the Federation, Elas, Troyius), and through her actions stabilizes an entire sector of space, likely for years.

So is the sexism of “Elaan of Troy” a disqualifying aspect? Or is the exploration of two leaders -- joined by a duty that robs them, in a sense, of relationships and connection -- enough to overcome the sexism?  I can’t make that call for you, or anyone. Mileage will vary.

I will note that, personally, I typically find Star Trek: The Next Generation much more sexist, in some  important ways, than the original series ever was. There, in the 1980's -- a full two-decades later -- the primary female characters (Dr. Crusher and Counselor Troi) were both care-givers, and still breaking crockery on enemies'  heads  instead of using phasers, or hand-to-hand training...as late as the fourth season). Both characters were defined, early on ("The Naked Now"), for their hidden lust for the leading men (Picard and Riker).

There are two aspects of the episodes, beyond the gender issue, that are really terrific.  The first is the humor.  The moment here -- in which Spock and McCoy intrude on Kirk and Elaan locked in a passionate embrace – is hysterical, and the humor stems from character. Spock and Bones know well Kirk’s reputation as a lady’s man.

Finally, the episode's final battle with the Klingons is tense and well-orchestrated, a dramatic high point.

Next week: “Whom Gods Destroy.”

Monday, June 26, 2017

Ask JKM a Question: My Favorite Year in Film?

A reader named Gene writes:

Hello. Long-long time reader here. I know that you stated before what your favorite decade for films are. The 70's I recall?? But can you narrow it down to your favorite year for releases?

For instance, I realized that the year 1995 was a banner year for my personal best list....'Heat', 'Se7en', 'Usual Suspects', all in 1 year! ....what is yours?”

That is a great question, Gene. I love thinking about years in cinema history that I experienced, and remember fondly.

As usual, however, I am going to be evasive, and not name just one “great” or favorite year, but three favorite years. (Yes, I find it difficult to choose)

Here goes:

My favorite year for film is….1982.


Take a look at this incredible release roster for that year:

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
John Carpenter’s The Thing
Blade Runner
Swamp Thing
The Road Warrior
Conan: The Barbarian
The Secret of NIMH
The Dark Crystal

And (lest we forget….) Megaforce!

It’s amazing to me that the impact of these films is still being felt thirty-five years later. 

Star Trek is still going strong, Blade Runner 2 is due out in just months, 2015 gave us another Mad Max sequel, Fury Road, and a Dark Crystal TV series is on the way. 

Accordingly, I would nominate 1982 as the greatest year for genre movies in the 20th century, and one that carried the most impact and influence, as well.

My second choice is 1979. This is a personal (and affectionate) choice. I was nine/ten that year, and the first wave of great post-Star Wars genre movies came to movie theaters…and thrilled me.

Here’s the roster for 1979:

Star Trek: The Motion Picture
The Black Hole
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
Time After Time
The Warriors
Mad Max

Last but not least, I am very fond of the year 1999. 

Perhaps I look back at 1999 so warmly because of what was happening in my life at the time. This was the year my wife and I bought and moved into our first house together, a historic home in Monroe, N.C.  I was writing full-time, two or three books a year, and everything seemed to be going swimmingly. The same year, we adopted our two kittens, Lila, who died in 2014, and Ezri, who is still going strong.

There was some amazing films released that year, including the following landmarks:

The Blair Witch Project
The Matrix
The Sixth Sense
South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut.
Stir of Echoes
Eyes Wide Shut
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

I would love to hear from readers on this subject. What is your favorite year in movies, and why?

Don’t forget to send me your questions at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Bears

A bear is a carnivorous mammal of the family Ursidae, and a familiar player in cult-television history to boot.

At least two television series have been built around bear protagonists.  

Gentle Ben (1967-1969) ran for two seasons and 58-episodes, and involved the friendship between a human boy, Mark Wadloe (Clint Howard), and his black bear, Ben.

The second series to extensively feature a bear is The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (1974-1978), which starred Dan Haggerty as Adams, an outcast from society, and also featured a bear named Ben.

Otherwise, bears have often proven dangerous antagonists on cult-television series. In the Korg, 70,000 B.C.'s (1974) episode, "The Web," for example, a bear attacks the Neanderthal family led by Korg (Jim Malinda) and becomes territorial regarding the family cave. Korg creates a net to trap the predator and remove it from their home.

In the Filmation Saturday morning series, Shazam, an episode called "The Delinquent" involves a bear attack on Billy Batson (Michael Gray). A young loner, played by Jackie Earle Haley, races to his rescue.

Shazam's sister series, The Secrets of Isis (1975-1976) similarly features an episode with a wild bear on the attack (in a park), "Rockhound's Roost."

Recently, Game of Thrones (2011 - ) featured an episode involving a bear and an arena, "The Bear and the Maiden Fair."

The Cult-TV Faces of: Bears












Sunday, June 25, 2017

28 Years Ago: Batman (1989)

"I don't know if it's art, but I like it!"

- The Joker, in Tim Burton's Batman (1989)

Bob Kane and Bill Finger's Batman character has gone through nearly as many cinematic and television incarnations, perhaps, as Bram Stoker's Dracula or Shakespeare's Hamlet.

The Adam West Batman TV series of the 1960s showcased a colorful world of campy characters, stereotypical comic-book affectations (ZAP!) and obsessively-labeled Bat gadgets and devices (like the Batcave's clearly marked "Lighted Lucite Map of Gotham City").

Contrarily, Christopher Nolan's currently in-vogue interpretation of the mythos adopts the opposite tack, grounding absolutely every aspect of Batman's universe in kitchen sink, War on Terror Age reality.  Here, the Batmobile is more Hummer than hot rod, an all-terrain military vehicle adapted by the Dark Knight for urban use.  The Caped Crusader's costume, according to Batman Begins (2005)  is actually a "Nomex Survival Suit" not a mere "costume," and Gotham City appears to be a very real, very grounded metropolis (actually Chicago in The Dark Knight [2008], if memory serves).

Between these opposite poles of  tongue-in-cheek comedy and naturalistic, gritty realism, director Tim Burton presented his own unique take on the Batman legend in the final year of the 1980's.  Given what we understand of Burton's aesthetic, it's not at all surprising that his vision for the Caped Crusader is largely expressionistic; one that distorts reality, essentially, to create an overwhelming sense of mood or psychological and emotional experience. 

In short, Burton's blockbuster 1989 film largely concerns two men (Bruce Wayne and Jack Napier) who  owe their very identities (and their mutual senses of alienation...) to the failed city-state where they dwell.  Batman and Joker could conceivably exist, according to this film, nowhere but in Gotham City.  The city -- heir to skylines like those seen in  Metropolis (1927), Blade Runner (1982) and Brazil (1985) -- functions  itself as a character in the drama, and as an important player in the action.  In some ways, the very architecture of the city  reflects the mental landscape of the Joker and Batman.  All three "characters" are strange, jumbled, "new" edifices (psychological and concrete) built upon old, shaky, crumbling and "dead" personalities or foundations.  Or as Jack Napier notes, "decent people shouldn't live here."

If you remember the summer of 1989 at all, you'll likely recall the "Bat Frenzy" that seized the nation upon release of Burton's film.  It was an authentic and unforgettable Zeitgeist moment. Although many fans had grown concerned about the casting of "comedic" actor Michael Keaton as Batman, most complaints evaporated once the film was screened.  Never before on-screen had Batman been taken so "seriously," and his world rendered so impressively and expensively.

Accordingly, most critics raved about the picture and the power of Burton's vision.  Ken Hanke, writing in Films in Review, called the film "a work of brilliance" (October 1989, page 480), and David Sterritt of the Christian Science Monitor commended Batman's "haunting tone." (June 29, 1989, page 10).

For me, those things that remain so vital and and impressive about Burton's Batman are the canny psychological underpinnings.   Batman becomes an understandable/relatable personality only because Burton erects the Caped Crusader's universe from the ground-up. 

In other words, Gotham is indeed the "prime actor" on Batman's psyche, and the very thing responsible for making one man "The Bat" and  another The Joker.   In focusing on the surrounding universe (rather than merely the people inhabiting it), Burton's Batman more readily functions as an epic fantasy than either its comedic antecedent, the Batman TV series, or Nolan's big-budget pictures, which are basically action-films played straight, with few fantastic or fantasy elements at all.

Burton's Batman also thrives on its two central performances: Michael Keaton as a man dwelling in the past and wholly absent-minded about the details of the present, and Jack Nicholson as a monster who leaves behind day-to-day matters of concern (like his physical appearance) to dwell on a more abstract (if terrifying...) plateau; that of a "fully functional homicidal artist."  These men, joined by their twisted "origins" -- or more accurately their twisted resurrections -- fight to control Gotham City, and also the love of a woman, Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger).

"Haven't you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?"

In crime-ridden Gotham City, crooks and thieves fear a new presence in town, the nighttime avenger known as "The Bat."

Actually, criminals fear Batman, the alter-ego of millionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), who each night patrols the mean streets of Gotham and recalls (and relives?) the crime that robbed an innocent child of his parents.

As a nosy reporter, Knox (Robert Wuhl) and a beautiful photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) plot to learn more about the mysterious Batman, Gotham's Underworld undergoes a dramatic shift.  After a confrontation with Batman at Axis Chemicals, thug Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) is transformed into the mad Joker, and murders crime boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance).  He assumes control of the Grissom operation and begins a reign of bizarre terror.

While Bruce and Vicki embark upon a romantic relationship, the Joker terrorizes Gotham with his deadly Smilex toxin.  After Batman unravels the Smilex puzzle, the Joker challenges Batman to meet him during the nighttime parade celebrating the 200th anniversary of Gotham City.  For the people of Gotham, the big question is: who do you trust?  The clown, or the man in a bat suit?

"You can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs."

The Batman character first appeared in May of 1939 in an issue of Detective Comics.  \Importantly, Burton's Batman film seems to seize on that era of American history (say 1939 - 1945) and to forge a sense of reality with that epoch as its creative basis. 

Accordingly, the Gotham City featured in Batman is one in which the Art Deco and "Futura" style of the late 1920's and early 1930's has given way to the terrors of both fascism and more utilitarian architecture.  The beautiful deco Gotham -- representative of elegant, stylish and streamlined modern architecture -- has been "built over" willy-nilly by a melange of industrial grunge and blight.  It's as though someone constructed a beautiful contemporary city in one decade, and then just kept building and building upon it randomly for generations, with no thought or strategy about how to expand.  And each expansion is uglier, less stylish...less optimistic than the last.

You can detect the late-1930's early-1940's touches not merely in the architecture featured in Gotham in Batman, but in the costumes as well.  The policemen wear leather jackets, and male citizens are adorned in fedoras and other hats.  Also, aspects of the dialogue purposefully play up this era of American history.  Knox (Robert Wuhl) talks like he's out of a snappy, 1940's-era Howard Hawks movie (perhaps His Girl Friday [1940]) and Joker's base of operations is called Axis Chemicals.  As other critics have rightly pointed out, "Axis" is the name of the military alliance between Germany, Italy and Japan circa 1936 - 1945, and so again, a particular era of world history is alluded to, at least sub textually, in Batman.

If we remember what was happening in the world at the time of the Axis Powers perhaps we can understand why this reference is important to an understanding of Burton's Batman.  After the defeat (or death) represented by World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was "resurrected" as a global player...and terrifyingly so, as a monster; as the much-feared Nazi movement. The Joker's journey in the Burton film actually mirrors Germany's in some odd fashion  Jack Napier meets his Waterloo (or Versailles) at Axis, and is resurrected from the toxic (primordial?) goop as the Joker...only to ascend to greater power and tremendous madness.  Like Nazi Germany, he nearly wins his battle for domination too.

Thus, in some sub textual fashion, Batman seems to be about the idea of a "good" world going very, very wrong, taking a nearly fatal wrong turn; of art deco modernity giving way to industrial blues, and the rise of fascism.  Incidentally, this is also the very production design pattern that George Lucas utilizes in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), showcasing in that film how a chrome, Art Deco Republic transforms into a  utilitarian, totalitarian state, where the ugliness of the movement is reflected in the ugliness of the new architecture.  In both cases, production design and wardrobe represent audience cues to express for us something important about the film's milieu.

Another way to explain this aspect of the Burton Batman: It's as though the film maker's took a snapshot of Batman's world in 1939, on the comic book's very parturition, and expanded that snapshot into a full-length film.  Also encoded in that "snapshot" is the idea of one "free" man (Wayne) utilizing his resources and wealth to challenge a system that isn't working.  In Gotham, the police are mostly helpless and citizens cower in fear because of the rampant crime.  In 1939, as America saw Nazi-ism rise overseas and countenanced the ascent of a more socialist state in America, some people would have viewed a capitalist crusader Batman as the express antidote to both: an entrepreneur using his own resources, by his own will, to restore justice.

Interestingly, both Bruce Wayne and Jack Napier are depicted in Burton's Batman as victims of what Gotham City has become.  Even as an adult, Bruce remains obsessed with the death of his parents in Gotham, a result of out-of-control crime and the failure of the establishment.  To  characterize this on-going obsession, Burton features at least two similarly-staged scenes.  In the film's opening scene, Batman arrives (too late) to save a family of movie-goers as they are accosted by criminals.  Later, Bruce remembers the death of his parents (in flashback) after a similar night at the movies, and an encounter with young Jack Napier.  These scenes are very similar, right down to the single-child nature of the family, and they suggest that Bruce is caught in a kind of endless, obsessive loop, unable to put the past down.   His nightly ritual of crime-fighting is in fact an attempt to exorcise the images he can't get out of his head: the death of his parents.  A third scene adds meaningfully to this conceit, showcasing Bruce brushing off the optimistic present (a date with Vicki) to return to the alley where his parents tragically died, and lay flowers at the spot where they expired.

This approach is intriguingly contrasted with Bruce Wayne's inability to focus on the details of the present.  He can't be bothered to pay attention to a gala being hosted at his house (in support of the 200th anniversary of Gotham City), and is glib about his wealth and belongings, even offering Knox a "grant" for his work, seemingly off-the-cuff.  A later scene involving Vicki and Bruce on a date at Wayne Manor, in a vast dining room, purposely seems to reflect a famous scene in Citizen Kane (1941) that -- through the spatial gulf across a colossal dining room table -- expressed the idea of marital alienation between an obscenely wealthy man and his emotionally-desolate wife.  Here, the scene reveals the gulf between Bruce and his present.  He can't quite reach it; can't quite touch or embrace it.  Again, notice how the focus in this Batman is upon the psychological state of the characters; on an expression of their interior dilemmas.  And also notice, please, how a visual film allusion to Citizen Kane also functions as a call-back to the time period I mentioned above, say 1936 - 1945.

It all fits together.

In Burton's Batman, Bruce as he appears now was "created" in the crucible of his parent's death, and has never been able to step outside that person.  He can't live in the present.  He can only live obsessively in the past; the past that Gotham City made for him.  In fact, Bruce has used all his considerable resources to trap himself in a cage, a technological cage in which he becomes a strange alter-ego; one who is always seeking to avenge the one act he cannot undo.  He can't quite reach across that dining room table to Vicki, even though a part of him desires that outcome.  "Are we at least going to try to love each other?" Vicki asks Bruce at one point, and his answer is determinedly a "no."  He's got work to do; a job to do.  Avenging the past.

By contrast, the Joker is cannot live in the past.  After being dropped into toxic chemicals and suffering botched plastic surgery (in a very dark, very creepy scene...), the present doesn't interest the Joker.  What interests him, instead, is the very act of creation, or perhaps, more accurately, of transformation.  He focuses on what he can make of himself, the world, and other people around him, like his unfortunate girlfriend.  The Joker realizes that he can be an artist: skilled at the very activity (with some sensitivity and imagination) of destroying and resurrecting lives.  The past is dead to the Joker, and he is characterized in the film by his need to "re-paint" or tarnish the present, which we see during his efforts at the museum.  The Joker survives his pain -- like a true artist -- by making the world share it with him.

For this reason alone, I must confess that I prefer Nicholson's Joker to Heath Ledger's in The Dark Knight.  Nicholson's Joker is engaged in the act of becoming; of transforming the world into a nightmare reflecting his own point-of-view (again, remember the fascism/Nazi subtext I noted above). By contrast, Ledger's Joker seems more like a force of pure chaos; one whose only purpose is to have no express purpose; destruction for the sake of destruction.

Both performances are powerful, but for me, Nicholson is both funny and terrifying, whereas Ledger was merely terrifying.  The powerful idea underlining a villain like the Joker is that he both attracts and repels; he's both charismatic and totally untrustworthy.

You can readily believe that Nicholson's "showman" Joker would inspire followers and "believers," whereas that's not exactly the case with the character in The Dark Knight.  Also, Burton expresses the hows and whys of the Joker's parturition in this Batman, granting the character a distinctive world view as a "homicidal artist."  The character in The Dark Knight, in my opinion, remains a bit charmless and opaque, if undeniably menacing.  Again, people of good will shall differ on favorites, and perhaps the bottom line is that Nicholson's Joker can exist only in Burton's vision for the mythos, just as Ledger is appropriate to Nolan's vision.

The idea or resurrection looms large in Burton's Batman. The once beautiful Gotham City has been resurrected as an industrial nightmare of out-of-control crime, Bruce has taken his obsession with is parents' death and resurrected himself as Batman, and out of the battle at Axis Chemicals Jack has been resurrected as that homicidal artist, the Joker.  Each character suggests what happens when a trauma isn't diagnosed or handled, but merely scabbed or built over.  The results, in all cases aren't "exactly normal" to quote Vicki's description of Batman.   The intertwining of Joker/Batman and Gotham is made explicit in the Batman screenplay as Joker and Batman fight atop Gotham's abandoned cathedral and argue "I made you?"  "You made me."

Batman premiered near the end of the pre-CGI age in terms of special effects, when miniatures, animation and other older creative tools were still widely in use.  For some audiences, the effects will seem dated, but for others, they will feel appropriately more tactile and bizarre, in some fashion, than what we have grown accustomed to in the digital era.  Like so many Burton films, this is a messy, organic effort.  We see acid burned on human faces, the bloody instruments from a botched plastic surgery, sweat-drenched criminals and other distinctive horrors.  There's always very much a feeling here that these horrendous events are real and happening, not flesh-less, gravity-less affectations superimposed after the characters were actually there.  This fits into the psychological underpinnings of the film, the idea of people living in a nightmare state, in a nightmare city.  You can't achieve that effect that so easily with green screens, or CGI blood spurts.  This movie is about making us feel we live in Batman's world, and for that reason, it's very successful as a work of art.

Back in 1989, I had a high-school friend whom I absolutely loved, who described Burton's Batman -- humorously -- as "pretty darn plotless," and perhaps there's some truth to that complaint.  The film is about a  lengthy grudge match between two men in a place "synonymous with crime."  The narrative details are less crucial than the expression of the locations, and the emotional, psychological particulars of the two combatants.  Danny Elfman's magnificent score adds to the aura of a moody, introspective rumination, one overcrowded with ideas, and in some cases, authentic horrors.

I realize that Batman is far from Burton's favorite film, and yet it does, quite readily, reflect much of his nature as an artist, stressing visuals as psychological symbols of fractured and damaged mental states. The film also diagrams the story of misfits and outsiders, a frequent Burton leitmotif.

As Bruce Wayne might characterize Batman in terms of Burton,  "some of it is very much me," and "some of it is not."   Though there's much of the film's director personal taste evident in the mix, Batman Returns (1992), in some ways,  is an even more perfect representation of the director's aesthetic.  It's weirder and wilder, even, than the gruesome sights on display here.  That film, in my opinion, is some kind of twisted Christmas, Burton high-point, a second run at the Batman legend that improves on the expressive, psychologically-adroit ruminations of this admirable 1989 effort.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "The Slaves" (September 18, 1976)

In “The Slaves,” the Ark II team catches wind of a nearby village using slavery, a “miserable and immoral practice,” and Jonah sets out to observe.  

Unfortunately, he is captured by the forces of Baron Vargas (Michael Kermoyan), a tyrant who deploys magic tricks to keep the slaves from attempting escape, banding together, or asserting their rights.

In particular, Baron Vargas has convinced many of his exhausted slaves that he possesses the power to turn people into mindless animals.  The people, having no education or experience with such things, cower in fear.  One man, Gideon, has even become an informant for Vargas, because he believes his sister has been transformed into an animal.

When Jonah stands up to Vargas, the devious Baron stages a fire and light show in which he appears to transform Jonah into a rooster.  In truth, Jonah is simply put in prison, abducted in a cloud of smoke, out of the eyes of the crowd. 

Seeing the deception for what it is, Ruth and Samuel at the Ark II decide to out-magic the evil magician.  They rescue Jonah, and assert their own technological magic to free the slaves.  

In “The Slaves,” written by David Dworski, the audience gets to see a bit more of the grand Ark II’s interesting capabilities.  In this case, the vehicle projects a force field beam; one that is able to make it look like Jonah is actually walking on air.  The force field beam looks dangerous, like a laser, but like all of the Ark II’s devices is entirely defensive in nature. 

Other than that touch, this episode, directed by Hollingsworth Morse, hammers home the worthy point that fear stems from ignorance, and that knowledge can overcome ignorance, and thus fear.  

The villager slaves are all superstitious and terrified, but Jonah and his team pull back the curtain, to use a Wizard of Oz metaphor, to reveal the truth about the manipulative Vargas.  It’s a worthwhile point, especially because so many tyrants in today’s world use ignorant beliefs (usually of a religious nature) to hold back their populations. 

Watching this episode of Ark II, I understood, perhaps for the first time, what’s missing from the series format: a sense of how Ruth, Jonah and Samuel are educated and trained, and what kind of organization, specifically they hail from.  What are their skill-sets?  How did they become trained?   How were they chosen for these assignments?

It would have been great if the makers of Ark II had provided a bit more detail about these adventurers, and why they became involved with the Ark II mission, and what skills, precisely, they bring to the table.  It would have been neat to get an episode where they check back in at home base, as well. I'd love to see the society they hail from, and what it is like.

I also got to wondering, perhaps because this episode is a little dull: is Ark II the only vehicle in the fleet?  Is there also an Ark III or Ark IV out there, patrolling a different area of the post-apocalyptic terrain?

Of course, I realize that this Filmation series was designed for children.  But the episodes create an interesting enough world that as a viewer, you want to know more about the characters, their backgrounds, and the world they inhabit.  This is truly a series that would benefit from an intelligent remake:  You could take the core series concept, the characters, the production design and the world-view and then spin out new details about all of them, significantly deepening the Ark II-iverse.

Next week: “The Balloon.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Lidsville: "The Great Brain Robbery"

In “The Great Brain Robbery,” Mark (Butch Patrick) and Weenie (Billie Hayes) decide to fly away from Lidsville (and back to the real world), using a magic carpet. 

After they depart, however, Hoo-doo (Charles Nelson Reilly) unveils his brainwash machine, and plans to transform all the Good Hats into obedient slaves. The Bad Hats set the machine to the wrong dial, however, and the Good Hats become argumentative.

Hoo-Doo realizes that this is a fantastic turn of events, and he plans to use the Good Hats as an army to stage a coup against the Imperial Wizard.

Mark and Weenie crash  on the magic carpet during a storm, and discover what Hoo-Doo is up to. Now they must free their friends from Hoo-doo’s control.

This episode of Lidsville (1971-1973) focuses on the intriguing notion, that Hoo-doo is more than a buffoon, and actually a very real danger to the world of hats.  Sure he's a clown, but with power, he's incredibly dangerous.

For example, in this story Hoodoo attempts to raise an army for a very specific purpose: to attack and over-take the Imperial Wizard’s palace.  

This is a much more ambitious and power-hungry plan than we have seen before. He compares himself to Napoleon and (amusingly) notes that soon “Charlton Heston will be begging to play my life…in color.”

Also, we get a sense, in this episode of the world’s geography. While planning his conquest, Hoo-Doo says “Today, Lidsville, tomorrow Coatsville…then on to Shirtville…”

To the best of my memory, “The Great Brain Robbery” is the only episode of Lidsville that explores Hoo-Doo’s specific plans for world domination.  In the past, he has seemed content to terrorize the Good Hats and collect back taxes. This development makes him more of a sadistic bureaucrat than a world conqueror. But here, we see differently.

Otherwise, this story brings back the magic carpet we saw some episodes back (“Fly Now, Vacuum Later”), and uses it as a vehicle of escape for Mark and Weenie.  Of course, according to the rigid series formula, these characters can’t actually escape. So the carpet hits a storm in the sky, and the duo crashes back on the ground.

Stories like this always raise questions for me, though admittedly they may not have for the original audience of young children.  

Some of those questions include: why not try the magic carpet again at another time?  Or, for that matter, why doesn’t Hoo-Doo try the brain wash machine on another occasion?

Next week, the final Lidsville episode: “Mommy Hoo-Doo.”

Friday, June 23, 2017

Cult-TV Flashback: Knight Rider (1982 - 1986): "Goliath" (Parts I and II)

Knight Rider…a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist. Michael Knight, a young loner on a crusade to champion the cause of the innocent, the helpless, the powerless, in a world of criminals who operate above the law.”

-Knight Rider’s opening narration.

In Knight Rider’s (1982 – 1986) two-part episode, “Goliath,” Michael Knight (David Hasselhoff) challenges a villain who has the same face: Garthe Knight (also played Hasselhoff). 

The evil Knight, is son of the Knight Foundation’s philanthropist, Wilton, and in cahoots with his mother, Elizabeth (Barbara Rush) on a secret mission.

Specifically, Garthe and Elizabeth hope to steal the plans for K.I.T.T.’s “molecular bonded shell plating,” the very aspect of the advanced car that makes him so impervious to damage and attack. 

The evil duo plots to build a new vehicle, a giant, 22 ton semi-truck called “Goliath,” and -- once it is equipped with the shell plating -- penetrate a top secret base in the desert, one that possess dangerous missiles.

Michael and K.I.T.T. attempt to stop Garthe and his plans, but Garthe feels that Michael is a “living, breathing insult” to his existence, and plots to destroy him.

K.I.T.T. battles Goliath in a dangerous and ill-fated first engagement, but comes back strong for a second time…even as Garthe and Michael go head to head…

You just have to love a series in which cars and people alike possess evil doppelgangers or twins.  

Earlier in the week, I reviewed one of the episodes featuring K.I.T.T.'s nasty twin, K.A.R.R., but today I remember this epic two-parter, which establishes the goatee-wearing Garthe Knight as Michael’s “antithesis,” his twisted, evil reflection.

In the case of “Goliath,” there’s actually a good reason why Michael so closely resembles Garthe.  Garthe is the son of Wilton Knight and has been spending time in prison…three life sentences to be precise.  Michael’s face, you my recall, was reconstructed by the Knight Foundation in the pilot episode. We learn in this episode that the model for that surgery was…Garthe.  

That’s a good explanation, and it doesn’t rate as terribly unbelievable. Since Michael has Wilton’s last name, it makes sense, in some way, that he would also have the face of his benefactor’s beloved (if wayward…) son too. Michael is the son that Wilton wanted; Garthe is the one that he ended up with.

“Goliath” is structured so that a major battle recurs.  

At the end of part one, K.I.T.T. and Goliath play chicken, headed straight for one another on a desert road.  K.I.T.T. gets struck by heavily armored truck, and is damaged badly. “I’m afraid we zigged when we should have zagged,” he reports to Michael.  

Echoing the earlier confrontation, the finale of the second part features a rematch between the two vehicles (and their crack’d mirror drivers).  In this case, of course, K.I.T.T. is triumphant, utilizing a laser to pinpoint Goliath’s weak spot. The results of the duels (in both cases) are not unexpected, and yet they are well-orchestrated, and surprisingly suspenseful. I remember film and critics of the 1970s and 1980s complaining endlessly about the ubiquitous nature of car chases and car crashes back in the day, but today these clashes are welcome. For one thing, there's no C.G.I. And for another the stunts are beautifully executed and filmed.

Rationally,  of course, the audience knows Michael and K.I.T.T. will eventually carry the day, and yet when K.I.T.T. is knocked over on his side and left for dead in the desert, you feel it in your gut.

Just a car? No…he’s a driver (and a kid’s…) best friend.

The most intriguing moment of the whole two-part episode occurs following K.I.T.T.’s injury. He makes a heart-felt query to Michael: “Do you think it is possible I could cease to exist?” 

We  thus see the self-aware vehicle (personality) reckoning with the idea of his own mortality, and what that could mean.

The Garthe vs. Michael rivalry in "Goliath" is handled with flair, and good stunt doubles for the most part.  As Garthe, Hasselhoff actually seems to stand taller, and similarly, is a snazzier dresser.  Perhaps it’s just that director Winrich Kolbe picks good angles to show-case the villain, often featuring him in motion, or capturing his action from a slightly lowered (and therefore more imposing) angle.

I watched Knight Rider regularly when I was twelve and thirteen years old, so my affection for it is nostalgic (it brings back good memories), but also technical: I love K.I.T.T.  The best stories, I always felt, where those in which K.I.T.T. and Michael had to go up against a vehicle that rival ed K.I.T.T.’s strength.  Hence my focus this week on K.A.R.R. and Goliath. 

I’m pleased to say that today, “Goliath” retains its entertainment value, and comes off as…very well-assembled.