Saturday, January 11, 2014
In “Battle of the Titans” -- the final episode of Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975) -- a desperate General Urko attempts to regain power in Ape City, while the astronauts and Zira and Cornelius take the opportunity to bring peace to the planet of the apes.
In particular, Cornelius and Bill return to the icy mountain where they stashed the book “A Day at the Zoo,” which revealed intelligent 20th century humans and primitive apes in zoos.
After recovering the text, the astronauts and the pacifist chimps prepare to present the book to the Ape Senate…and to change a planet in the process.
Although Return to the Planet of the Apes sometimes succumbs to childish story-telling instincts (and does so again in this final episode…), I nonetheless have great appreciation for the animated series because the characters and situations don’t remain locked in stasis. The episodes aren’t interchangeable, and character and story arcs are, actually, present.
To wit, the humanoids rescue their companion, Judy, from the Underdwellers during the course of the series. They also find the other human astronaut, Brent. They acquire a weapon with which to defend the primitive humanoids in the form of a World War II fighter plane. Additionally, Urko attempts to seize power from Zaius, and then ultimately loses it.
And finally, in “Battle of the Titans,” the series ends with the suggestion of another tectonic shift; a chapter notably consisting of hope. In particular, the series comes to an end with Cornelius preparing to reveal the truth about Earth’s history (and evolved man…) to the Ape City Government. The series thus culminates with the belief that humans and apes working together “can change the history of the planet…peacefully.”
That’s a huge shift from the beginning of the series (and the other installments in the movie and TV franchise), and away from Dr. Zaius’s admonition to Zira and Cornelius that even the mere idea of intelligent human beings is enough to warrant the genocide of the humanoids.
But the animated series has traveled some distance since that statement of principle, and some of that mileage includes Urko’s power grab. It is now entirely believable that the time has come for change, and peace, and that many apes would be open to the notion.
So “Battle of the Titans,” and Return to the Planet of the Apes truly end on a note of strength.
Commendably, this episode also features much continuity with previous episodes. We return to the Buddhist Apes and mountaintop settings of “Terror on Ice Mountain,” and once more encounter the squawking, flying monster from “Attack from the Clouds.”
Again, this is a commendable and intelligent approach to children’s programming, though, finally, watching a giant ape -- Kygor -- and a giant bird duke it out hardly seems like the appropriate territory of a Planet of the Apes series. This kind of monster fight, in lieu of more solid science fiction concepts, is the kind of thing that keep the series from reaching a level of universal approbation, I feel. The fights are repetitious and not that interesting, and they eat up precious screen time that could have been utilized to further wrap-up dangling plot threads, or deepen characters.
Still, it’s important to remember that this series aired in 1975, when concepts of story arcs and serialized television series were not fully formed, let alone for Saturday morning kid’s show.
There are some franchise fans who prefer the cartoon series to the live-action series, and that’s because, I believe, Return to the Planet of the Apes actually shows momentum, movement and growth, whereas the live-action series -- as much as I enjoy it -- seems stalled forever on ideas of capture/escape, with very little new or original occurring episode to episode.
So in its own way, and with a few caveats for the nature of the thing (as a kid’s show), Return to the Planet of the Apes is a real triumph for the franchise, and I’m sorry to see that it didn’t lead into a second season. I would have loved to see the next chapter of the saga…
When the Porters run out of batteries for their flashlight and other modern appliances, Mr. Porter (Timothy Bottoms) realizes that a replacement power source is available: the glowing crystals of the land of the lost.
Mr. Porter goes in search of the unusual crystals, but soon runs afoul of Shung, leader of the outlaw Sleestaks.
The two beings argue and battle, but then seek shelter in a cave together when confronted by Scarface, the ravenous T-Rex.
Although Shung is much stronger than Mr. Porter is, his vision is poor because of a blow to the head. The two allies survive together for a time in the dark before Mr. Porter escapes with crystals.
When Kevin asks if they should bury Shung alive in the cavern, Mr. Porter realizes that to do so would be inhuman. “Without our humanity, what do we have left?” he asks.
“Power Play” trots out a familiar genre television cliché. I have called it “My Enemy, My Ally,” and the trope involves team work between unlike and often opposing forces, or more basically, bad guys and good guys teaming up to survive a deadly threat.
The “My Enemy, My Ally” chestnut has appeared on Jason of Star Command in 1979 as “Face to Face,” on Gerry Anderson’s UFO as “Survival,” on Planet of the Apes (1974) as “The Trap” and on Star Trek: The Next Generation as “The Enemy.”
Even the original Land of the Lost featured an episode with a good guy and a bad guy working together, called “The Hole.” There, Rick Marshall (Spencer Milligan) teamed up with a talking Sleestak called S’latch to survive in the Sleestak pit.
Here, Shung and Porter are uneasy allies, if only for a short-time, yet their shared experience gives Porter some understanding -- and empathy -- for his enemy. As far as these stories go, “Power Play” doesn’t offer much new, but merely re-iterates the central idea that sometimes, being able to see an enemy’s perspective is…humanizing.
In terms of Land of the Lost continuity, this episode offers two other points of note. The first involves the crystals. Specifically, they are used to power the failing 20th century appliances, which is a nice touch in terms of reality. It just wouldn’t make sense if the radio, the flashlight, and other conveniences kept on working, with no word about failing power. It is rewarding that the writers are starting to think about how the Porters will integrate their modern conveniences into a world with no support for them.
Secondly, and oddly, Shung speaks very much like a 20th century American in this story. Specifically, he tells Mr. Porter “well, well, well…this just isn’t your day.” That’s a turn of phrase that’s a bit difficult to swallow coming from a Sleestak.
Finally, this episode marks the end of the first season of the 1990s Land of the Lost. Next week: “The Sorceress.”
Friday, January 10, 2014
In 2004, Shane Carruth gave the world Primer, a complex and highly-intelligent film about the strange and terrifying fall-out of repeated, ill-advised time travel.
Carruth’s second film, Upstream Color (2013) cements the artist’s reputation for crafting off-beat, non-linear, not-easily explained (or digested…) cinematic narratives.
It’s true, some audiences will simply find the director’s sophomore effort a bridge too far: an exercise in self-indulgence lacking any coherent rhyme or reason.
Others, however, will discover in Upstream Color a film of deep beauty and resonant symbolism, and find themselves immersed in an almost unsurpassed sensory experience.
All film is experiential to one degree or another, but Upstream Color feels legitimately like a spiritual epiphany more than a “story” or a film with a traditional (and familiar) three-act structure.
This isn’t a film that you can watch, unengaged or unmoved. It happens to you, and ultimately it overwhelms you. As a viewer, you can either resist the dazzling onslaught of imagery and sounds, or decide go with the flow and see where you end up.
I recommend the latter approach, especially considering the nature of Carruth’s selected subject matter: transcendence.
But make no mistake, Upstream Color contains very little by way of dialogue or explanation. The audience is spoon fed absolutely nothing. Those looking for concrete details and an answer to the question “why” will be sorely disappointed.
Accordingly, any meaningful review of the film must rely upon a careful reading of the imagery and symbols. These are the guide-posts to understanding and appreciating Upstream Color, and I’ll endeavor to point them out and explain them as plainly as possible, whenever possible. But my interpretations are merely that: my own interpretations.
To begin, a recap of the film’s story, in general terms. And there’s no need to worry about spoilers. This isn’t the kind of movie where you’re hanging on every plot-twist, or being set-up for some “surprise” twist ending.
A young woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz) is abducted and held by a mysterious drug dealer and thief (Thiago Martins). He forces her to swallow a small worm-like parasite, which then takes root in her stomach.
The presence of the small parasite renders Kris extremely susceptible to suggestion. The Thief manages to brainwash Kris in this compromised state, into liquidating much of her wealth. She hands over her collection of coins, and takes out all the equity in her home…and hands it over to him.
Sometime after the thief disappears with her coins and her savings, Kris awakens from a hypnotic trance and attempts to remove the wriggling worm (and offspring…) in her body…with a knife. She fails, with bloody results.
Instead, a man who owns a pig farm and spends his time recording and “sampling” sounds of nature, surgically removes the worms for Kris and inserts them instead inside a small piglet.
Kris returns to her normal life, baffled by what has occurred, and experiencing terrible gaps in memory.
In time, Kris meets Jeff (Shane Carruth), a man who possesses similar extraction scars on his body, and who also seems to suffer from memory loss. Before long, Kris and Jeff begin to feel connected in an unusual way, as if their separate memories are merging into one…
Meanwhile, on the pig farm, the Sampler (Andrew Senseng ) takes the piglets that are now home to Kris and Jeff’s worms, and tosses them into a burlap sack. He drowns them in a river, an act which spawns a panic attack and near-madness in their former human hosts. When the pigs die, a mysterious blue compound of some sort (apparently from the worms…) fills the river water and colors nearby orchids a rich, deep blue color.
The orchids are then harvested and sold in the Thief’s neighborhood, where he feeds them to worms, and uses the worms to further rob other individuals.
Kris and Jeff go in search of the pig farm, and also embark on a mission to kill the Sampler…
To begin with, Upstream Color features several visual and textual references to another work of art, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854).
When held captive by the thief early in the film, Kris is brainwashed into laboriously copying pages from that text, and then balling up those pages in a long paper chain.
Later in the film -- long after the brainwashing has worn off -- Kris is able to recite, from memory, long passages from the book. These passages are seen as being very meaningful to her.
Broadly speaking, Thoreau’s Walden concerns a journey of spiritual discovery, and its author champions, essentially, closeness to nature as the key to transcending the desperation of human life on this mortal coil.
It is not a stretch to suggest that Upstream Color gives voice to a similar or connected philosophy about nature, and about man himself.
Kris and Jeff undergo an experience that connects them not only deeply to one another, but to the animals on the Sampler’s farm.
Kris, especially, seems to feel the life-and-death emotions of the pig she shared the parasitic worm with. When that pig becomes pregnant, for example, Kris believes she is actually pregnant herself.
But when the pig’s life is threatened, Carruth’s camera -- focused on Kris -- seems to go mad, suggesting that Kris feels she is actually the one in mortal jeopardy. She feels the sensations and emotions and panic of being drowned. And then she feels a terrible absence, following the animal’s death.
The question we must ask is: what does this close connection to nature, as suggested by Thoreau and Carruth, achieve in terms of a greater moral good?
For one thing, it means the over-turning of the established and cruel Order at the pig farm -- an allegory, as in the case of Orwell’s Animal Farm -- for society-at-large.
The Sampler routinely kills pigs so as to continue the cycle of creating the blue compound, which is then utilized by the Thief to rob and destroy people. Kris, Jeff and other former victims of the Thief take over the pig farm and reveal compassion and empathy for the animals because they are now intimately linked to their emotional states.
If we could feel first-hand the emotions of pigs dwelling in industrial farms -- being prepared for slaughter --would it be so easy for us to maintain our current farm system?
A new and profound closeness to nature, to other living beings, precludes, by necessity, the cruelty that we now accept as a matter of everyday life. One way to escape spiritual desperation and loneliness is to reckon with the idea that we are not alone; that we are all in this life together. When that reckoning takes hold, the de-humanizing constructs of our current system will start to disintegrate.
This idea is deliberately mirrored in the film by the destruction of the “life cycle” which gave rise to the Thief’s anti-social behavior. Without the dead pigs, the blue compound can’t float upstream to color the orchids. Without the harvested, colored orchids, the worms can’t feed on the drug. Without the drug-fed worms, humans can’t be hypnotized into acting against their self-interest.
I would argue that Upstream Color apes Walden not merely in terms of its theme (closeness to nature as a transcendental, life-altering experience) but in terms of its structure or artistic aesthetic.
Walden is rife with metaphor, allegory, allusion, and metonym, and Upstream Color mirrors that approach, eschewing any “literal” meaning for symbols and representations that must be rigorously interpreted.
Basically, Upstream Color can only be understood so far as one attempts to read its imagery or terminology in non-literal terms. Likewise, Walden is best comprehended as a social critique which uses non-literal language to express transcendental ideas.
The big question for me, as a viewer, watching Upstream Color involves The Sampler. Who or what is he?
My answer is that The Sampler is God.
The Sampler spends much of the film’s running time obsessively recording the sounds of nature, and re-purposing those sounds into new patterns, new compositions. This is a metaphor, I believe, for God’s oversight of the planet Earth.
There are moments in the film where the Sampler stands within feet of other people, but is neither noticed by them, nor commented upon. How did he get inside their houses? Why don’t they see him? What is he doing there? What “sounds” does he record in the presence of these human traumas?
These questions aren’t answered, and so again, I feel that the Sampler represents the idea of a God who observes all of us, moves in mysterious ways, and sometimes allows -- or even makes - terrible things happen (like the slaughter of the pigs). I wouldn’t say that the Sampler is evil (any more than God is Evil), but that he views life in a non-human way. He allows evil to happen.
In Upstream Color, the Sampler is killed. Kris kills him, specifically. I believe this defining act of “killing God” is about mankind’s spiritual need, at this juncture in the 21st century, to re-connect to nature on his own humane terms, and not the traditional societal terms which have given rise to an avaricious or corrupt system.
Can we have both God and “self-reliance” (another key aspect of Walden’s social critique)? If are willing to believe in a God who allows evil to happen, does that make it easier for us to excuse the evil we see in the treatment of animals, and nature? Does our concept of an all-powerful God inhibit us from making the changes in us that we need to make for ourselves?
As Shane Carruth has reported, Upstream Color very much concerns the idea of breaking cycles. By killing the Sampler -- by killing God -- Kris breaks the cycle that allows the Thief to continue stealing from his fellow man (a metaphor for modern capitalism), and allows for all the victims of the Sampler -- man and animal alike -- to become more connected.
Like Thoreau’s Walden, Upstream Color is about checking out of man’s “civilized” world (the world here of home equity loans, brokerage houses, and Federal Savings Banks) for more humble, natural connections.
At one point in the film, Kris sleepwalks through her home and finds it filled with other sleepwalkers, or “zombie”- like beings. Their presence is never explained, but it could be interpreted as an extension of this theme. These people are sleepers in the modern, technological 21st century; ones that have not yet awakened to the spiritual journey Kris will undertake. They sleepwalk through their lives, perpetuating a cycle they did not create.
I gather there will be some readers who don’t appreciate this interpretation, as I have laid it out, and that’s okay. It’s just one man’s interpretation, and I would love to read other perspectives regarding the film, and what you think Upstream Color “really” means.
I suppose what I find most remarkable about Upstream Color as a work of art is the fact that is extremely moving, despite the undeniable oddness. Like Malick’s Tree of Life (2011), the film provokes questions about who we are, and why we live the way we do, today. Upstream Color feels dream-like, and yet, like a wake-up call at the same time. A nifty trick, and thus Upstream Color displays a director at the top of his game, exhibiting a mastery of film language.
I cherish movies that take me to new places, or that help me see the world in a different way, and that’s what Upstream Color, in my personal experience, accomplishes.
My bottom line for something experimental and off-beat like Upstream Color is this: We already have a lot of movies -- too many -- that adhere to familiar and tiresome standards of narrative convention. So it’s wonderful to spend 96-minutes in the head-space of an utterly individual artist, who doesn’t kowtow to conventional structure or ape “the six things you need to know to write a successful screenplay!”
As opaque and complex as Upstream Color remains, it’s a great gift to movie lovers because it moves and flows in ways that feel simultaneously true and revelatory. It’s easy to be cynical about this matter and claim the movie is “self-indulgent” or “artsy-fartsy.”
But the real self-indulgence is to go marching lock-step along -- in carefully regulated patterns -- never experiencing anything new or daring; never taking journeys of spiritual discovery like the ones Shane Carruth or Henry David Thoreau have offered us.
So my advice? Swim against the tide. Watch Upstream Color. Twice if you can.
Thursday, January 09, 2014
As I've written here before, I'm a big fan for the "doomed space expedition"-style story featured in horror/sci-fi films like Alien (1979), and Europa Report (2013) or depicted on TV series such as Space:1999 ("Dragon's Domain,") Dr. Who ("Planet of Evil") and The Twilight Zone ("Death Ship").
I harbor endless fascination with these tales about courageous astronauts who brave dangers alien and eerie in remote corners of the universe; cut off from Earth; cut off from help.
It's just a thing with me, I suppose...a frontier spirit maybe; or perhaps just a deeply-held belief that the next hill is always worth climbing, whatever the danger lurking on the other side. That danger doesn't have to be a monster in these macabre stories, just something unknown...and perhaps inexplicable. Like the planet in Solaris (1972), for instance.
And that brings us to one of my favorite TV examples of the form; one that does feature a (very memorable) monster: an Outer Limits episode (from the second season) titled "The Invisible Enemy."
Appropriately enough, the episode (written by Jerry Sohl and directed by Byron Haskin) first aired on Halloween in 1964, and it's guaranteed -- even today -- to give you a little shiver.
The Control Voice (our series narrator) describes this tale as a "painful step from the crib of destiny" and "part of the saga of the space pioneers." More specifically, the episode involves a rocket, called M2 that lands on the chalky surface of Mars to investigate the disappearance, three years earlier, of the first mission to the Red Planet by the M1.
Commanding this rescue/exploratory mission is Major Merritt, played by a pre-Batman Adam West. His first mate is the scoundrel Buckley (Rudy Solari), who describes himself -- pre Dr. McCoy -- as just an old "country astronaut." The entire crew of the M2 has been ordered by Earth Control (and a computer named Telly...) to remain constantly in eye sight of one another while on the surface. The M1 crew separated. And disappeared. In the blink of an eye...
Even with this edict in place, a subordinate, Mr. Lazzari suddenly disappears on the crumbly planet surface. Lazzari's fate may also prove amusing to Star Trek fans since he is played by Peter Marko -- doomed Mr. Gaetano in the Trek episode "The Galileo 7." Then another astronaut, Frank Johnson, also disappears...also in an impossibly fast fashion.
In short order, Merritt and Buckley discover that the sand on Mars is actually a living ocean of sorts. And that swimming beneath the surface of this glittering sea is a race of monstrous, carnivorous sand sharks. The astronauts Lazzari and Johnson were pulled down below...and eaten. The monsters, in fact, can smell human blood...
Merritt discovers the subterranean sharks while trapped atop a rock in the middle of the "ocean" even as a sand storm blows the tide higher and higher. It is at this moment -- with man and beast in the same shot -- that the audience realizes for the first time how colossal the sand shark is. One step into the sand, and Merritt will meet the same grim fate as his crew members.
In the end, the surviving Earth men escape the hungry sand sharks and return safely to Earth. The episode makes a big point of the fact that the astronauts both survive, in large part, because they willfully ignored Ground Control (and Telly...) and made "human" decisions in the heat of the moment instead. Again...it's a kind of pioneer spirit. Free from bureaucracy and committee; with life or death on the line.
One reason I enjoy "The Invisible Enemy" so much (besides my fetish with 1960s future-tech...) is the exquisite, black-and-white visualization of the Martian landscape.
Though scientifically inaccurate -- there's air on Mars!? --- the terrain is nonetheless foreboding, barren...and gorgeous. Rocky outcroppings dot the horizon, and the endless sand ocean glimmers and brims with mystery. In one evocative shot (from Buckley's perspective), the sandy sea actually transforms into an Earth-style, watery sea, and that's how the astronaut begins to suspect the existence of, well, sea life.
But the image I've always remembered most from this episode involves the monster itself: the roaring, hungry sea shark. We first see an ugly dorsal spine cut above the sand, like a shark fin cutting over a watery-surface.
And then, over time, more of the beast is revealed until we understand it to be some sort of huge, malevolent, gliding, under-sand dragon. One of the episode's final shots is a humdinger too: a whole school of the beasts -- six or seven, perhaps -- breaking the surface after their brethren is killed...with vulnerable man just outside reach, on the rocky shore beyond.
"The Invisible Enemy" also reminds me of a (buried) fear of mine from childhood (no doubt brought on by my exposure to Blood Beach ): the idea of disappearing beneath the sand on the beach, grabbed and eaten by something invisible and avaricious.
When we do get to Mars, there likely won't be giant sand sharks waiting for us in dusty seas, but there will, no doubt, be other Invisible Enemies.
Perhaps just the elements themselves.
Hopefully we'll meet those challenges with the same insight and resourcefulness demonstrated by Merritt and Buckley in this classic Outer Limits episode.
In the Outer Limits episode called “The Guests,” a drifter in a leather jacket named Wade (Geoffrey Horne) is inexplicably trapped in the past -- metaphorically and literally -- when he happens inside an alien “brain” that has assumed the shape of a Victorian mansion atop a hill summit.
This imposing edifice -- which occupies a space entirely outside the Laws of Physics -- serves as home to several strangers including a faded silent screen star, Florinda Patten (Gloria Graham), a Wall Street investment banker of questionable morality, Randall Latimer (Vaughn Taylor), and his gleefully cruel wife, Ethel (Nellie Burt). All these souls have been denizens of the alien house since 1928 and evidence little interest in leaving it.
The hidden master inside this dark old house is an inquisitive monstrosity: a quivering, gelatinous thing from another dimension who seeks the “missing vector” that will enable him to better comprehend the human race.
The emotionless, questing creature probes Wade’s mind several times and discovers at last the missing “one note in the symphony.”
It is, simply, “love.”
Specifically, Wade’s romantic, selfless attachment to another captive in the house, the lovely Tess (Luana Anders), ultimately proves the factor that resolves the alien’s incomplete equation. When Tess leaves the safe temporal “bubble” of the house, super-ages and dies in a matter of seconds to preserve Wade’s freedom, the house begins to shift back to the alien’s dimension.
After escaping the strange trap, Wade watches the alien brain fade into nothingness, and continues down the road on his journey…
Strange, unsettling and dominated by extreme camera angles that suggest the cinema of German Expressionism, “The Guests” is a gloom-laden, visually-dazzling, and often surreal entry in The Outer Limits canon.
Specifically, the Donald Sanford (Thriller) entry is a deliberate and artful blending of literary movements, old and new. The episode has widely and appropriately been described as “Gothic" for its familiar horror and romantic flourishes, settings, and characters. At the same time, however, this episode of The Outer Limits also mirrors the perspective of the post-war, Beat Generation, especially the movement’s dedicated opposition to modern warfare, military technology, and such middle class balms as leisure and material affluence.
Regarding its Gothic influences, “The Guests” highlights a common setting in the genre: a house that appears to be haunted both by an external, self-organizing “supernatural” force and by the personal, individual secrets and sins of the human dwellers within. Unlike Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), however, there’s no mad woman hiding in the attic, but rather a monster holding court in an upstairs bedroom.
Furthermore, the character of Tess -- who harbors a grotesque secret about her age and true physical appearance until “The Guest’s” last act -- also recalls the attractive/repulsive romantic duality one might expect to find in such Gothic standards as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter (1844).
In both stories, scientific advancement transforms a young woman of pure innocence and beauty into something inhuman and grotesque. In the case of “The Guests,” however, it is alien custodianship and the instantaneous passage of decades that is responsible for Tess’s final crone-like appearance, not the interference of her flawed, human, scientist father.
Most significantly, however, “The Guests” veritably obsesses upon the familiar Gothic trope of ancestral, historical sins cursing future generations. Here affluent American society is represented by the triumvirate of Randall, Ethel and Florinda. Each one of these characters from the early 20th century is presented as being corrupt in some essential fashion.
Randall was on his way to face legal charges for unethical behavior on Wall Street (shortly before the Great Depression…) when he was captured and waylaid by the brain.
Ethel, Randall’s wife, makes verbal cruelty a sport and favorite pastime. This is a commentary, perhaps, on the fact that, as an aristocrat’s wife, she has no other productive activity to contribute to the culture. Idle hands make for the devil’s work. And for a forked tongue too.
And finally, Florinda is the living embodiment of vanity or self-love, hoping to retain her Hollywood celebrity and youthful appearance for eternity. She is concerned only with herself, not the planet, and certainly not her fellow man. She is all about narcissism.
Importantly, only Wade -- the Jack Kerouac-styled, Beat Generation drifter -- can reveal to the alien being something positive and valuable about human nature; something not tethered to the institutions and established “ancestral” sins of the species and the culture.
Specifically, Wade is willing to remain in the house out of love for a woman from a different time period, Tess. He is willing to put his freedom on the line, and even his mind itself.
The Guests” aired in 1964, a scant few years after the publication of such Beat Generation literary landmarks as William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959) and Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem, Howl (1960), so perhaps it is no surprise that this new school of American philosophy would find prominence in at least one outing of this literary-minded science fiction TV series.
By the time of The Outer Limits, the Beats were already morphing into “Beatniks” (and well on their way to becoming hippies by the end of the decade…), but still, this episode adeptly homes in on such then-contemporary Beat Generation conventions as evil capitalists (the unscrupulous Latimer), the futility of war, and the heroic depiction of the protagonist Wade as one of the so-called “angel-headed hipsters” of Ginsberg.
Gazing closely at “The Guests,” one can discern how many Beat Generation obsessions dominate the narrative. When Wade is confronted with the Monster Upstairs, it dispassionately tallies for him the positives and negatives of the human condition. Amongst the negative factors are fear and hatred, hopelessness and, importantly, war.
One of the positive conditions is art. “Art could be mankind’s destiny,” the alien determines.
This is very much a Beat-styled assessment: that the individuality encompassed in art can lead man out of the dark, materialistic and militaristic mindset of American in the mid-1950s and early 1960s, the epoch when President Dwight Eisenhower warned citizens about the increasing and dangerous influence of the military-industrial complex.
Twice in “The Guests,” images of nuclear detonations – mushroom clouds -- are highlighted, and in one conversation with Tess, Wade expressly describes the atom bomb's horrible power. This imagery is reflective of Beat Generation anti-war sympathies and also an embodiment of Gothic sin; a sin grown from the American past that Wade has opted out of by becoming a drifter and taking his life “on the road.”
Examined in this light, “The Guests” is very much a pitched battle between historical literary traditions, with the Gothic aspects representing a secretive, corrupt, even “monstrous” past, and the Beat movement representing a new hope of sorts; a new paradigm or outline for human happiness in the age of technology unchained.
For example, the people inside the scary old house attempt to forestall inevitable fate and live forever. They knowingly defy “the forlorn rags of growing old,” a human eventuality which Kerouac considered the only certainty in life…and in the end they pay the price for their hubris, and for cheating Nature herself.
By contrast, the drifter, Wade, and his lover, Tess, embody the opposite impulse. They each broach personal sacrifice, imprisonment, and death for the possibility of the other’s happiness. This idea is very much the beginning of a Beat-styled “second religiousness” for Wade. He recognizes that a better future can be forged on love and personal sacrifice than on material wealth and warfare.
“The Guests” connection to Beat Generation writers actually extends beyond even a straight-forward interpretation of the episode’s theme or “message.” The form of the episode -- the visuals -- reflect the content to a powerful degree. The works of Beat Generation authors such as Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs are frequently described with adjectives such as “surreal,” “Dadaist” or simply “dream-like,” in part because these notorious authors were not shy in their use of illegal drugs to spur their sense of creativity.
Accordingly, dream imagery and discussions of dream states permeate the “The Guests.” At one point, Wade discusses how he feels as though he is “having a bad dream.” He is also told that the alien will “control” his “dreams now” and that the alien has even “undreamed” the house’s windows and front door.
Finally, there’s a discussion of “dreaming a life” or “living a dream,” and the (real?) distinction between those two descriptions. But the point here is that the visuals themselves are determinedly dream-like, or more aptly, nightmarish.
“The Guests” opens with expressive film techniques that overtly suggest a Gothic, traditional influence, in keeping with the story’s central locale. When Wade first approaches the house/brain, director Paul Stanley’s camera views the man from inside a second-story window, through dangling curtains. However, the curtains draw down mysteriously, falling around Wade in the frame and effectively squeezing out his space. This is a visual cue to suggest that Wade is walking into a trap, and the next shot -- an ominous overhead, extreme-high-angle view of the haunted house’s Victorian foyer -- takes that thought even further.
Eventually, such expressive, Gothic horror compositions give way to more avant-garde, surreal, modern, Beat Generation-styled ones. While attempting to escape the house later in the episode, for example, Wade ventures into a seemingly infinite realm of darkness, one punctuated only by the occasional Greek column. Here, there is no end and no beginning. As viewers, we suspect that we have entered the corridors of the alien’s mind.
“Interesting architecture?” asks one character in the drama, but that description hardly covers it. Indeed, in the course of an hour, The Outer Limits goes from employing familiar Gothic, horror-styled visuals to surreal images instead. Doors appear without walls to support them. Wade seems to walk on a path of light down a hallway of infinite dimensions. Interiors open mysteriously into exterior graveyards, and so forth.
Perhaps because Donald S. Sanford’s story plants its feet for so long within the confines of that dark, old house, “The Guests” thrives as one of the mostly deeply unsettling and claustrophobic episodes of The Outer Limits pantheon. From the first time that house on the hill appears, the episode aims for throat-tightening fear, and hits the target. On the soundtrack, a weird, syncopated heart-beat rhythm plays -- repetitious and ominous -- a reflection of the evils trapped inside the edifice.
Another frightening moment sees Wade dragged up a long, dark, shadowy staircase into the realm of the monster, entirely against his will, while the others watch…smiling at his misfortune.
Perhaps it is that moment of involuntary action that best reflects the point of this Outer Limits episode. It is a point ably expressed in Tess’s final sacrificial act, and in the work of the Beat Poets.
Sometimes in life, we fear we are being dragged, helpless, out of control, towards a future we haven’t chosen for ourselves.
But that’s the illusion we must battle, argues “The Guests.” We can choose love over hate, individuality over conformity, and escape over imprisonment. We can solve the human equation to our liking and not to the tune of tradition or conventions like capitalism.
There’s a reason, this episode isn’t called “The Prisoners.” In its clash of Gothic and Beat Generation aesthetics, “The Guests” reminds audiences how easy it is for humans to decorate even the most horrible cages to appear “acceptable.” Here, Ethel, Latimer, Florinda and even Tess -- at least for a time -- opt to remain trapped in the known but unsatisfactory past rather than countenance an unknown future.
Many Outer Limits episodes are anti-war and pro-human in sentiment, but by marrying the terrors of Gothic expression to the criticisms and solutions of the contemporary Beat Generation, “The Guests” proves one of the most emotional, artistic and purely human of the series canon. It's a weird, weird episode, but one that contributes greatly to an understanding of where America "was" in the early 1960s.
(Note: A version of this essay also appeared at We Are Controlling Transmission in 2011, a blog devoted to The Outer Limits.).
Originally published in Astounding Magazine in June of 1944 Fredric Brown’s short story “Arena” has since become a staple of science fiction television, re-purposed -- and sometimes without attribution -- for many diverse series.
The story has been featured on The Outer Limits as "Fun and Games," on Star Trek (1966-1969) as "Arena," on Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977) as "The Rules of Luton," on Blake’s 7 (1978-1981) as "Duel" on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) as "Buck's Duel to the Death," and later, on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994) as "The Last Outpost."
Brown’s influential story revolves around a space war between Earth Man and “intelligent spider” aliens called "Outsiders.”
During one combat engagement, a human pilot, Carson is beamed from the cockpit of his one-man “scouter,” and transported to the narrative’s titular arena: a planet of blue-colored sand and strange, talking lizards. There, an omnipotent alien explains to Carlson that the cosmic conflict won't be settled between the stars, but in this very ring. The human will fight an Outsider -- a round, tentacled organism -- to the death.
Should Carson lose this brutal contest, mankind will be wiped out of existence. Contrarily, if Carson prevails in the match, the human race inherits the universe and the Outsiders shall be destroyed.
In the end, Carson vanquishes his alien nemesis without any significant reservations, committing an act of violence that is a “moral imperative” according to the tale's author.
Written during World War II, Brown’s vignette determinedly suggested an alternative to the horrors of the times. What if a war could be settled by two individuals -- trained warriors from each side -- rather than by the vast technological and personnel mobilization of nation-states?
Wouldn’t that solution be better, more reasonable, and a far less messy way to wage war?
Across the decades, the “Arena” story template was been modified dramatically, and Brown’s Darwinian “survival of the fittest” message has frequently been overturned in favor of 1960s anti-war philosophy.
For instance, in Star Trek’s famous “Arena,” adapted by Gene Coon, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and a Gorn commander -- like Carson and the Outsider -- are transported to a neutral planet for one-on-one combat, while omnipotent aliens known as Metrons wait to declare a victor, and destroy the loser’s ship.
But in this iteration -- and unlike his literary antecedent -- Kirk defies the God-like aliens and refuses to kill his opposite number. The focus of this optimistic TV story is on not fighting in the first place, rather than winning or losing in person-to-person combat.
Later iterations of Brown’s outline, namely Space: 1999’s “Rules of Luton, Blake’s 7’s “Duel,” and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Last Outpost” similarly stress the “more evolved” moral ideal of resisting an arranged fight; and of defying instead the God-like aliens who desire “bread and circus”-styled entertainment from the warring behavior of other intelligent beings.
Instead of Brown’s Darwinian tale of survival of the fittest, these later programs meditate on the Sun Tzu axiom: “He will triumph who knows when to fight and when not to fight,” and turn the god aliens -- not the war enemy -- into the real villain of the story.
But “Fun and Games,” The Outer Limits’ memorable variation on the “Arena” template -- and the first to air on network TV -- remains determinedly different from such later re-tellings.
Specifically, “Fun and Games” is the only version of Fredric Brown’s story (though not credited as such by the Daystar series…) which doesn't feature an overtly futuristic setting (like the 23rd century setting of Trek, or the 25th century setting of the Buck Rogers’ episode “Buck’s Duel to the Death.”)
Rather, the story takes place in America of the 1960s.
Even more significantly however, “Fun and Games” differentiates itself from its TV brethren by focusing squarely on contemporary, flawed man, rather than on more idealized, knowledgeable men of the Space Age like James Kirk, Buck Rogers or Will Riker.
Instead, Robert Specht’s teleplay “Fun and Games,” originally called “Natural Selection,” focuses squarely on two 20th century human outcasts, a man and a woman of less-than-sterling character who quite unexpectedly are called upon by alien gamesters on Andera (very nearly an anagram for the word “arena…”). Their task: to battle primitive “Calco” aliens…with the survival of the Earth at stake.
Actually, “Fun and Games’” primary protagonists might even be considered bad people rather than heroes, at least in terms of the standards and traditions of the 1960s. Benson (Nick Adams) is a small-time hood and ex-boxer with questionable ethics, while Laura Hanley (Nancy Malone) outwardly presents the appearance of sterling character but is actually a divorcee who left her husband because, simply, she didn’t want to be “his mother.” The Anderan Senator, who lords over the gladiatorial games challenges Laura on her characterization of the marital separation.
The truth is, explains the Senator, Laura’s husband just wanted “help” and she did not want to offer it.
Benson and Laura are hardly paragons of humanity, at least by most Camelot-era ideals. And yet they are deliberately selected by the Anderan Senator to represent us in the battle to save the Earth.
Both the questionable natures of the protagonists and the story’s focus on the necessity of killing -- rather than avoiding the fight -- render “Fun and Games” perhaps the hardest edge variation on Brown’s “Arena" in cult-tv history.
Yet, in keeping squarely with Outer Limits tenets, “Fun and Games” also features a “nod to high-minded ideals,” as the concept was described in David J. Schow’s series literary companion. Perhaps, the episode’s narrative suggests, the trick to winning the Anderan contest is an understanding of when to be savage and when to be civilized.
Nick and Laura’s opponents, the beastly Calcos, don’t have the same sense of adaptability as their human opponents in this regard. The male Calco kills his female partner to secure the necessary nutrients for longer-term survival on the arena planet. An ally would have been more valuable to him.
By contrast, the human female, Laura, comes to Nick’s aid at a crucial moment and double-teams the last Calco, assuring human kind “the win.”
If the Calcos are a negative example for the displaced or “electroported” humans to learn from, the Anderans are not really any better.
The Senator is a taunting, cackling master of ceremony. It is plain that his highly-advanced people -- no matter how “peaceful” or “affluent” -- are absent human traits such as empathy or compassion. The Anderan quest for “pleasure” may control and appease their passions, but they are also utterly without mercy, not to mention decency.
With the negative examples of the Anderans and Calcos in mind, the high-minded moral at work in “Fun and Games” involves balancing the ups and downs of human nature; both the impulse to kill and the capacity to work with others for a common goal. The episode presents an even-handed, believable portrait of the species.
"Fun and Games" opens with images of blood sports; of a 1960s-era boxing match and of filmic recreations of gladiatorial games in Ancient Rome, specifically. Accompanying these visuals, the Control Voice non-emotionally discusses our human history of competition and sport, and how such games in the modern technological era have been “drained of all but their last few drops of blood.”
This not entirely positive assessment of modern “fun and games” suggests that humans -- or at least some of us -- have lost our desire to be, well, the fittest; that such blood sports somehow keep us “ready” or primed for those life-and-death occasions in which we must rise to such a challenge.
Without regular contests to firm up those ancient instincts, do humans lack the edge necessary to survive in a hostile cosmos?
“Fun and Games” intimates that in the absence of such “authentic” blood sports, some humans -- of a certain stripe anyway -- seek other avenues to “survive” and confront challenges.
For Nick Adams, despite his fears and professed lack of courage, this means that he survives as a criminal, an outlaw skirting the police and involving himself in life-or-death scenarios, like a poker game gone wrong. He spends his life as a desperate rat in a cage, running forever in place. But always running, nonetheless…his instincts always heightened.
Although it has been reported “Fun and Games” ran short in its final cut and that producer Joseph Stefano devised the notion of playing a kind of “time loop” in the episode, rerunning the sequence of murder at Nick’s poker game in Laura’s boarding house, the deliberate repetition of time and imagery in the episode actually works to the narrative’s benefit in the final analysis.
The repeating footage ably suggests that Benson’s life is already a life-and-death contest of sorts, each and every day, in every possible moment. It’s as though he’s trapped on a treadmill, running and re-running in place. No end. No beginning. Just endless danger. Endless adrenaline.
For her part, Laura has also checked out of the socially acceptable and decorous behavior of her culture (America of the mid-1960s). She ditched a husband and marriage that didn’t suit her, and now lives alone. Again, this is a brand of survival of the fittest, isn’t it?
In the battle between fighting for her needs, and for her husband’s needs, Laura’s needs won out. She made it so.
Not unlike Nick then, Laura is already a fighter...at least in the contest called life. In some ways, she is even more a dedicated, hardcore fighter than Nick. For instance, it is clear that without her assistance, Nick would have lost the Anderan contest to the Calco. It is also clear that she uses whatever means she can think of to persuade Nick to participate in the Anderan game.
One of the many elements of The Outer Limits I’ve always appreciated is its realistic rather than idealized depiction of human beings. There is optimism inherent in that view; a deep respect for human resourcefulness and tenacity. However, the series is not shy, either, about revealing humanity at his most savage (“The Zanti Misfits”), or his most fearful (“The Architects of Fear.”) “Fun and Games” remains a delight because it paints a balanced picture of the human animal, simultaneously remembering the savage past and hinting at an enlightened future.
Sometimes, mankind is willing to fight and murder, but in the case of the Anderan bread and circuses, these acts are for a very worthy cause: the survival of the species. Delightfully, the Control Voice’s final meditation about “human qualities” directing mankind to a better future in the “great darkness” of space (or the future) takes an important step beyond “Arena’s” literary narrative. Even if the battle for survival is at hand, we would do well to wage that war with the best angels of our nature, “compassion” and “love.”
In some situations, murder and violence may indeed be Fredric Brown’s “moral imperative,” but we don’t have to relish or enjoy these occasions.
(Note: A version of this essay also appeared at We Are Controlling Transmission in 2011, a blog devoted to The Outer Limits.).
(Note: A version of this essay also appeared at We Are Controlling Transmission in 2011, a blog devoted to The Outer Limits.).