Thursday, April 28, 2016
Historically-speaking, the science fiction and fantasy cinema has battled high camp -- a form of art notable because of its exaggerated or over-the-top attributes -- for over five decades.
That long battle is definitively lost in Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975), a tongue-in-cheek film adaptation of the pulp magazine hero (or superhero) created by Henry W. Ralston and story editor John L. Nanovi (with additional material from Lester Dent) in the 1930s.
The seventies movie from producer George Pal (1908 – 1980) and director Michael Anderson brazenly makes a mockery of the titular hero’s world, his missions, and even his patriotic belief system. That the film is poorly paced, and looks more like a TV pilot rather than a full-fledged motion picture only adds to a laundry list of problems.
First some background on high camp: when camp is discussed as a mode of expression, what is really being debated is a sense of authorial or creative distance. When a film is overtly campy, the author or authors (since film is a collaborative art form…) have made the deliberate decision to stand back and observe the property being adapted from a dramatic and in fact, critical distance. They find the subject matter humorous, or worthy of ribbing, and have adapted by that belief as a guiding principle.
Notably not all creative “standing back” need result in a campy or tongue-in-cheek approach, and instead can help a film function admirably as pastiche or homage. In movies like Star Wars (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and even Scream (1996), there is a sense of knowing humor at work, but a campy tone is not the result.
In short, then, the camp approach represents sort of the furthest artistic distance a creator can imagine him or herself from his or her material. Worse, that great distance often seems to emerge from a place of genuine contempt; from a sense that the adapter is better than or superior to the material being adapted…and thus boasts the right/responsibility to mock said property.
Although Dino De Laurentiis’s King Kong (1976) and Flash Gordon (1980) are often offered up on a platter as Exhibits A and B for “campy” style big-budget science fiction or fantasy films, those examples don’t actually fit the bill very well.
Rather, close viewing suggests that Kong and Flash boast self-reflexive qualities and a sense of humor, but nonetheless boast a sense of closeness to the material at hand. In both films, in other words, the viewer gets close enough to feel invested in the characters and their stories, despite the interjection of humor, self-reflexive commentary or rampant post-modernism. When King Kong is gunned down by helicopters…the audience mourns. And when Flash’s theme song by Queen kicks in and he takes the fight to Ming the Merciless, we feel roused to cheer at his victory. We may laugh at jokes in the films, but we aren’t so far – distance-wise - that we can’t invest in the action
However, a true “camp” film negates such sense of meaning or identification, and instead portrays a world that is good only for a laugh, no matter the production values, no matter the efforts of the actors, director, or other talents.
Doc Savage: Man of Bronze is such a campy film, one that, post-Watergate, adopts a contemptuous approach to anyone in authority, and, in facts, makes heroism itself seem ridiculous and unbelievable. There are ample reasons for this approach, at this time in American history, but those reasons don’t mean that the approach is right for the Doc Savage character. After all, who can honestly invest in a hero who is so perfect, so square, so beautiful that the twinkle in his eye is literal…added as a special effect?
Although many critics also mistakenly term Superman: The Movie (1978) campy that film revolutionized superhero filmmaking because it took the hero’s world, his powers, and his relationships seriously. Certainly, there was goofy humor in the last third of the film, but that humor was never permitted to undercut the dignity of Superman, or minimize the threats that he faced, or to mock his heroic journey.
Again, Doc Savage represents the precise opposite approach. The film plays exceedingly like a two-hour put-down of superhero tropes and ideas, and wants its audience only to laugh at a character that actually proved highly influential in the World War II Era. The result is a film that might well be termed a disaster.
"Let us be considerate of our country, our fellow citizens and our associates in everything we say and do..."
International hero Doc Savage (Ron Ely) and his team of The Fabulous Five return to New York City only to face a deadly assassination attempt upon receiving the news of the death of Savage’s father.
After dispatching the assassin, Savage decides to fly to Hidalgo to investigate his father’s death. He and his Fabulous Five are soon involved in a race with the nefarious Captain Seas (Paul Wexler) to take possession of a secret South American valley, one where gold literally bubbles-up out of the ground…
"Have No Fear: Doc Savage is Here!"
With a little knowledge of history, one can certainly understand why Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze was created in full campy mode.
In 1975, the United States was reeling from the Watergate Scandal, the resignation of President Nixon, the Energy Crisis, and the ignominious end of American involvement in Vietnam. The Establishment had rather egregiously failed the country, one might argue, and so superheroes – scions of authority, essentially – were not to be taken seriously. You can see this quality of culture play out in the press’s treatment of President Gerald Ford. An accomplished athlete who carried his University of Michigan football team to national titles in 1932 and 1933, Ford was transformed, almost overnight, into a clumsy buffoon by the pop culture. It was easier to parse Ford by his pratfalls than by his prowess.
High camp had also begun to creep into the popular James Bond series as Roger Moore assumed the 007 role from Sean Connery, in efforts like Live and Let Die (1972) and The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). And on television, the most popular superhero program, TV’s Batman (1966 - 1968) had also operated in a campy mode
But, what films like Doc Savage fail to do, rather egregiously, is take a beloved character on his or her own terms, and present his hero to an audience by those terms. Instead of taking the effort to showcase and describe why Doc Savage’s world exists as it does in the pulps, the film wants only to showcase a world that easily mocked. The message that is transmitted, and which, generously, might be interpreted as unintentional is simply: this whole superhero world is silly, and if you like it, there’s something silly about you too.
In some sense, Doc Savage is a reminder of how good the British Pellucidar/Caprona movies of Kevin Connor are. Their special effects may be poor by today’s standard, but the movies take themselves and their world seriously. You can see that everyone involved is generally working to thrill the audience, not to prove to the audience how silly the movie’s concepts are.
Alas, camp worms its way into virtually every aspect of Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze. An early scene depicts Savage pulling an assassin’s bullet out of a hole in his apartment wall, and knowing instantly the caliber and the make of the weapon from which it was fired. In other words, he is so perfect (a scholar, philosopher, inventor, and surgeon…) that his skill looks effortless…and therefore funny.
Yet the pulp origins of the character make plain the fact that Doc Savage achieved his knowledge through hard work, and rigorous training. When you only see the end result in the movie, his intelligence and know-how is mocked and made a punch-line. The movie-makers didn’t need to do it this way. Savage could have undertaken an investigation, but it’s funnier just to make him all-knowing, to exaggerate his admirable qualities as a character.
Another example of how camp undercuts and mocks the heroes of the film occurs later in the action. Doc and his team of merry men (The Fabulous Five) are invited aboard the antagonist’s yacht for a dinner party. While the bad guy, Captain Seas, and his henchmen drink alcohol, Savage and his men drink only…milk. Again, this touch is so ludicrous when made manifest on screen that it only succeeds in stating, again, the essential “silliness” of the Doc Savage mythos. Worse, Batman had done this joke, and better, in its 1966 premiere. So the milk joke isn’t even original.
Perhaps the campies aspect of the film involves the atrocious soundtrack. The movie is scored to the work of John Phillip Sousa (1854 – 1932), the “American March King.” Rightly or wrongly, Sousa’s marches have become synonymous with Americana, Fourth of July parades and firework displays, with the very archetype of patriotism itself. To score Savage’s silly adventures to this kind of stereotypical “American” march is to say, essentially, that one is mocking that value.
I have nothing against mocking patriotism, if that’s your game. I can’t pass judgment on that or you. For me as a film critic, the question comes back to, again, the sense of distance created by the adapters, and whether that distance serves the interest of the character being adapted. In the case of Doc Savage, I would say that it rather definitively does not serve the character. The choice of soundtrack music essentially turns all action scenes -- no matter how brilliantly vetted in terms of stunts and visuals -- into nothing more than grotesque, unfunny parody.
Why do I feel that the character Savage is not well-served by this approach? Consider that all five of Savage’s “merry men” are important, philosophically not in terms of raw strength or athleticism, or even super powers.
Indeed, one is a legal genius, one is a chemist, one is a globe-hopping engineer, one is an archaeologist and one is an electrical wizard. Throw in Savage -- both a man of action and also a surgeon, for example – and consider the group’s original context: post-World War I.
These men survived the first technological war in human history, but a war – like all war – spawned by irrationality and passion. Their quality or importance as characters arises from the fact they are a modern, rational group of adventures, dependent on science, the law, medicine, and other intellectual ideas…not emotions or super abilities. In 1975, the world certainly could have used such an example; the idea that being a superhero meant rationality and intelligence. But the movie completely fails to deliver on the original meaning of the characters it depicts. Instead, Doc Savage makes a mockery of these avatars of reason, and fails to note why, as a team, they represent something, anything of importance.
Some of the camp touches in Doc Savage are also downright baffling, rather than funny. One villain sleeps in what appears to be a giant cradle, and is rocked to sleep. The movie never establishes a reason -- even a camp one -- for this preference.
Although it is great to see Pamela Hensley -- Buck Rogers’ Princess Ardala -- in the film, I can think of almost no reason for anyone to re-visit Doc Savage. Who, precisely is this film made for? Fans of the pulps would be horrified at the tone of the material, and those who didn’t know the character before the film certainly would not come away from the film liking him.
In 1984, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai successfully captured what was funny about characters like Doc, while at the same time functioning as an earnest adventure. Indeed, though I often complain about all the doom and gloom superhero movies of today, and what a boring drag they are, they are, as I have often written, a valid response to the era of Camp.
What is needed for the genre now, I think, is some kind of judicious middle ground. The humorless, joyless, mechanical, special-effects laden superhero movies of today are a drag on the soul (and the patience), and yet I am so glad to be rid of the mocking humiliation of high camp.
At either extreme -- camp or angst -- the superhero film formula proves almost immediately tiring and unworkable, it often seems.
Wednesday, April 27, 2016
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
While the Enterprise traverses a void or “star desert” en route to the colony on Beta 6, it unexpectedly encounters a rogue planet; one incapable of supporting human life for any significant duration.
Then, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Mr. Sulu (George Takei) are abducted from the bridge by an unseen force.
A landing party to the planet led by Lt. De Salle (Michael Barrier) discovers that Kirk and Sulu are now on display in the home of the retired General Trelane (William Campbell), a flamboyant man who seems obsessed with Earth cultures of the late 1700s and early 1800s.
Released from stasis, Kirk demands that his men be set free at once, but Trelane refuses. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) manages to beam the crew up anyway, but Trelane again uses seemingly-miraculous powers to return his “guests” to his home on the planet.
Kirk theorizes that Trelane’s powers are aided by advanced technology, and destroys a mirror that houses his power device. This action earns Kirk Trelane’s wrath, and the strange alien condemns Kirk to death by hanging…
...Fortunately, Trelane's parents intervene, and make the naughty boy come home for the night.
Remarkably, “The Squire of Gothos” is yet another classic episode of Star Trek; one that is so commonly-known (and oft-imitated) that it seems to have permanently entered the pop culture firmament.
For example, Futurama paid homage to “The Squire of Gothos” in one episode ("Where No Fan Has Gone Before,") and the 1970s Filmation live-action series Space Academy (1977) featured a similar story of misbehaving alien youths in the narrative called “Space Hookey.”
Basically, in “The Squire of Gothos,” the Enterprise crew is menaced by a dynamic, selfish individual who proves, in the final act, to be nothing more than a spoiled-rotten alien child. This story resolution is another way for Star Trek to explore its oft-held viewpoint that what appears evil at first blush is often quite understandable, once all the facts are actually known.
Harking back to "The Corbomite Maneuver," what is fearsome or terrifying is only to be considered such until more information is gathered.
Trelane, believed to be a grave threat, is actually just an indulged alien kid.
By the same token, “The Squire of Gothos” -- much like Paul Schneider’s other first season episode, “Balance of Terror” -- is strongly anti-war in both conception and execution.
The character of Trelane, for example, is a child who pretends to be a great soldier (and great general), and who plays dress-up too.
Trelane has plainly never experienced war personally, since he views it as some glorious, positive experience. He doesn’t understand the the costs of war. For him, war is colorful banners, braggadocio, and dreams of conquest.
When Kirk shows him that he could get hurt, or that his toys (like his sword) might get broken in real combat, Trelane pouts and complains.
Trelane could have been fond of great political leaders, scientists, or artists, but the fact that he worships soldiers proves the anti-war bent of the program's writers. Too many sons and brothers, no doubt, grow up playing dress-up and pretending to shoot guns, or swing swords.
Yet by the same token, one might conclude that Trelane is indeed a perfect stand-in for some notable politicians in our own culture who never served in any war and yet like to talk tough, or even don flight suits so as to appear like they are victorious heroes.
I tend to “object” to such politicians, and view them as mere boys with toys. And I love how this episode of Star Trek allows Spock to object to Trelane in such a cutting way..
Spock states: “I object to you. I object to intellect without discipline. I object to power without constructive purpose.”
This is a great description of Trelane, and a great put-down to those who see war only as an opportunity for personal glory or power, and not as a thing to be avoided because it is ugly and destructive.
“The Squire of Gothos” works so effectively not merely because of the brilliant writing and anti-war stance, but because William Campbell is so utterly dynamic -- and unforgettable -- in the role of Trelane.
He makes Trelane a preening child indeed, one who is all “Id.” Although one might conclude that he is charming, Trelane is also one of the most dangerous foes Kirk has ever encountered because he boasts so much power, and so little constructive purpose.
He’s a spoiled brat who thinks it is okay to torture his pets, essentially. He never stops, even for a second, to conclude that his pets might resent being hurt. Or that his pets have feelings in the first place.
Many fans of Star Trek see Trelane as the antecedent to The Next Generation’s Q, yet there is an important difference.
As obnoxious and dangerous as Q (John De Lancie) is, he generally boasts some (hidden) reason for interfering in the affairs of man. He sounds the warning bell to the Federation about the Borg, for instance, in “Q-Who.” At least in this appearance, Trelane possesses no such overriding purpose. He is selfish and capricious instead.
It's all about him, and his fun.
So just imagine the most irresponsible and emotionally-immature bully in the world with the power of life and death over millions. Now imagine he's holding you captive.
That’s what Trelane represents in “The Squire of Gothos,” but it’s more than that too.
All of his musings are martial in nature. For him, life and death, war and peace, are but games that he can control. He’s an alien child, but on human terms he’s just another sociopath.
“The Squire of Gothos” is a nearly perfect episode of Star Trek, but it does have one memorable flaw. A key aspect of the episode is Trelane’s fallible nature.
Although extremely powerful, he makes mistakes. One such mistake is that Trelane has been gazing back on Earth from 900 light years distance.
According to the episode, he is looking at Earth, then, some nine hundred years ago. What does he see? The age of Napoleon and Alexander Hamilton.
These historical allusions would put the Earth time at roughly 1800 AD. But if that is 900 years ago, Star Trek time, then Kirk’s adventures are occurring in approximately the year 2700 AD!
At this late date in the series -- roughly seventeen to nineteen episodes in -- it is shocking that Star Trek has still not settled on a firm chronology or continuity for its “future” world. Similarly, terminology (Space Command vs. Starfleet Command) is still in flux in this episode.
Today, we know of course that Kirk’s adventures occur in the 23rd century, and that date is widely accepted.
What’s not widely remembered is that it took Star Trek more than half of its inaugural season to start building a concrete line of historical continuity.
Besides that nit-pick, "The Squire of Gothos" is a brilliant and extremely entertaining addition to the Trek canon.
Next week: “Arena.”
[Watch out for spoilers]
There exists in Japan a forest of roughly fourteen square miles, near Mount Fuji, where -- on average -- thirty people a year commit suicide.
In some especially bad years as many as seventy-eight unhappy people take their own lives in that forest. Suicides usually tick up in the end of March -- the end of the fiscal year in Japan -- and the forest is known as both “The Suicide Forest’ and “The Sea of Trees.”
But the forest’s given name is Aokigahara, and it is reputed to be the home of many “yurei,” or angry ghosts. Some believers insist the spirits dwell under the forest in subterranean ice caverns.
A haunted suicide forest is the perfect setting for a horror movie, of course, and in the past six years, producers have taken advantage of the forest’s lore and location. Forest of the Living Dead (2010), Grave Halloween (2013) and now The Forest (2016), all revolve around the myths and mysteries of Aokigahara.
Natalie Dormer stars (as twins) in The Forest. She plays both Sara and Jess Price in the film. Jess is the slightly sketchy, independent sister who disappears in the forest. Sara is the buttoned down, somewhat haughty sister who goes in search of Jess when she disappears.
The first thing to understand about the film -- and admittedly, this may color your desire to see it -- is that it plays very much like an American remake of a Japanese horror film, circa 2002 – 2008.
This was the era of The Ring (2002), The Grudge (2004), Dark Water (2005) and Pulse (2006), as you might recall. The trend burned out with some lousy movies like One Missed Call (2008) and The Eye (2008), but it’s been virtually a decade since we’ve seen a big horror movie of this particular type.
Of course, The Forest is not a remake of a Japanese film; merely a horror film set in Japan, and one that interfaces with Japanese mythology and culture. Importantly, the film conforms to all the style and conventions of the remake format of a decade ago. So if you’re feeling nostalgic for that time and those films, you may appreciate the film more than others. If, contrarily, you think that format is pretty used up, then you may find The Forest a long, familiar tale.
I fall somewhere between those two poles.
I appreciate how The Forest revives all the tropes of the format (and I’ll enumerate these below), and I admire the film’s central conceit involving twins, and the connection that such siblings share. On the downside, the film’s final sting-in-the-tail/tale is atrocious, and a big letdown after a somber and effective finale.
Ten or eleven years ago, The Forest would have had a major theatrical release in America (and my fellow bloggers would have complained about its PG-13 horror…), and yet the film feels curiously out-of-step today. I still would grant the film a limited or modest recommendation based on its intriguing, final act bait-and-switch scenario, and the fascinating real life context behind its setting.
You won’t get lost in The Forest, but you’ll wander down a memorable trail or two.
“Spirits cannot rest there. They come back angry.”
Sara Price (Dormer) awakes from a nightmare about her identical twin, Jess (Dormer). She learns that her sister, a school teacher in Japan, has traveled into the Aokigaraha Forest, a “suicide” forest. Most who enter it, never return.
Sara bids farewell to her husband, Rob (Eoin Macken) and travels to Japan. She resolves to find her sister, and knows she is still alive. Since they were born, Jess and Sara have shared a kind of sixth sense. They know when the other is in danger. So Sara feels powerfully that Jess is still alive.
An Australian travel writer, Aiden (Taylor Kinney) offers to escort Sara inside the forest, with the caveat that he gets to report her story. She agrees to his terms, and with a park ranger, they begin their odyssey inside the forest of ghosts, or yurei.
The ranger is concerned about Sara because he senses that she is sad, and the spirits in the forest are known to play tricks on those who carry heavy hearts.
At the end of a long day of walking, Jess’s tent is discovered…empty. Sara wants to stay the night in the forest, even though it would be extremely dangerous, to wait for her sister’s return. Aiden agrees to remain with Sara in the woods, and a night of terror commences.
Sara is haunted by visions of a Japanese school girl, and also an event from her childhood which did not unfold as she has long believed it did…
“If you get lost, and you have sadness in your heart, they will use it against you.”
As noted in my introduction, The Forest feels very much like a Japanese horror film remake from about ten to fifteen years ago.
All the “standards” or conventions are present.
For instance, we get, in the lead role, a female star (like Naomi Watts, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jennifer Connelly, Kristen Bell, Jessica Alba) whose primary role involves the investigation of the supernatural.
In many such cases the supernatural specter involved adopts the physical appearance of a Japanese woman. Here, the female star – Dormer – interfaces with the supernatural and encounters a tricky spirit who takes on the form of a school girl several times.
As is the case in many of these earlier films, the supernatural evil can “take” or kill a person simply because they encounter it, not because of any vice-precedes-slice-and-dice equation. Go to the house in The Grudge, and you will die. Use your cell phone or technology in The Pulse, and you expose yourself to danger. Watch Samara’s tape in The Ring, and in seven days, you’re pretty much doomed.
In The Forest, Sara is repeatedly warned not to enter the forest; that she will expose herself to tricky, murderous spirits. She enters the forest anyway. She is not a transgressor. She does not try to desecrate or exploit the forest. Instead, she merely goes “off the path,” thus making herself vulnerable to the wicked apparitions dwelling there.
In many of these films there is also a kind of supportive but ultimately useless male secondary character hanging about. Think of the roles played by Martin Henderson in The Ring or Jason Behr in The Grudge for a corollary of Taylor Kinney’s role here.
Given these familiar characters and tropes, The Forest feels very much like a remake of a film never made, or a sequel to one never made. One might even term it an homage or pastiche of the Japanese horror remake form. On that basis, I find it interesting.
I have read some viewers term The Forest a “white wash” because it concerns a Caucasian woman and not a Japanese woman interfacing with the suicide forest. I certainly sympathize with that viewpoint, especially given the nature of Hollywood history, and the absurdity of casting Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell.
However, I would argue that The Forest, at least in terms of its context, finds a good reason for sending a westerner to this forest in Japan. That reason isn’t even that old horror trope that I have written about from time to time: “Americans Abroad.” In those kind of horror films, arrogant Americans in foreign countries run afoul of an ethnic, non-western supernatural world they refuse to believe in (see: The House Where Evil Dwells ).
That aspect of the tale certainly informs some elements of The Forest, but overall I believe the film offers a unique viewpoint that requires, essentially, for Sara to be a westerner.
Basically, my argument is as follows: Suicide is a huge problem in Japan. It is a much bigger problem there, for instance, than in America. The spirits in the forest take advantage of those who are sad, or who are seeking to die.
It is a place to exploit personal weakness.
Dormer’s character, Sara, however, is not suicidal. She is sad, instead, because she comes from a history of (and culture of) denial.
That denial is reckoned, in the film in the very specifics of Sara’s childhood tragedy. She has believed for her whole life that her parents died in a car accident. Jess, by contrast, saw and faced the truth.
Her father murdered her mother with a gun, and then shot and killed himself.
Rather than face this problem, the family buried it. The family denied the truth and made up a convenient and palatable excuse for the terrible violence.
The same denial exists in our Western culture today. In America in 2015, for example, more Americans died violently at the hands of toddlers with guns than they did from the violent acts of foreign terrorists.
But no changes in gun safety laws have come about. Instead our culture continues to deny that we have a problem. We also have many mass shootings a year, in addition to accidental deaths. Yet we think having more armed people is the answer to the crisis. This is precisely the truth that Sara denies in the film.
So if mental health and suicide are vexing the Japanese people, the America people are grappling with their denial of the truth about gun safety and mental health.
The forest exploits Sara’s western weakness -- denial -- in the same way that exploits the weakness of the Japanese people. Sara discusses, explicitly, how Jess “looks at the dark stuff,” and Sara “looks away.” Jess decides to “struggle” with her “demons,” whereas Sara buries hers, and suppresses them.
Only one character survives he encounter in the Suicide Forest, and denial plays a role in that survival or demise.
The Forest cleverly leads us to believe that Jess is the troubled sister, the one in danger from the forest. In fact -- as people keep telling Sara -- she is the one who has a problem with reality. “If you see anything strange,” she is warned, it is in her head, not present in the flesh. But Sara has a problem detecting what is real because she has always intentionally looked away from things that trouble her. She has closed her eyes to them.
This conceit, played with twin sisters, is handled well, and there’s even a call-out to literary history in the film’s mention of poet Sara Teasdale (1884-1933), who also committed suicide.
There are enough good ideas in The Forest to make it worthy of study and deeper analysis, but the film nonetheless ends with a lame final scare that cheapens the sobriety and seriousness of the entire film. This is one of those horror movies in which a fade-out 30 seconds earlier would literally change one’s entire perception of the film.
Although the terrible ending exemplifies a “can’t see the forest for the trees” brand of thinking, the rest of The Forest is intriguing and thoughtful enough to merit at least one screening.