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A Real Good Thing

Wanna know what scares the shit out of me? “It’s a Good Life,” that Twilight Zone episode where Billy Mumy plays a 6-year-old with godlike powers. And it’s not just because of Mumy’s wild eyes when he howls “You’re a bad man!” nor the half-flaccid shadow of a jack-in-the-box that follows his cry, although the episode has many such bone-chilling images. It’s… well, the concept, the execution, the performances, the layers of built-in political/moral resonances packed into its lean 20 minutes. So much about this episode terrifies me on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin.

The realism. Like so much of The Twilight Zone, “It’s a Good Life” doesn’t look like sci-fi or horror at all. It looks like conventional 1960s television. Everything about Peakesville and the Fremont household is emphatically normal; the only aberration is The Monster, Anthony. This is a common Cold War anxiety—of something wrong sprouting out of healthy American soil—manifested in the bluntest, most horrific way possible. It’s the flip side of Leave It to Beaver, with the Beave as a Lovecraftian abomination. The uncontrollable Anthony calls to mind the words Bob Dylan would sing just a few years later: “Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command, your old road is rapidly agin’…” or perhaps the lyrics to David Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things”:

Look at your children

See their faces in golden rays

Don’t kid yourself they belong to you

They’re the start of a coming race

The mind games. Rod Serling’s writing here is razor-sharp, and every conversation with Anthony is like a game of Operation. The adults have to steer him, ever so gently, away from violence (at least, violence against them) and toward—well, not “goodness” exactly but toward some heavily compromised approximation of it. These exchanges are like supplicant prayers to an unbalanced and amoral god, a god who must always be appeased with the refrain of “real good thing,” a god ruled only by his own ego. “I hate anybody that doesn’t like me!” whines Anthony, and that’s his first and only commandment. His power so outstrips the scope of his comprehension or empathy. This is Old Testament theology filtered through the mind of a child.

The representation of trauma. As the episode begins, Peakesville is populated by survivors: the tight-knit community of sweaty, miserable adults who’ve curried Anthony’s favor thus far. (The timeline of Anthony’s reign is hazy; it feels like he’s been in control forever.) Through these adults, “It’s a Good Life” delineates the behavior patterns adopted by trauma victims in impossible situations. They try to decipher the ambiguous looks on Anthony’s face; they prioritize self-preservation above all else; they bargain with one another to stay on his good side. “You’ll tell him, won’t you, Ms. Fremont?” begs Bill, the pathetic delivery boy. “Tell him I brought the tomato soup ’cause I heard he liked it? Tell him I brought it, won’t you?” But as Ms. Fremont knows, these tactics are meaningless to the unpredictable Anthony. Either he likes you, or he doesn’t.

The climax. And in the case of Dan Hollis (Don Keefer), he doesn’t. Dan is irascible, increasingly hard-drinking, and on the outskirts of middle age. He’s in no mood to tolerate Anthony’s bullshit, especially on his birthday. Your birthday is supposed to be about you, a day to flaunt your ego, but in Peakesville every day is about indulging Anthony. So Dan snaps. Earlier in the episode, when Bill says “We love that boy,” a look of soul-shaking nausea flashes across his face. But Dan is the only one to take this revulsion at being reduced to a child’s plaything and whip it up into blind outrage. Everyone else grovels before Anthony with fear-induced sincerity; only Dan has the temerity to give him a sarcastic salute. It all comes down to one line, after Anthony puts the kibosh on playing Dan’s new record: “Nuts. Can’t even play my own record; I can’t even play Perry Como!”

If he can’t play Perry Como, life is not worth living. If he can’t play Perry Como, no risk is too great. (The great irony is that Como was a quintessentially Establishment performer, as safe as Kennedy-era pop culture got, yet in Peakesville he’s a Molotov cocktail.) Dan lashes out at Anthony, begging the others to follow his lead and “take a lamp or a bottle or something and end this!” And of course none of them do, because Anthony’s control is their “normal” now. Misery is the new default. They even have a tacit protocol in place so that when Dan gets transformed into that jack-in-the-box, Mr. Fremont reflexively asks that Anthony send it away to the cornfield. This 6-year-old tyrant is now their status quo: they know how to survive under him, but not how to rebel.

In “It’s a Good Life,” free will can be conditioned away. Children are not innately innocent. And the hell you live in must be described as a heaven, cognitive dissonance be damned. These are but a few of the macabre implications that leave me shuddering long after Rod Serling has signed off. (“No comment” being the only postscript he can muster.) Somewhere in my mind, the threat of Anthony is always lurking, and that’s a real good thing.


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Brain Teasers

By Andreas

The first hour of Fiend Without a Face (1958) just sucks. It’s the usual Cold War atomic paranoia stuff—an American military base on Canadian soil, experiments with nuclear-powered radar, a series of unexplained murders—told in the most pedestrian manner possible. Marshall Thompson plays the movie’s typical Army Guy, and he’s just terrible; he delivers every line with the exact same I’m-the-Army-Guy tone of voice. He falls for a pretty Canadian woman, and wouldn’t you know, she work for a Vaguely Mad Scientist! Could the Scientist be somehow linked to the murders? Will the Army Guy discover this link and investigate? Well, duh. Yeah, it’s on track to become the most generic, forgettable ’50s B-movie of them all…

But then, a miracle: the climax strikes, and the entire movie changes. An influx of radioactive energy (or something to that effect) reveals the invisible monsters to be a flock of slimy, creepy-crawly killer brains. Holy fuck, right? All of a sudden, Fiend Without a Face stops being a formulaic Cold War sci-fi movie and turns into a grotesque orgy of bloodshed and stop-motion. The brains slither, lunge into the air, and latch onto characters’ necks, only to be dispatched with a bullet or an ax. It’s fuckin’ awesome!

I think the creative team behind Fiend Without a Face knew that the flying killer brains were their movie’s only hook, too. I think they banked on it, and that’s why they allowed the rest of the film to be almost self-parodically tedious. In those last 15 minutes, they do nothing but exploit their truly impressive special effects. Seriously: the plot grinds to a halt so that characters, under siege in a cabin, can stare out the window at a forest swarming with gooey, disembodied brains. It practically becomes an avant-garde nature film—“Behold,” you can imagine David Attenborough saying, “the fiends without a face, clinging majestically to the Canadian pines!”

And yeah, Army Guy blows up the nuclear reactor, makes the brains all melt into viscous puddles, and then kisses the pretty Canadian woman as the words “THE END” roll onscreen. But somewhere in their fictional minds, these characters must realize that we (the audience) do not give a shit about them. That we only came here for the killer brain action. That they’re only human placeholders driving along a story that’s fundamentally about killer brains. I feel kinda bad for them: Fiend Without a Face is cruelly lopsided, stringing its audience along with the promise that, yes, the climax will feature flying killer brains. Army Guy, the putative star, doesn’t factor into the movie’s appeal at all.

But the killer brains. They’re alluring, certainly more so than lead actress Kim Parker. They also anticipate trends in horror cinema 20-30 years in the future: the way their blood spurts reminds me of Eraserhead’s man-made chickens; their moist texture calls to mind Naked Lunch’s Mugwumps; and when they melt, it heralds the splatter-happy zombie movies of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. They’re terrifying, radioactive little crystal balls.

I really cannot overemphasize how effective the stop-motion is here. Looking back from 2011, the brains still give me the creeps. Maybe the rest of the movie was made exceptionally boring as part of a Sirkian trick to make the brains seem even more impressive when they finally arrived? I can’t say. But I do know that thanks to that miraculously sui generis climax, Fiend Without a Face is a film I’ve treasured since childhood, and it’s one I’ll never forget.

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One Against All

By Andreas

Two very different movies, a western and a film noir, blossomed from the paranoia of the early 1950s with identical scenarios. In each film, a lone lawman sees an Absolute Evil that he’s morally compelled to fight. (In one, that Evil is paroled gunfighter Frank Miller; in the other, it’s mob boss Mike Lagana.) In each, that lawman’s world is permeated by cowardice and corruption, and his would-be allies refuse to help fight the Evil. And in each, he takes a stand, risking his life for the town that deserted him.

These similarities between High Noon (1952) and The Big Heat (1953) are anything but coincidental. Rather, they’re open-ended, metaphorical reactions to America’s Cold War crisis of conscience. Bombarded with threats from without and within—China! The Rosenbergs! The Soviets! The Blacklist!—the nation spent the early ’50s twisting itself into knots. Naturally, Hollywood followed suit, albeit in a genre-colored fashion that sufficiently distanced its stories from present-day political realities.

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Saving the World

Feed me, you said, and I was feeding you, Jack!

Such an uneasy camaraderie evolves between British officer Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) and the psychotic General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden) in scenes scattered throughout Dr. Strangelove (1964). The War Room has its zany pre-apocalyptic antics, and Slim Pickens’ Russia-bound B-52 is hilarious in its satirically jingoistic way, but the portion of the film set in Ripper’s drab office is an absolute masterpiece of uncomfortable dark comedy. It’s not too hard to imagine it as a two-man play by Edward Albee—maybe a reworking of Zoo Story with some added machine-gun fire.

The premise for these scenes is so twisted: Mandrake essentially has to befriend a powerful but emotionally vulnerable madman in order to save the world. In a bid to gain Ripper’s trust, he agrees with virtually everything the General says, only occasionally dissenting from his paranoid ravings. Sellers retains a forced smile and laughs a little too loud, but his rapport-building tactics go nowhere, because as Ripper draws nearer to committing suicide, he becomes more and more walled off from the real world. So this scene devolves into two different one-sided conversations as each character gets lost in his own motives and anxieties.

In his futile efforts to avert a nuclear war, Mandrake hazards a trip into Ripper’s heart of darkness. That’s how he ends up feeding ammunition into Ripper’s machine gun as they fire on the American soldiers outside. With that “Feed me” line, Mandrake is playing on the close bonds that purportedly develop between soldiers in wartime. But his attempt to squeeze himself and Ripper into that well-trodden narrative falls on deaf ears, and his stratagem ends in comic disaster.

At least it was a valiant effort, and it gave screenwriters Kubrick and Terry Southern (with inveterate ad-libber Sellers) a chance to write some fantastic dialogue. For example, look at another of my favorites, as Mandrake recounts being tortured by the Japanese: “I don’t think they wanted me to say anything. It was just their way of having… a bit of fun, the swines. Strange thing is, they make such bloody good cameras.” In this bizarre, impossibly stressful situation, it almost makes sense—like so many of the nonsensical leaps made by characters in Dr. Strangelove—to connect torturing POWs with making cameras. Almost.

[For more about Dr. Strangelove‘s brilliant black comedy, see my piece from last week at The Film Experience about the film’s use of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again.” ]

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“What’ve you got for me?”: Matinee, Joe Dante, and Cinephilia

I get to scare everybody else. But it’s for their own good. You get people who go like this [he covers his face with his hands] at the scary parts, they’re not getting the whole benefit. You gotta keep your eyes open.

Gene: What’s the benefit?

OK, like, uh, a zillion years ago, a guy’s living in a cave. He goes out one day, bam! He gets chased by a mammoth. Now he’s scared to death, but he gets away. And when it’s all over with, he feels great.

Gene: Well, yeah, ’cause he’s still living.

Yeah, but he knows he is, and he feels it. So he goes home, back to the cave. First thing he does, he does a drawing of the mammoth. And he thinks, ‘People are coming to see this. Let’s make it good. Let’s make the teeth real long, and the eyes real mean!’ [Mammoth roars] Boom! The first monster movie. That’s probably why I still do it. Make the teeth as big as you want, then you kill it off, everything’s okay, the lights come up, ahhh! You see, the people come into your cave, with a two-hundred-year-old carpet, the guys tear your ticket in half—it’s too late to turn back now!—water fountain’s all booby-trapped and ready, the stuff laid out on the candy counter. Then you come over here to where it’s dark. There could be anything in there! And you say, ‘Here I am! What’ve you got for me?’

Midway through Joe Dante’s Matinee (1993), film huckster Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) walks the young horror fan Gene (Simon Denton) around Key West, Florida and lectures to him about why people love scary movies, and movies in general. I’ve transcribed his monologue above. It’s worth watching the film just for this scene alone, as Goodman’s irrepressible, good-natured showmanship and Charles S. Haas’s effervescent writing mix under Dante’s guidance to create a vivid origin story for cinephilia. For Dante, movies are our cultural currency; they’re both our instructions for and escape from reality. In Matinee, he sets that relationship against the backdrop of early ’60s Americana and Cold War hysteria as the Cuban Missile Crisis grips the nation.

The keyword I’d use to describe Matinee would be “affectionate.” It’s an affectionate paean to a moviegoing culture at its peak, with decades to go before video destroyed the communal experience; it’s an affectionate story of young love and small-town communities. Some characters, especially juvenile delinquent and Beat poet Harvey Starkweather (James Villemaire), may do bad things, like attempted theft and kidnapping, but they’re not really evil. Frantic civilians may act silly in the face of potential nuclear annihilation—especially the theater manager played by Robert Picardo—but they’re still vital parts of the community trying their best. Even when Dante puckishly caricatures someone, it’s done with his fanciful brand of loving humanism.

This trait is part of why I love Dante’s films. Even when he’s directing fairly gruesome horror, like The Howling or Gremlins, it steers away from nihilistic brutality, and is instead rooted in a passion for likeable characters, old-fashioned storytelling, and film culture. Matinee is more of a meta-horror movie, with a dash of social satire and coming-of-age drama, but these tendencies are all still on full display. Granted, I found the screenplay a little overstuffed with subplots, which were tied up pretty hurriedly during the climax, and a few of the performances are a little too bland, but the film’s so warm and endearing (albeit with an edge) that it’s easy to overlook these flaws.

Besides, the cast includes Dick Miller and John Sayles as a couple of B-movie actors masquerading as local do-gooders, plus a special appearance by Harvey‘s Jesse White as a sleazy theater chain owner. Besides the delightful supporting cast, the burgeoning romance between Gene and his peacenik classmate Sandra (Lisa Jakub) is very cutely done, and to top it all off, John Goodman has one of his greatest non-Coen Bros. performances. As Woolsey, he embodies everything cheap, tawdry, deceptive, and wonderful about popcorn cinema; as he chomps down on his cigars, you know he’s a con artist—but you think that he might just secretly believe in what he’s selling you. If aliens ever land and ask why we watch movies, maybe we should show them Matinee.

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“I blame society!”: Repo Man and punk satire

[Watch out for spoilers, and for irradiated Chevy Malibus.]

I rewatched Alex Cox’s cult classic Repo Man (1984) last Thursday, talked about it briefly on a radio show on Friday, and still have some ideas about it that I want to mull over. I first saw it on New Year’s Eve a couple years ago, and an additional viewing reinforces the reasons I enjoy it: its muddled rebellion, its raw charm, its defiance of genre conventions, its je nais sais punk. It earns its “cult” status because it captures in amber a specific moment of cultural history, with all its youthful anger, ideological chaos, and quirky stylistic confusion.

Let it be said: Repo Man is above all a film of its time. This was a time when its star, Emilio Estevez, was about to appear in The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire, a time when Ronald Reagan was about to be reelected in a landslide, and a time when the Soviet Union had less than a decade left of existence. Sid Vicious, the subject of Cox’s next movie, had died five years earlier; the explosion of the Iran-Contra affair was just around the chronological corner. I may not have been around, but all available clues suggest that the mid-’80s were a prime era of disillusionment, of young people trying to piece back together who they were and what they could believe in. Repo Man‘s Otto (Estevez) is offered no end of solutions, and responds to most of them with an instinctive “Fuck you.”

I recently caught up with The Breakfast Club at last, and the contrast between Estevez’s roles in the two films is startling. The opening quote of the John Hughes film (from David Bowie’s “Changes”) asserts that it’s a movie about “these children that you spit on / As they try to change their worlds”; throughout the story, the five stereotyped teenagers from suburban Chicago attempt to reconcile their identities, their futures, and their relationships with their parents. In the end, they conclude that the world of high school is tough, and cliques are unfair, but that in each of them is a brain, jock, etc., and they’re not so different after all. Much soul-baring goes on, and it leads to a comfortable set of answers.

Otto, meanwhile, never quite pulls together a coherent question. Unlike his Breakfast Club counterpart, he’s not concerned about whether he’ll grow up to “be like [his] parents,” since they’ve sold out his future for a greasy televangelist’s false promises. (Between Reverend Larry, the television he’s on, and their shared blunt, this scene literalizes a lifestyle based around “opiates of the masses,” akin to Brave New World‘s soma vacations.) Otto’s crisis isn’t that he’ll sink into the shallow, bourgeois mold of his parents, but that he – and by extension, America’s youth – has no older role models who aren’t hypocrites or symbols of crass consumerism.

Early in the film, after an unsatisfying party with his punk friends, Otto walks along railroad tracks, singing Black Flag’s “TV Party“: “We’re just dedicated to our favorite shows! Saturday Night Live, Monday Night Football, Dallas…” The punk creed espoused by the film is that the mass of Americans have been reduced to brain-dead drones – like Otto’s coworker Kevin, who obliviously sings a 7 Up jingle – and that any past ideals have been co-opted by Corporate America. Opportunity knocks, however, in the form of Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), a hard-assed old-timer who initiates him through deception into the world of repoing cars. “Repo man is always intense,” explains Bud.

For Otto, the life of a repo man is an alternative to both conformity and punk nihilism. It’s a lifestyle positioned on the edge of the law, a career based on glorified grand theft auto. Bud dresses “kinda square” so that he’s viewed as a detective, and this hints at some of the film’s noir roots (as do references to Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Heat). By joining with Bud and the other repo men, Otto can find some common ground to rest his feet on, even if he shares it with loners from decades past. It’s a chance for him to ply a trade, but a trade that amounts to lying and stealing – the repo men don’t make anything, they take prized possessions away. Theirs is a job that prospers amidst economic decline. Instead of buying into the American dream, Otto gets paid by commission to repossess the dreams of others.

As you’d imagine, many of Repo Man‘s conversations revolve around cars. “The more you drive, the less intelligent you are,” posits Miller, the burnt-out holy fool who hangs around the parking lot; it’s an absurdist epigram whose possible truth informs much of the film’s frantic driving. Due to Miller’s supposed madness, he can question such a mainstay of 20th century American culture, rejecting a fact of life (that is, automotive transportation) that every other character takes for granted. Miller’s crazy idea is even implicitly accepted by the film’s big MacGuffin, a “1964 Chevy Malibu” worth $20,000 if repossessed, which is slowly killing its lobotomized driver. Its trunk contains something (a neutron bomb? Alien corpses?) that vaporizes human bodies in an instant. Through this sci-fi symbol, the film presents us with a deadly quandary: the automobile as both toxic and supremely desirable.

The Chevy Malibu’s many meanings are symptomatic of a beautiful tendency in the film, which is its nonstop allusions to Cold War zeitgeists. Whereas The Breakfast Club‘s teenagers live in a self-contained bubble of angst and alienation, Repo Man is very politically aware (even if its responses to late-Cold War politics are rarely nuanced or coherent). Otto, Bud, and the rest exist in the shadow of the Communist Russia, American involvement in Central America (which would become the subject matter of Cox’s Walker), and the imminent possibility of nuclear annihilation. Wally Cleaver could have easily fit in with the students at John Hughes’ Shermer High School; in Cox’s dystopian Los Angeles, the Cleavers’ family values have been dismantled and found insufficient. To this end, Repo Man also follows a trio of Otto’s old punk friends as they steal cars, pick fights, and hold up convenience stores.

Duke, Debbi, and Archie are human repositories of cultural minutiae, constructing their identities out of what they think rebels are supposed to be. As they roam the city streets, Duke howls, “Let’s go do some crimes!”, and it’s emblematic of how vague their motivations are. Just before their last hold-up, Duke turns to Debbi and proposes that they settle down and have kids – the ultimate concession to bourgeois banality – because “it just seems like the thing to do.” No matter how hard the punk kids try to rebel, they’re too unguided to avoid falling back into these well-worn behavioral scripts. As he’s dying, Duke falls into another: “I blame society.” Otto corrects him: “You’re a white suburban punk, just like me.” None of them have better excuses sociological excuses than sheer boredom; they’re just borrowing from antiquated images of “juvenile delinquents.” At least Otto’s self-aware enough to realize it.

Ultimately, I see Repo Man as a reaction. Alex Cox surveys an ugly postmodern landscape – both in terms of geographical and media realities – and considers, through Otto, all the ways a teenager could try to find some glimmer of truth in such a world. This world is an amalgamation of recycled ideas and images, from John Ford westerns to film noir, from 1950s sci-fi movies to Weekly World News headlines and conspiracy theories, from the 1950s-’60s glamorization of car culture to Emiliano Zapata, from 1930s gangster movies to drugged-out ex-hippies. And of course, punk rock. For Cox, the streets of Los Angeles – and by extension, the whole southwest – is an appropriately desolate playing field where these icons can be smashed against one another.

“John Wayne was a fag,” states Miller to the disgust of the other repo men. The film deals in this kind of debunking, bringing legends down to size – the same goal as the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.” Some Americans put their faith in the Scientology-like text of Dioretix, while others pay for bland white containers marked “FOOD” or “BEER.” Repo Man scoffs at them all. It’s a reaction, and largely a rejection of all the lies and stupidity that the youngest generation has had to put up with, manifested repeatedly through satire. It’s not always the most clear-headed of films, but that’s much of the point. It’s a melange of genres, offering many forking paths through a microcosmic naked city, and draped in a meandering adventure saga. Maybe you can see how Repo Man is a clear source of inspiration for Quentin Tarantino.

So I think that should suffice as an introduction to Repo Man‘s raucous critiques of western civilization. In many ways, the film resembles Scorsese’s Shutter Island, which plays similar tricks with the cultural baggage of 1950s America, though Repo Man holds together more successfully. I’m still not sure what its moral is, and it might not even have one – it ends with a flagrant deus ex machina wherein Miller’s craziness gives him the edge over everyone. However, it’s endlessly quotable, has a great punk rock soundtrack, and crams its little potshots full of wit, so – as Otto might say – who the fuck cares? Repo Man may be a quirky cult hit, but it’s also an explosive, clever little time bomb of a movie.

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