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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ellison Wonderland (originally published 8/93)

What happens to you when you get really angry? Yeah, me too. We fume and sputter and make idiots of ourselves. It is only hours later, in the cold blood of bitter reflection, that we realize what we should have said.

But every now and then a person will be born with a diode wired in backward somewhere so that they actually get more articulate as their anger rises, not less. If that person also happens to be a writer, like H.L. Mencken or Philip Wylie, they can offer us a rare gift. Like Howard Beale in the movie "Network," they can articulate our rage for us.

I mention this by way of following up last week's column on "guilty pleasures," the bad movies that we love out of sheer perversity. One of the movies shown on TNT's recent "Bad Movies We Love" night was "The Oscar." Its script was co-written by Harlan Ellison, although he doesn't enjoy admitting it.

But if you saw "The Oscar," and if by chance this was your first exposure to Ellison's work, I need to tug your sleeve and make you aware that it is in no way representative of his work as a whole. To the contrary, he belongs to that tiny and valuable fraternity of writers for whom anger is a catalyst and not an impediment to effective communication.

The purest expression of his anger as craftsmanship is to be found in his many published essays. In his fiction, and in his scripts, it tends to take the form of emotionally charged fantasy tropes. His stories typically involve people pushed beyond the limits of what the real world can contain. It's a form of fantasy that was popularized by Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone," but no one brings quite as much of an edge to it as Ellison.

If you liked Serling's shows, and you're ready to handcuff yourself to a writer who will pursue the darkest of human emotions to the edge of the abyss and leap in after them, Ellison's fiction is for you. His scripts, by comparison, tend to end up a bit watered down, but even so they still pack a punch. Forget about "The Oscar," then, and look for these Ellison titles at the corner video store.

"Soldier" (1964). This episode of the "Outer Limits" television series tells the story of a soldier from the far future who is transported back in time to the present day. Although human, he is as close to a fighting machine as futuristic training and indoctrination can make him. Warfare is all he knows, all he can cope with. Does this sound vaguely familiar? The producers of "The Terminator" were ultimately persuaded that it was similar enough that the film's credits should include an acknowledgment of the inspiration provided by Ellison's work.

"Demon With a Glass Hand" (1964). Ellison's second script for "The Outer Limits" won him the Writer's Guild Award as the best teleplay of the year, an honor he has now received four times. Again it features a time traveler from the future, but a benevolent one this time. A mysterious amnesia has rendered his origin and purpose a mystery, even to himself. As he struggles to solve the puzzle of his own identity, he must simultaneously struggle to stay alive. He has been pursued into the past by futuristic bad guys who clearly want him dead. Slowly he comes to the awful realization that he is the last hope of humanity.

"City on the Edge of Forever" (1967). Ellison's one and only script for the original "Star Trek" series is regarded by many as the best episode of all. Dr. McCoy goes through a time portal and ends up on Earth in the 1930s. While there, he does something that completely alters subsequent history. Kirk and Spock go after him to set things right and discover that McCoy had disrupted history by saving the life of a woman who would otherwise have died in a traffic accident. The problem is that by the time they figure this out Kirk has met and fallen in love with the woman who must die. Will he do the necessary thing and let her die, or will he sacrifice Earth's history for love? Ellison received his second Writer's Guild Award for this script.

Could superior scripts like these really be the work of the author of "The Oscar?" I prefer to blame the film on Ellison's two co-authors. After all, he may be beautiful when he's angry, but I don't particularly want him angry at me.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Guilty Pleasures (originally published 8/93)

Sometimes I marvel at the times we're living in. While federal meat inspectors blithely approve the sale of disease-ridden flesh, TV movie reviewers agonize over whether to give a movie a thumbs-up.

"I don't know," the critic says, obviously enduring a dark night of the soul right there in front of the cameras. "The film has some charming moments and a lot of heart, but I just can't quite recommend it."

Oh, go on, force yourself.

My own theory is that if you liked a movie, it's good. If you didn't like it, there are two possibilities: a) you're not part of the movie's intended audience or b) it's bad. As a general rule of thumb this works pretty well, but you also have to take into account that little streak of perversity that lives inside all of us. If we’re honest with ourselves we all have to admit that there are some movies that we genuinely love in spite of their undeniable ghastliness. From Joe Sixpack to the most erudite cinema scholar, it’s my contention that every moviegoer has a few of these “guilty pleasures.” Here are some of mine.

“The Phantom Empire” (1935). Although you might not guess it from the title, this 12-chapter serial is an early Gene Autry picture. He was already well known as a radio singing cowboy, but this was his first starring role in a movie. In a stretch truly worthy of his acting talents, he plays a radio singing cowboy named Gene Autry. But that’s not the weird part. The plot has him doing battle with the denizens of the lost underground city of Murania. Their futuristic society has the advantage of all manner of advanced gadgetry, including metal robots in stovepipe hats. (No, I mean literally – hats made out of stovepipes.) You have to wonder what they were smoking when they decided to cast their budding young Western star in a Buck Rogers story line. There is absolutely no excuse for this movie, but I love it dearly.

“Bucket of Blood” (1959). Most people are familiar with Roger Corman’s hilarious “Little Shop of Horrors” (1960) thanks to the successful musical play it inspired. Less well known is this earlier Corman film, his first effort at combining his low-budget horror film formula with comedy. Corman stalwart Dick Miller plays Walter Paisley, a young sculptor yearning to gain the acceptance of the artsy, pretentious coffee house crowd. Eventually he does make it big, but only by murdering his models and covering their bodies with clay to create his sculptures. Corman didn’t miss the opportunity to ridicule the highbrow art crowd – the very people who dismissed his kind of movie making. It’s vintage Corman; cheap, nasty, but fun.

“Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte” (1965). Like Pinocchio growing up to be a real boy, some films that start off as trash evolve into classics. Robert Aldrich’s film “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962), for example, was conceived as pure pandering to the lowest common denominator in order to make a buck for all concerned. Screen legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, experiencing a bit of a slump in their respective careers, agreed to appear opposite each other in a gothic freakshow. Remarkably, the two old pros managed to breathe some life into the grisly proceedings. As a result, the film is now looked back on with a certain grudging respect. Not so “Sweet Charlotte,” Aldrich’s follow-up film. Trash it was and trash it remains. This time Davis is teamed with Olivia de Havilland in a Southern gothic horror story that resembles nothing so much as “Tales From the Crypt.” Davis is an old maid whose lover was murdered with an axe many years ago. The suspicion lingers on, even in her own mind, that she might have done the deed herself. If this sounds like promising material, perish the thought. There is much chewing of scenery by actors who certainly knew better. But they’re all enjoying themselves so hugely that I can’t help doing the same.

In fact, it may well be that therein lies the secret of guilty pleasures. If the filmmakers enjoyed their work, maybe the results, however meager, can somehow transmit that joy to the viewer.