Tuesday, January 17, 2017

HAUNTED HONEYMOON (1986)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*


I started out generally disliking Gene Wilder's HAUNTED HONEYMOON-- his last film with wife Gilda Radner before her 1989 death, the last film Wilder directed, and a notorious box office bomb. However, on repeated TV-viewings, I've conceived a mild liking for the film, if only because it seems (whatever Wilder's intentions) like a love-letter to the bygone days of "old dark house" movies.

Like Wilder's SHERLOCK HOLMES' SMARTER BROTHER, HONEYMOON is nicely staged. Wilder and his crew clearly knew how to evoke the look of the "phony ghost" stories from the Classic Hollywood era, and the script inserts some of the psychological touches characteristic of the later Hitchcock period. But though there are some decent comedy set-pieces, there's never the sense that the whole is anything but the sum of its parts.

The story is set in the era of radio's heyday as a source of mystery-dramas, though there's almost no topical material relevant to the time-period. Larry Abbott (Wilder) and Vickie Pearl (Radner) are voice-actors on one such mystery-drama, as well as being engaged to be married in the near future. However, Larry has been blowing lines and showing signs of psychological stress. His uncle Paul makes the decision that when the couple travel to the Abbott family mansion, he intends to subject Larry to a form of "shock therapy" in order to purge Larry of his demons. Thus, when Larry and Vickie show up at the family manse, they're treated not just to the usual clique of oddballs-- including the corpulent Aunt Kate (Dom deLuise in drag)-- but also things like a guy in a werewolf outfit. However, it soon becomes evident that someone's not seeking to save Larry's sanity, but rather, to take his life.

Then, after the climax of the film, all of the "uncanny tropes" of the film are overruled by that of the "fallacious figment," for the audience is belatedly told that all they've witnessed is just another radio-drama performed by Larry and Vickie before they leave for their wedding. As the happy couple drives away, an ostensible "host" of the program warns the audience that the happy ending may not be real-- but since that host is an articulate werewolf, his credibility is somewhat lacking.

Compared to most of Wilder's other 1980s flicks, this one at least looks good. I just wish that Wilder-- also one of the writers-- had done more than piddle around with Freudian psychological myths.

Monday, January 9, 2017

THE STEPFATHER (1987)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*


THE STEPFATHER, an enjoyable psycho-thriller that's been much imitated over the years, doesn't go into that much depth in a psychological sense.

The story centers upon a psycho whose true name is never revealed in the film, but who is known through most of the narrative as "Jerry Blake." Whereas some real men have carried on bigamous affairs, sustaining two if not more separate family lives, Jerry seeks to find the ideal family life due to some traumatic event in his past. To this end he worms his way into a family that lacks a father-figure-- from what we see, the families of widows with children. However, when each family fails to live up to his exacting standards of what the ideal family should be, he scouts around for a new family, beginning the process of inveigling himself into the new familial unit, and then kills the previous family.

A year after the audience sees Jerry slay one unsatisfactory adoptive group, he has managed to marry widow Susan Maine, who has one high-school-age daughter, Stephanie. In contrast with some stories dealing with an unwanted step-parent, Stephanie's animus for her new father does not stem from any fixation on her dead dad, who is barely referenced in the storyline. Nor is Jerry, like other evil step-parents, covetous of his stepdaughter's sexuality: he simply wants to control her absolutely, and on some level Stephanie recognizes that his controlling nature goes beyond the bounds of the average step-parent. Unfortunately for Jerry, the brother of a previous murder-victim is trying to track down his sister's killer, and Jerry's efforts to short-circuit Stephanie's suspicions only further his own mental breakdown. In the film's best scene, the killer uses the wrong false name for himself in front of Susan-- precipitating a bloody showdown between the ersatz father and his step-family.

In the symbolic sense Jerry Blake is a "heavy father," but rather than simply imposing his will as most such figures do, he's actually trying to impose a false ideal upon lived reality: an ideal close to the heart of American pop culture. While there's no question in my mind that Jerry is a "perilous psycho" in the uncanny mode, I had to think whether or not STEPFATHER also made use of the uncanny version of the "bizarre crime." Certainly Jerry's not an artful psycho: he clubs one victim to death with a board. But I finally decided that his motif of moving from family to family in pursuit of his twisted ideal qualified as a bizarre crime in itself-- though of course, like any uncanny facet of a narrative, it can be reconfigured to take on a purely naturalistic phenomenality, as one indeed sees in some of STEPFATHER's imitators.

HANNIBAL (2001)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*


I hate having to give a "fair" mythicity rating to a Hannibal Lecter film directed by Ridley Scott, in contadistinction to giving a "good" rating to the one directed by the vastly inferior talent Jonathan Demme.

One factor in this state of affairs might be that the Thomas Harris novel SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was a very linear novel. Hannibal's contributions to the narrative provide only a side attraction, while the main plot focuses on the pursuit of serial killer "Buffalo Bob" by FBI agent Clarice Starling. The structure of Harris' HANNIBAL is more circular than linear. Hannibal, ten years after his escape from the United States, has taken up residence in Italy, while the agents of a less reputable organization-- rich Mason Verger, one of Lecter's previous victims-- circle about him like predacious hawks, trying to capture him before he can escape. If anything, the novel's structure is closer to that of Scott's own BLADE RUNNER.

However, Scott and his chosen scripters-- one of whom contributed to the film of SILENCE-- chose a much more straightforward course. I can't fault the movie for excising a lot of the novel's subplots and characters to make a more cohesive storyline, given that Scott enjoyed great success when he did the same thing with Philip Dick's novel DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? But though Scott gets across most of the essential plot-points of the novel, his understanding of both the Lecter character and the world he lives in proves mediocre at best.

Scott sacrifices a number of themes that would not have been hard to capture even in a linear mainstream film. For instance, a major theme of the novel deals with the mediocrity of law enforcement. particularly that of Clarice Starling's superiors. Presumably Scott wanted to avoid a lot of the book's talking-head scenes in which various FBI characters admit to one another how they're screwing over Clarice to save their own necks from public scrutiny. But the consequence of these omissions is that only one FBI figure looks particularly corrupt: Clarice's former commander Krendler. Thus, even though Scott goes through the same motions of discussing how Clarice has been victimized by her own people-- a point Lecter often uses to taunt her-- it becomes a matter of "telling" rather than "showing."

Scott does passably well with the scenes in Italy, managing to get across at least some of Harris' learned references to Dante, Christian tradition, et al. And in this case, I approved of his having excised some of the more involved material detailing how a corrupt Italian cop seeks to help Verger trap Lecter rather than delivering him to the FBI. The scene in which Lecter executes the officer-- who is compared to Judas because he's betrayed not Lecter but rather his own profession-- is the strongest sequence in HANNIBAL.

However, the sections with Mason Verger suffer greatly from the excision of his sister Margot, who in the novel proves essential in Verger's downfall. In Margot's place the Scott script builds up one of the novel's characters, a functionary named Cordell, so that he can perform some of the same actions. But Cordell is a flat and uninteresting character, with the result that Verger's vengeance-crusade lacks a sense of epic evil.

Hannibal escapes Verger's men in Italy and returns to America, apparently less interested in taking out Verger than in rekindling his old fascination with Clarice. The novel is much clearer about Lecter's motivations, which appear muddy here, particularly in a scene constructed for the movie purely to build on the Lecter-Clarice relationship. In this scene Lecter taunts Clarice on a cellphone in Union Station and tells her that he's aware Verger's men are around. Then, despite Lecter's uncanny elusiveness, he's captured for no good reason I could see, and taken to Verger's estate to be eaten by killer pigs. Whereas the novel gave good reasons as to why only Clarice can rescue him, the film actually dilutes the sequence by injecting the FBI into it, again, to no good end.

The ending of the Harris novel is and was highly controversial, but I believe that it made sense in the highly ironic world Harris created. The most I can say of Scott's ending is that it's an OK melodramatic flourish, but it lacks the philosophical depth of Harris.

Hopkins is good but hardly brilliant, Julianne Moore makes an excellent replacement for the earlier Jodie Foster, and Gary Oldman delivers a strong vocal performance despite being handicapped by the visual nature of the role and the compromising of his evil nature. I may be somewhat harder than usual on Scott's film because prior to seeing it I found that the novel received a superior treatment in Season 2 of the HANNIBAL teleseries, even though that series substituted the MANHUNTER character of Will Graham in place of Clarice Starling.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

STAR TREK: "BREAD AND CIRCUSES," "ASSIGNMENT EARTH" (1968)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*

At the top of this section I put a photo of the "slave girl" from "Bread and Circuses,"because this was the last season that sported Gene Roddenberry's direct involvement as producer. Thus it seemed appropriate to pay homage to Roddenberry's most politically incorrect trope: that of the "sexy female slave" who, in this episode at least, gives Captain Kirk a little friendly "torture." There might have been some inappropriate feminine characters in Season 3, but hardly any sexy slaves.

I was reluctant to give a "poor" rating to "Omega Glory," since it recapitulated some vivid myth-motifs in spite of its absurdities. But "Bread and Circuses" gets no such break. There's a half-baked attempt to justify, through some made-up "law" of parallel evolution, why this time the Enterprise comes across a world where Rome rose to glory yet somehow continued into a rough 20th-century milieu. The heroes are first made aware of this when they receive television broadcasts featuring gladiators fighting and dying in an arena-- which, Kirk later smirks, isn't that much different from the television on Old Earth.

Much like "Omega Glory," the spacemen are constrained to investigate the world of Magna Roma because they suspect that one or more survivors from a wrecked statship may have taken refuge on the planet. The heroes learn that the only survivor is Captain Merik, who became an aide to the Magna Roman emperor. He was the only surviving crewmember to throw in with the Romans, for all the others remained loyal to the Prime Directive of non-interference and so died in the arena. In contrast to Captain Tracey or even John Gill, Merik's motives for his actions are hazy and ill-defined, and his sacrificial death at the end fails to evoke much emotion.

Kirk, Spock and McCoy are initially captured by a resistance-group fighting Roman hegemony. They are much puzzled by the members' claim to be worshipers of the Sun, and McCoy even states, with amazing falsity, that the Romans of Earth had no sun-worship. By the end of the episode, though, it's revealed that the renegades are actually the Christians of this pseudo-Earth; they just took an extra 2000 years to show up. Despite an early claim in the story that the Federation embraces many religions, the story ends on an egregiously proselytizing note. Safe back on the ship, the crew-members content themselves with the ideal-- derived from many a Cecil B. de Mille movie, no doubt-- that in due time the evil of the Romans will be conquered by the goodness of the Christians. One may safely assume that Magna Roma's destined religion will also eventually lead to liberal democracy.

Refreshingly, at the opening, McCoy briefly fantasizes what it would be like to come down to a primitive planet and claim to be "the archangel Gabriel" rather being restrained by the Directive (though it never seem to hold Kirk back that much). There's a lot of running around and escapes, and one nice character-moment between McCoy and Spock.



Happily, though "Assignment Earth" isn't overly deep, it doesn't suffer from the major intellectual gaffes of "Circuses." "Earth's" myth is also sociological, in that it presents a character out to save Earth-society from itself. This is Gary Seven, whose purpose is to guide 1960s Earth through a critical stage of its development. In this endeavor he's aided by an intelligent black cat, who possesses the power to morph into another species of feline, and a young Earth-woman, Roberta Lincoln.

"Earth" is indubitably a "back-door pilot," in which Roddenberry sought to set up a new set of series-characters by introducing them within an established series. The Enterprise time-travels back to 1960s Earth for purposes of "historical research," and the ship accidentally intercepts a transporter beam from another galaxy. A man holding a cat materializes aboard ship, and identifies himself as Gary Seven, an Earth-human raised among alien benefactors. The same aliens have sent him to 1960s Earth to shepherd the planet to the destined future from which the Enterprise hails. Kirk doesn't know whether Seven and his cat are really sent to save Earth, or to destroy it.

Seven escapes the ship and inserts himself into an office apparently arranged for him by at least two other agents, meant to help him implement his first mission. However, those agents have perished in a traffic accident. Secretary Roberta shows up at the office, having been engaged for secretarial duties by the deceased agents. Seven deceives Roberta into thinking he's a government operative and uses her as a front while he plans to interfere with a U.S. missile program.

Kirk and Spock pursue Seven, determined to find out his motives. Again, much of the plot relies on captures and escapes, but the story does terminate in Kirk being forced to evaluate Seven's claims not on sure knowledge, but on "intuition." Obviously, no series developed from this concept. I tend to doubt that the situation of Seven continually correcting history would have proved all that winsome, but it couldn't have been worse than some of the TV shows that were made. I also doubt that dour Robert Lansing would have been that much of an attraction, but Teri Garr (billed as 'Terri") is a delight as the sincere but scatterbrained Roberta, and would have been a great incentive to watch even a mediocre series.

STAR TREK: "THE ULTIMATE COMPUTER" (1968)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, psychological*


Though earlier episodes preached against the hegemony of machines in other cultures, "Ultimate Computer" brings the moral closer to home.

Kirk is astonished to receive orders that the Enterprise will be outfitted with a new, more sophisticated computer, the M-5,that's so powerful that it will make the presence of men aboard starships obsolete-- thus putting Kirk, among others, out of a job. The acid test for the computer is to see how it handles under simulated combat conditions, in a sham battle with four other starships.

Fontana's script does a fine job of personalizing Kirk's dilemma, allowing him to call his own prejudices about "progress" into question. It doesn't help Kirk that the system's creator, Richard Daystrom, is a bit of an arrogant prick, a former "boy genius" intent of proving himself with yet another amazing breakthrough. He prates about saving men's lives from the dangers of space, but he seems more concerned with his personal repute.

Under the control of M-5, with only Daystrom, Kirk, and a skeleton crew aboard, the Enterprise performs a few minor maneuvers efficiently. Then, for no clear reason, the computer directs the ship to destroy an unmanned freighter, and when the crew try to turn the machine off, it shields itself from their efforts. The computer then proceeds to the site of the war games, but only the humans aboard know that M-5 is playing for keeps.

A taut script and a strong (sometimes overly strong) performance by William Marshall as Daystrom make this a superior episode. It shows a symbolic similarity to various "Mister Hyde" scenarios in the series, given that the ship seems bent on destruction despite all human attempts to appeal to it. The script does not explain this unremitting hostility. One possible explanation might be that since Daystrom patterned the computer's cognitive faculties upon his own brain engrams, he may have "downloaded" much of the resentment he felt toward the Federation for failing to constantly recognize his greatness. Thus M-5 is much like an arrogant child, lashing out in the awareness of its power, much like Charlie X. This hypothesis accords with the script's statement that M-5 is able to absorb its creator's remorse for having killed-- the "Doctor Jekyll" in the equation-- and so gives itself up to be killed in the end. The computer gets turned off but the Enterprise and her crew are spared, thanks to certain human beings who have mastered both the good and bad sides of consciousness.

STAR TREK: "THE OMEGA GLORY" (1968)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*

I had such negative memories of "Omega Glory" that I anticipated giving it one of the few"poor" mythicity ratings for Season 2. While it's by no means a good episode overall-- not least because of its cringe-worthy premise-- it does rate a "fair" rating by virtue of having provided some variations on Gene Roddenberry's most cherished myth-themes. In that respect, it's a good deal better than "Patterns of Force."

Once again, a Starfleet official has broached his trust and interfered with a primitive society. However, the script-- one of Roddenberry's oldest, dating back to the first season-- doesn't make the Federation intruder responsible for the society's incredible resemblance to the mid-1960s opposition of Americans (called "Yangs" for Yankees) and Communist Chinese (called "Kohms"). The idea that whole cultures could accidentally parallel those of Earth was total eyewash, though Roddenberry does use it to elicit some interesting cultural reversals.

The landing-party encounters in space the remains of the Exeter, and of its crew, all of whom have been turned into empty uniforms full of dust. Kirk and his usual aides (plus a disposable redshirt) descend to Omega 4. They're captured by the Asian-looking inhabitants of the city, the Kohms, and find that the Kohms' commander is the ship's only survivor, Captain Ron Tracey. Tracey informs the party that his crew contracted a disease on the planet that slew them once they left the planet, and that he alone remains alive because he never left the planet's quixotic environment. This means, according to Tracey, that the members of the landing-party will both perish and spread the disease to the other Enterprise crew-members if they return.

Kirk, though glad to see Tracey alive, suspects that he has violated the Prime Directive by making common cause with the Kohms against their enemies, the vicious Yangs-- all of whom appear to be Caucasians, though they dress in savage attire and never speak. Tracey takes the crewmen prisoner, trying to make a Faustian bargain with them. The inhabitants of Omega IV are all incredibly long-lived, apparently as the result of some ancient conflict which devastated both their cultures (the script leaves it up in the air as to whether the cataclysm was by nuclear or by biological warfare). Tracey wants McCoy to dope out a cure for the disease, so that Tracey can not only leave the planet, but use the environment's weird properties to deliver a "Fountain of Youth" to the Federation. Kirk refuses, so Tracey imprisons the captain and Spock. In addition, Kirk is forced to share a cell with two captive Yangs, who repeatedly attack him without justification. Finally Kirk is able to break through to the Yangs-- who fortunately speak English, just like the Kohms, and they learn that a horde of Yangs are preparing to attack the city.

Kirk and Spock escape Tracey's cell, and reunite with McCoy, who informs them that the mysterious elements in the atmosphere-- both the disease and a mysterious "immunizing factor"-- are no Fountain of Youth. Further, none of the Enterprise crewmen are now carriers of the disease, for they've been on the planet long enough to be immunized. But Tracey still tries to thwart their return to the Enterprise. Then the invading Yangs show up, interrupting a fight between Kirk and Tracey. Building on clues from his earlier Yang-conversation, Kirk realizes that the savage Caucasians have recapitulated the essentials of the American Revolution, as well as some aspects of European Christianity. Kirk is able to instill both the Yangs and their enemies with a sense of the importance of liberal democracy, and Tracey is taken into custody.

There are some nice mythic gems herein. It's amusing that the Caucasian Yangs take the role of the "savage horde" against the relatively civilized Asians, and that the Yangs, despite being white, are now living out a fantasy of savage life that the script explicitly compares to that of the American Indian-- not unlike a social transformation seen in a much later film, RED DAWN. Some religious elements come in only toward the end, when the Yangs wonder if the alien strangers are gods, and Tracey, drawing on local superstitions, tries to convince the savages that Spock is a devil. It's interesting that the Omegans also seem to have a story of a "war in heaven," as one Yang wonders if the spacemen were "cast out," after which KIrk sagely tells them that "You've confused the stars with heaven."

I was curious as to why Roddenberry named the planet "Omega,"since this means in Greek an "end," rather than the beginning of a new civilization for the inhabitants. One idea is that the climax provides an end in the same sense that Christ said he was "the Alpha and the Omega." Alternately, Roddenberry may have been thinking along lines comparable to those of Frank Fukuyama, who argued that the system of liberal democracy spelled the Hegelian "end of history."


STAR TREK: "BY ANY OTHER NAME" (1968)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*

The Enterprises answers a distress call from an uninhabited planet, and as they near the world they find evidence of a destroyed ship. Kirk beams down with a landing-party and meets the former inhabitants of the ship, the Kelvans. These aliens, natives from the Andromeda Galaxy, have assumed humanoid forms-- their original natures are never disclosed-- because they've decided, rather quickly IMO, that they must do so in order to take over the Enterprise. Rojan, leader of the small party of aliens, informs Kirk that a cataclysm caused them to leave their galaxy, though it was a generation-ship-- meaning that Rojan and all of his male and female aides were born on the ship. It's their duty and perceived destiny to scout out new homes for the Kelvans, and to do so, they'll use the Enterprise for the same purpose, Rojan admits that he himself will never see whatever home they colonize; it will only be one of his descendants. Nothing is said about whether the Federation citizens will be allowed to breed during the trip, but either way, Kirk and his crew seem fated to die on the ship.

The Kelvans' methods of conquering the ship are impressively simple: they can paralyze human beings with the devices on their belts, and, to get the majority of the crew out of the way, they can also reduce individuals down into dodecahedron cubes. Soon the ship is on its way to its new destination, and only four crewpersons-- Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scott-- are allowed to remain in their normal forms, to monitor the ship's performance.

After a failed attempt to foil the aliens by destroying the ships, the crewmen hit upon a way to use the Kelvans' mimicry of humans against the, The Fontana-Bixby script picks up on a common SF-idea, tossed off in "Catspaw" but used to much greater effect here-- that aliens who mimic humans may be seduced into acting like humans. Hence, the Shakespeare-derived title: the Kelvans are "roses" who go by another name, but by taking on the semblance of humanity, they will learn how "sweet" it is to experience the gamut of human emotions. (This is, if one were keeping score, another story in which the multifaceted nature of the emotions takes precedence over the logical faculties.)

The most interesting sociological facet of the narrative is that in many ways the Kelvans are a mirror-image of Starfleet in its more unbending moments, though the Kelvans are also devoted to conquest and are initially indifferent to the sentiments of the conquered. They're also pure incarnations of the Protestant ethic of "deferred gratification," and Kirk defeats them in part by pointing out that they will be aliens and enemies to normal Kelvans by virtue of having "gone native." Thus, Kirk argues, they might as well forget about scouting new worlds of conquest for their people and settle down to enjoying their new existence-- which is pretty the obverse of the moral of "The Man Trap."