Wednesday, July 29, 2015

For DOCTOR WHO Geeks Only

The Tenth Planet has a formidable reputation in Doctor Who history for just three reasons: First, it introduces the Cybermen to the series. Second, It marks the end of William Hartnell's three-year-plus tenure as The Doctor, and ushers in his replacement, Patrick Troughton. And third -- the fourth and final episode does not exist anymore in any form other than an audio soundtrack, which has made an official DVD release or even a television airing impossible.

Alas, when one finally gets to see it, it does not live up to its reputation. Not even a little bit.

It is bad. It is bad and it is not good. 

Its most dismal failure lies in its function as a send-off for Hartnell. Watching this and the previous serial, "The Smugglers," it is evident that Hartnell is by no means on his last legs ... and that he seems to be trying even harder than usual, as if he's gotten a whiff of a dangerous scent in the air.  This is all the proof I need of Hartnell's later statement that he did not leave the show willingly.

The show at that time had a new producer who was no doubt eager to "prove" himself and "make" his career. He would not be able to accomplish either of those things as long as Hartnell remained on the show. He wanted a change of direction, and he wanted it fast: Hartnell -- as was the same case with Tom Baker years later -- stood in the way of that.

How badly did they want to get rid of Hartnell?

Hartnell doesn't even appear in the third episode. Instead, a double shot only from behind passes out and spends the runtime of the show unconscious. 

This is actually only slightly worse than what they do to Hartnell in the first two episodes. In these, he is kept quite firmly on the sidelines while new companions Ben and Polly do their over-emoting thing. (Ben and Polly have an ignominiously short history on the show, serving only to bridge the two incarnations of The Doctor before being written out as swiftly as they were introduced... and no wonder -- they are bland puddings indeed). 

The story focuses almost entirely on the American military guy who is in command of a North Pole base with an objective that's never clearly stated, but involves astronauts and spacecraft somehow. For three episodes, we are treated to the actor's hackneyed blustering and shouting and bullying and chest-thuumping: and then the character's son goes up in a rocket, and it gets worse from there. 

With literally the fate of the ENTIRE PLANET at stake, this jerk-hole is more concerned about saving his son. And he never lets you forget it. "I'm gonna save my son!" he blusters and shouts again and again.

As for the Cybermen, who certainly do look and sound interesting, their only significant appearance is in episode two -- where they are defeated ridiculously easily and single-handedly by Ben: who beats them by shining a flashlight in their eyes and then picking up the cyber-weapen when it's dropped.

It is bad and it is not good.

Because it hasn't been restored, the whole thing is all the worse for its grainy kinoscope footage and a soundtrack that makes everyone sound like Charlie Brown's teacher.

I'll be watching the final episode tonight, in the form of a fan restoration made using still photos. And although I like and look forward to Pat Troughton's Doctor, and the show would not likely be around today without his taking over the role when he did, still I feel sad not only for the loss of Hartnell, but for the shabby way in which his leaving was accomplished -- on and off the screen.

-- Frede.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Soldiers Feared His Name....

For some, it’s Superman or Batman. Being an old Marvelmaniac, you’d think for me it would be Spider-Man or Doctor Strange or the Fantastic Four or even Howard the Duck — all of whom I love, don’t get me wrong.

But they are not my pick for First Among Pulp Heroes. Not even Popeye or Doc Savage gets that honor in my book. Nope. 

The very first superhero that I ever encountered, and the one that still stands as the Leader of Them All, is Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh.

His modus operandi, smuggling goods from France in order to benefit the poor families along England’s coast, was very much in vein of Robin Hood, but as you might expect The Scarecrow was a good deal spookier in an era where “dark heroes” weren’t a dime a dozen. He was doing the Batman thing long before Batman, doing the Shadow thing long before The Shadow. By day, Doctor Syn was a parish Vicar preaching the bible: by night he was a ruthless smuggler who terrified English soldiers in the guise of The Scarecrow, a devil astride a glowing, fiery horse.

You’d be forgiven to believe that, like Robin Hood, Dr. Syn was an actual folk legend. In fact he was created in 1915 by writer/actor Russell Thorndike — who made the rookie mistake of killing off his hero (in a way that left no room for fudging) in the first book. From then on, through a total of seven novels, Thorndike was limited to writing about Syn’s colorful past. Clearly, at least at the outset, Thorndike did not know what he had … something that also manifests itself in the oblique way that he brushes aside the adventure sequences that should have been his bread and butter. As a pulp novelist, Thorndike was a man with a lot to learn; but then, the whole genre was in its infancy. It would be two years before Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote A Princess of Mars.

I first learned about Dr. Syn on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. Disney had wartime assets that were frozen in England: it was only natural and sensible that he use the money to make movies on British soil with British subjects and all-British cast and crew members. One of these was The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, starring a young Patrick McGoohan in the title role. The Prisoner was not yet even a gleam in McGoohan’s eye.

It was the early sixties. I was no more than four years old. Even though my exposure to Dr. Syn was limited to three successive Sunday Nights in the late summer (and a single re-run a couple of years later) The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh was such exciting viewing that I was still drawing pictures of the character years later, during sixth-grade classes (in school, as elsewhere, I lived in my own little world, my own mental bubble) — long after I had learned about Superman and Batman.

McGoohan gave a robust and virile performance, as you might expect, taking real pleasure at stonewalling pompous officers in his role as the town vicar, then donning rags and an eerie mask and tearing through the night on horseback, cackling like a lunatic. 

It was delightful. 

A few years back the Disney Company at last issued the entire three-part series (along with the recut theatrical movie version) on DVD, and this was one of those very rare occasions where something that I loved as a child not only lived up to my memories of it, but exceeded them. Despite a theme song that’s hokey by today’s standards, the show is pulp adventure at its very best. With its gorgeous (and authentic) locations, its clearly-delineated characters, exceptionally moody photography and top-notch performances all around, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh stakes a fair claim to being an unsung classic of the genre.

So naturally when I learned that there are two other film versions of Doctor Syn’s adventures, I had to track them down. Both are British made. The first, 1937’s Dr. Syn, featuring George Arliss in the title role, is truer to the details of Thorndike’s first novel (although it wisely leaves Syn among the living as the credits roll), but tepid in every other respect. Although it makes an attempt at creating a mood, Syn appears in Scarecrow drag just once, at a distance; meanwhile, the stakes seem remarkably low throughout. Arliss was an old man when he made the picture, which helps nothing. One gets the feeling that it played better in 1937 than it does today.

Hammer filmed the story again in 1962 as Captain Clegg (Night Creatures in the USA), with Peter Cushing as the bizarrely renamed “Doctor Blyss” — presumably this was done to distinguish their film from the Disney version, which was shooting at virtually the same time. The director, Peter Scott, appears to have watched the 1937 film closely, to have structured his version along the same lines and to have lifted its best bits, while inserting Hammer’s typical emphasis on sadism and sex.

It misses the mark by a wide margin. Syn takes an even more passive role in this version, leaving Oliver Reed to do all of the Night Riding, which again is sadly limited and under-played. When Cushing takes a harpoon to the back at the end of the picture (still milder than what happens to Syn in the book), it almost comes as a relief to know that there will be no sequels.

Say what you will about The Walt Disney Company and its many egregious sins against movie-making — but Walt Disney the man was a real showman who instinctively knew how to make pictures that would connect with an audience. He cast the best actors that he could find, employed the best art directors (his version of Syn is much more visually dynamic than any of the others), and was never above taking what worked from a book, and then chucking the rest — as witness Mary Poppins

The three Syn movies are inevitably of a piece: all recognizably the same, yet all wildly different from each other. That the Disney version actually shames the others may or may not prove anything. But by creating a straight-faced and straight-laced adventure yarn about a masked hero that took itself seriously and provided real thrills, Disney succeeded in a genre that defied Hollywood for decades before and since. 

— Freder. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

Cine Round-Up

I like Giant Robots and I like Guillermo Del Toro, so I really wanted to like Pacific Rim; but there’s no getting around it, the movie is a god-awful piece of crap that can’t even be enjoyed on the level of a cartoon, because all of the Robot fights — every single one — take place at night in a monsoon and it’s impossible to see what the heck is going on. Del Toro should be ashamed of himself for getting involved in this thing — it is an astonishing waste of his talent. It does manage to hit Every Single Standard Hollywood Plot Point, and Every Single Tedious Cliche in the book, even giving us a happy romantic ending under conditions where such a thing should have been patently impossible. A couple of the actors — especially Idris Elba — make the best of some deeply hackneyed material, but that doesn’t give me back the two hours of my life that I wasted on this dreck.

On the other hand, Tim Burton (whose visual talent is typically only matched by his inability to tell a story) may have given us his best movie with Big Eyes. No doubt but that Burton has honed his skills since the early days, but I believe that working with a True Story has at last brought him down to earth and into the minds of his characters… at the very least, it’s forced him to reign in some, though not all, of his excesses. Amy Adams gives a supple performance while Cristolph Waltz, who amazed in Terry Gilliam’s Zero Theorem, attacks his role with a knife, fork and relish. If, in the sixties and seventies, you just thought all those paintings of the big-eyed waifs were so tacky that they achieved a kind of greatness, you may be interested to learn that there is a fascinating story behind the art that plays on the themes of dominant and submissive personalities, self-esteem and self-worth, on identity and on the still-changing role of women in our culture. At the same time it plays into all of Burton’s strengths as a champion of pop-art. The final courtroom scene, which like the rest of the movie compresses reality without distorting it, is a triumph. Who would have thought that those tacky paintings would one day make you cheer?

Paperhouse is one of those dark-horse movies that builds its reputation over many years and becomes a classic on video and in the art houses. Today, it’s impossible to find a negative review of the film: I tried. Roger Ebert raved at the time, and now years later his voice is just part of the chorus. And yet, much as I wanted to like this picture with its stark design and its dream-world theme, I found my heart sinking the further I got into it. I did not like the big-eyed waif of a boy in the window of the house: not as a plot element nor as an actor. I did not like the mother. I did not like the script. I especially did not like the little girl in the lead role, who comes off as a brat and a pain in the ass, and who has none of the appeal of, say, Fairuza Balk in Return to Oz (she’s forty-one now? Are you fuckin’ kidding me?!). The “climax” of the movie consists of her running from one side of an island to a lighthouse at the other side… and running, and running, and running, and running, until I finally hit the fast-forward button (but not before shouting at the screen, “Fer crine out loud! Somebody take a pair of scissors to this thing!”). A movie about dreams and their impact on, and connection to reality should not be boring: and I found this to be a real yawner.

A lot of movies by Hayao Miyazaki have passed before my eyeballs in the past few weeks, with more to come, and all I really have to say about them is, “Doesn’t this guy ever make a bad movie?” I don’t think so. Arietty, closely based on Mary Norton’s book The Borrowers although re-set in contemporary Japan, is another gentle, lovely, remarkable picture, essentially co-directed by Miyazaki and his son. What’s especially pleasing about it is the ending, which avoids all the Hollywood cliches and leaves the characters with large and vital unanswered questions, though looking ahead with hopefulness. 

“The Crimson Pig” — Porco Rosso — is still his best movie, though. Just sayin’. It’s the Casablanca  of animated films. 

— Frede. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Cosby Show

For at least one white kid growing up in the 60's with undiagnosed Asperger’s (in fact the diagnosis did not even exist until the early 80’s), Bill Cosby was more than just a cultural phenomenon and one of the coolest guys on TV — he was also kind of a lifesaver.

Cosby was everywhere on TV in the sixties — on his own sitcom, on I SPY, on the Carson show and the Mike Douglas Show doing his stand-up routines — and just by being there, and by being the coolest guy in the room (especially on I SPY, where he was an equal co-star with Bob Culp, not Culp’s “sidekick”) he helped to shatter the cultural barriers that kept our culture lilly-white up to that time. 

He did it all well, but his stand-up was pure genius. When my dad brought home Cosby’s comedy albums in the late sixties, it was a kind of cultural bomb-burst. As a ten-year old kid I didn’t necessarily get all the jokes, or even understand all the words, but I knew it was funny, and I knew that funny opened doors.

It was when my father forced me to go to summer camp that Bill Cosby saved my life. As an Asperger’s kid, I couldn’t talk or interact with other kids the way that normal people do. But I had learned the Cosby routines by heart and I was a skilled mimic even in those days. Summer camp started out really, really bad — but in the end, Bill Cosby’s comedy made me a popular guy around the campfire. 

I knew Cosby was a Big Deal in popular culture, but for saving my life in summer camp, for that I loved him.

Later, as I grew into a young man, shows like Monty Python’s Flying Circus and stars like W.C. Fields and Laurel & Hardy and writers like Faulkner filled out my repertoire. But Cosby could always surface at any time: to this day, when I’m lost in some kind of social interaction, I’ll fall back on a quote from someone to express what I’m feeling. It can be that, or silence. 

So when all the rape accusations started coming out about Cosby… there were so many that they couldn’t be ignored, but I didn’t want to believe them. I never figured him as a saint (he was so very popular and so very cool in the sixties, and that kind of thing, feeling one’s oats in that kind of atmosphere, never results in Marital Fidelity), but still… you never want to believe that your favorite teacher when you were growing up was a child molester, and you never want to believe that your heroes are rapists.

Even as the evidence mounted against him, and he began to look more and more stoic in his public appearances, I just couldn’t believe it about him. It was easier to believe that this was just one more cultural lynching.

Cosby was a Great Man, and Great Men don’t do things like that.

But now it’s come out that he has confessed to it all. We have it from his own mouth. And I’m so sad. This is what he’s going to be remembered for: all of his accomplishments, the fact that he almost single-handedly integrated TV, all this is going to be wiped away. The fact that his comedy helped a white kid with Aspergers get along and get through in this world, it’s like that never even happened. And it can’t be any other way: we can’t excuse what he did, just because he was a “Great Man” in the other parts of his life. I still shake my head and push back the tears and wonder why? Why would he do it?

My Mom had it figured out years and years ago. She said, “Sometimes the smartest men in the world are also the most stupid men in the world when it comes to — some things.”

— Frede.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Doctor is In....

I now have in my Movie & TV library, in one form or another, every episode of the British television series Doctor Who, in its original format. I don’t mean just the hugely popular revived series, going on nine seasons now — no, I was a fan of Doctor Who before it became fashionable. I mean the whole shebang, including the original half-hour series that ran from 1963 through 1989, 813 episodes in all.

For the better part of two weeks, my computer worked 24/7 pulling it down, season by season, from the torrenty dark area of the interwebs. They’re out there, and they are not hard to find if you look in the right places. The season “sets” even include fan-made reconstructions of the missing episodes that were famously and stupidly burned by the BBC pre-1975.

Every. Single. Episode.

I do not feel guilty about getting the bulk of the series free in this way, because when it comes to Doctor Who, I gave at the office. The Beeb has always treated Who as a Cash Cow to be milked dry; on Home Video they have limited the releases (excepting only two seasons) to the individual stories, four to six episode blocks, at a minimum of $20 a pop. Vast swaths of Who can’t be bought at all, and the parts of it that can will put your credit card into the Intensive Care Unit.

My first exposure to the original series happened back in the mid-eighties, when local PBS stations began to air Who in the form of edited compilations, so-called “movie versions” that presented the stories in a way they were never meant to be shown.

You really had to be a fan to appreciate the show in that butchered format. These god-awful “movie versions” were never less than 90 minutes long; some ran in excess of two and a half hours. This had the effect of inflating all of the programme’s shortcomings to a gigantic scale. The cheap effects, the wobbly sets, the sometimes dodgy acting by the guest cast, and worst of all, the pacing… Doctor Who was conceived and structured as a half-hour serial. You wouldn’t take eight episodes of the original Dark Shadows, splice them together and call it a movie — but that’s exactly what the Beeb did to Doctor Who.

When something is presented to you as a movie, you expect it to live up to movie standards. Unlike the modern series, “classic” Doctor Who doesn’t.

It wasn’t until well into the advent of Home Video that I had the opportunity to see the show in its (immensely more digestible) original format — and because the Home Video releases have been so expensive, the greater bulk of Doctor Who is still only known to me from that one viewing, thirty years ago, of those wretched “movie versions.”

One exception to this was the fan-made “reconstructions” of destroyed or missing episodes. This era (happening something like fifteen years ago when VHS was still the standard for Home Video) didn’t last long, but was fun while it lasted.  

Shortly after the discovery that audio recordings and still photographs existed for all of the episodes that the BBC had foolishly destroyed, a number of die-hard Doctor Who fans, working separately and together, assembled new video presentations combining the stills and audio with every scrap of existing footage, some of which was gleaned from sources as interesting as the Australian TV censors! These same fans then put together a free distribution network for their product. You could send them a bunch of blank VHS tapes, and they would dupe their reconstructions onto your tapes and send them back to you. 

This wasn’t just a way to see whole swaths of Doctor Who that I had never seen before. It appealed to me because it was also pure “Our Gang” industry, just a bunch of amateurs doing something for the love of it, to please themselves and benefit other fans. 

Broadband internet and easy DVD creation should have helped these projects; instead they seem to have had the opposite effect. Last year when I tried to replace my VHS copies of the reconstructions, I found that I couldn’t. Perhaps the BBC had stepped in and squashed the effort — this wouldn’t be surprising. Regardless of the reasons, though, the reconstructions suddenly became lost to me again. 

That’s one of the things that changes right now. 

For the first time ever, I get to watch full seasons of the original series in its intended form. Taken in this way, the show is deeper; it sinks in to your subconscious and becomes a part of your life. For me, the William Hartnell years were little more than a blur on my radar: now, nearing the middle of his second season (I started watching with Season Two and plan to view a full season for each Doctor, one after the other, before going back to Hartnell), I see the depth of his performance: there is mystery here, and also a good deal of regret and sadness. The effects and settings sometimes do require you to mentally step back in time, but this is not a bad thing. The stories, though still leisurely by today’s standards, are better paced and have more impact when taken in twenty-four minute installments. And especially if you can successfully travel mentally in time back to 1964, the level of imagination and inventiveness that went into the show can be breathtaking. Was there anything else like it, anything else so imaginative in its day? No, and not even close. It’s easy for someone used to the technical aptitude of the modern Doctor Who series to go back and declare that these early shows look primitive: they do. But in 1963, where else could you find fantasy ideas so eloquent, or a character so rich? Not anywhere on television, certainly. Not anywhere in Time or Space.

— Freder.
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