Monday, July 23, 2007

1.32 "A Passage for Trumpet"

Season One, Episode Thirty-Two

Written by: Rod Serling
Directed by: Don Medford

Loosely reminiscent of Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend in its opening scene, with its cracklingly poetic dialogue—just with a horn player instead of a writer—A Passage for Trumpet has Jack Klugman, the finest actor The Twilight Zone would ever feature—and they would feature him four times—playing a trumpet player and a drunk, an "urban loser" as Marc Scott Zicree calls him, an archetype to which Klugman would often return. (See, A Game of Pool, in which Klugman plays a similar character.) Beautiful in script and especially in execution, A Passage for Trumpet is the finest episode of The Twilight Zone I've come across so far during this project. Without a narrative anymore supernatural or science-fictional than It's a Wonderful Life, its relatively slight story about the value of life may not be as effective or devastating as Capra's classic film, but for a half-hour television spot it comes as close as it could reasonably be expected to. Indeed, A Passage for Trumpet's biggest flaw is that it's too short for its own subject matter; cinematographer George Clemens, responsible for the episode's artfully noirish chiaroscuro, said that during shooting the episode was shaping up to be an hour long, but unfortunately they couldn't convince the network or producers either to let them make a two part episode or to get them an hour-long slot to show it in; thus, only a presumably truncated version of the episode survives. But, like Greed or The Magnificent Ambersons, it's nevertheless a masterpiece in its own right. (Whether they actually shot an entire hour's worth and then had to edit it down, I don't know, but even if that wasn't the case we could say it suffered from "pre-production truncation".)

Klugman can't get a gig because he's always drunk and mucking up the tunes with his inebriated, atonal lines. (Was Schoenberg drunk when he developed the 12 tone system, inspired by Alcoholics Anonymous' twelve steps?) Why'd he throw his life away for some "bad hooch"? an erstwhile colleague asks. "Because I'm sad," Klugman says with an affectingly rueful smile, in one of the greatest line deliveries I've ever heard. Pawning his horn and despising himself, Klugman decides to end it all by leaping in front of a truck. He awakens hours later on the curb, like a run of the mill wino, as an invisible man, believing himself to be a ghost and noting that his suicide was the only success he's had in years. In reality, he's caught in a limbo between the real and the shadow, about to be taught a lesson; this is, after all, The Twilight Zone. He goes to the alley behind his old jazz club to soak up some swing when he hears some randy brass blues blowing nearby. On inspection, the blower is the Archangel Gabriel, hipply calling himself "Gabe" and pointing out he knows a thing or two about horns, man; ordinarily, hearing Gabriel blow his horn isn't a good sign, but it turns out he's not here to commence the Apocalypse, just to help Klugman remember the great aspects of life, and to give him the chance to live again, with a warning not to let his talent go to waste. "The bugle and me, till death do us part!" Klugman enthusiastically promises. The whole sequence is a little flat, as Klugman comes to realize all the wonders life has to offer—movies, friends, beautiful music—rather quickly for someone who five minutes ago had the conviction to off himself. The quick sum-up and narrative turn is a bit stilted and uninspired, the equivalent of Greed's title cards that sum up entire lost reels, demonstrating that Clemens was certainly correct when he said that the episode should've run for sixty minutes.

But A Passage for Trumpet brushes off the setback and rebounds with a beautifully simple scene in which Klugman, honking out the blues on his New York rooftop, meets a nice young girl who's new to town. Heartwarming without being hokey, A Passage for Trumpet has a message even for those among us who aren't a setback away from leaping into oncoming traffic; as Serling notes in the closing narration, "[life] can be rich and rewarding and full of beauty...if a person would only pause to look and to listen." It's a cornpone sentiment that's tough, on film, to sell convincingly, but A Passage for Trumpet succeeds in closing the sale, thanks in large part to Klugman's magnificently nuanced performance. While Klugman wanders his limbo to learn his lesson, Gabriel reports that those who can't see him, and not he himself, are the ghosts, the waking, walking dead, suggesting that, save for a conscious few, most of us are numbed in miserable complacency, unable to recognize the beauty (and truly talented, like Serling?) around us. A Passage for Trumpet encourages us to stop, smell the roses and live a little; so play some music, fall in love. Come on you scamps, get up you sinners (you're all too full of expensive dinners?), stand up on your lazy feet and sing! And blow, Klugman, blow!

For Netflix Purposes:
On Disc 4 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVDs.

3.15 "A Quality of Mercy"

Season Three, Episode Fifteen

Written by: Rod Serling
Directed by: Buzz Kulik

Pedantically taking its name from a line in The Merchant of Venice, A Quality of Mercy is an ineffective anti-war episode that, for all its brotherhood of man ideals, is detrimentally gimmicky, not to mention dated in its (unconscious?) racism. Set during WWII, Dean Stockwell is a gung-ho, cutthroat lieutenant in the American army who is sent to take command of a war-weary regimen bunkered down in the Philippines. The war is winding down, in its "last grimy pages," as Serling says in narration, and the Americans are restively watching a cave that's housing a group of sick and dying Japanese soldiers. The Americans want to bypass the cave when they move on, seeing an attack as cruel and unusual, but Stockwell won't have it. "We're gonna kill Japs, that's my job!" he shouts, berating his fellow Americans for what he sees as their cowardice, their having gone soft. "You talk like this is a football game," Albert Salmi's compassionate sergeant tells the odious Stockwell, "but this isn't a football game."

There are many more examples of that kind of popping, animated exchange in the opening scenes set in the American camp:
"They're Japs," says Stockwell.
"They're men!" answers Salmi. Or:
"How many men have to die before you're satisfied?"
"All of 'em!"

But Stockwell's lieutenant, in his bloodthirst, is a little cartoonish, though Stockwell restrains himself and avoids chewing the scenery. Serling's writing, however, is not so understated; Stockwell, through unspecified magic, is transported three years into the past if it weren't enough to transport a man through time, I think he's turning Japanese, I really think so! Using Finian's Rainbow's ham-fisted theatrical conceit (but this time not played, at least intentionally, for laughs), Stockwell, now somehow Japanese, is forced to literally see the world, and specifically the war, through his enemy's eyes. A Quality of Mercy repeats its first half, nearly word for word, as Stockwell finds the Japanese in an analogous situation to the one he found himself in previously: in preparations for mopping up a cavebound group of wounded Americans. This time, Japanese lieutenant Dale Ishimoto plays the Stockwell part, leading the ruthless massacre, while Stockwell, in yellowface, finds himself playing the Salmi role of merciful dissenter. Oh, now he understands that men are still men, even in war, and that murdering the enemy is nothing to revel in, nor does it make you more of a man. (Too bad Truman didn't learn the same lesson, as the episode ends with Stockwell back on the American side as reports from Hiroshima come in.) I can appreciate Serling's misoguerric sentiments, but not the pompous script or silly execution, including, despite its noble intentions, a Mickey Rooney turn from Stockwell. Despite an affecting final few moments, like Stockwell's Japanese accent A Quality of Mercy is a bit too ridickerous.

For Netflix Purposes:
On Disc 13 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVDs.

Monday, July 16, 2007

3.13 "Once Upon a Time"

Season Three, Episode Thirteen

Written by: Richard Matheson
Directed by: Norman Z. McLeod

A cute critique of political reactionism, Once Upon a Time is one of the few, if the only, straight-up Twilight Zone comedies, featuring the consummate comedian Buster Keaton, his famously stony visage now marked by conspicuous wrinkles. Bookended by two sequences of clever silent-film pastiche—complete with title cards and a brilliant piano score by William Lava—the episode finds Keaton, playing a scientist's janitor, disgusted by the degradation of his decade, the 1890's—the noise, the expense, the prurience and the hustle and bustle. (He's up-ended by a high-wheel bicycle moving at the absurdly rapid speed limit of eight miles per hour!) Finding a time-machine helmet in his master's laboratory, he decides to visit what he imagines must be the peaceful utopia of the future, and travels to 1960, where he finds himself in the middle of automobile traffic, a future immediately recognized as far worse than the past marked by its old-time bikes. The episode's sound returns as the din of shouts and traffic horns deafen, while Keaton takes in his noticeably more expensive and salacious surroundings.

Written by Richard Matheson, who would later insist that his original script was much funnier, and directed by Norman Z. McLeod, who in his heyday had directed many of post-silent cinema's classic crackerjack comedians (the Marx Bros., W.C. Fields, Danny Kaye), Once Upon a Time must surely be the last traditional silent film produced in America. Plottily thin, it's essentially an ode to Buster Keaton and his silent comedies of yore, and welcomely it eschews sentimentality, choosing instead to pay tribute to his masterful oeuvre with solid work in turn. It's certainly not Keaton's most hilarious or inventive turn, but it's strong nevertheless, full of prop-humor yuks, as Keaton attempts to accustom himself to the gadgetry of the post-war era, and time-honored physical gags; a sequence in the middle, in which his newfound friend of the future (Stanley Adams) helps a pantsless Keaton evade a trailing policeman is classic Keaton and, though brief, makes the episode worth seeing, at least for fans. Keaton's a marvelous casting choice, not only for his deft comic timing but because he works exceptionally well as a fish-out-of-water in the modern world, as his character ought; it's alarming for the audience to discover that not only is Buster Keaton alive, but he has the ability to speak.

Adams, however, is dreadfully miscast and despoils the episode's charm, moreso than the oft-blamed—this isn't a particularly popular episode—dragging middle sequences at a repair shop, which were filmed weeks after wrap by a different director, Les Goodwin. Adams' gestural, exaggerated performance seems to belong more to the silent era; despite the fact that's he's meant to be an avatar of modernity, he comes across as though he'd be more at home in the 1890's than even Keaton.

Keaton can't wait to get back his temporal home, and at last Adams declares his intentions to accompany him, yearning for "those halcyon days". But his imagined past is as misguided as Keaton's imagined future, and when Adams arrives in 1890, he's soon at his wit's end—there are no comfortable mattresses, electronic devices, and so on; hell, there isn't even any sound or color! Keaton, sick of his whining, pops the helmet on his head and sends him home, as Serling reminds the viewer to "stay in your own backyard...and if possible, assist others to stay in theirs." It's a pointed attack on American conservatives, who to this day are still advocating for a return to the "good old days", a return to the mythical American past. It seems every generation has a tendency to romanticize the ones before it, without realizing how tethered they are to their own place in time nor how the past was not actually as they imagine it to have been. But casting Keaton gives the film another subtext, serving to point out his obsolescence in modern film culture specifically and, on a greater scale, to demonstrate just how much the world has changed; Keaton, who struggled to find work after the pictures learned to talk, just doesn't belong among us anymore. Mourn it if you choose, but Once Upon a Time plays it for laughs.

For Netflix purposes:
On Vol. 10 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVD Collection.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

3.05 "A Game of Pool"

Season Three, Episode Five

Written by: George Clayton Johnson
Directed by: Buzz Kulik

The writer stares at a blank page, frustrated that his prose might never dig as deeply into the heart as Agee's, or that his poetry not dig into the soul like Shakespeare's, and decides to either give up writing altogether or at least take another drink. The whisky boiling in his veins, he musters to courage to decide that even if he could be great, the best, he wouldn't want it anyway! Because, hey yeah, being the best is actually a curse! Uh, uh, yeah, yeah, it would be Hell!

Such a scene, one imagines, describes how George Clayton Johnson began writing his teleplay for A Game of Pool, an exploration into the nature of the quest for greatness, whether in art, business, politics or, specifically to the episode, pool. Jack Klugman plays a master cuesman, introduced ranting and raving in a sadly empty pool hall about how great he is, underappreciated too, and begging for one game against the champ that overshadows him, Fats Brown—who's, inconveniently, dead—to prove his talent. Of course, in the twilight zone, such wishes always tend to come true, and in no time Fats (Jonathan Winters, just fine) arrives, custom cue in tow, ready to give him that game. But the stakes? Life and death.

Although it's hard to imagine death as being such an adventurous wager when the appearance of a ghost has essentially proved the existence of an afterlife. But I suppose that's really neither here nor there; they play a long game during which plenty of philosophical subjects are briefly addressed; being a George Clayton Johnson episode (Nothing in the Dark, Kick the Can) there's plenty of talk about death and mortality, but the episode's central focus is on the meaning of life. "There's more to life than this pool hall," Fats advises, reproaching Klugman for having spent his entire life cooped up in that Randolph Street basement; as Klugman admits, it's been years since he went out with a girl or to a movie (incidentally, two of my favorite things to do!) The price of training for greatness has, for Klugman, who gives a marvelously bitter, insecure and desperate performance, been at the expense of what makes life worth living; in the figurative sense, he is already dead, so why not bet his life on a game?

Particularly since we've already seen, in the shot that introduces Fat, knocking the balls around up in the clouds, that Heaven has a pool table. The "game", which is actually a long series of many individual rounds (a point per ball in a three hundred point game), comes down to a single ball; it's Fats' shot, and he seems to fudge it intentionally, handing Klugman the victory by leaving him with an easy pocket-hanger. Klugman is warned that he "might win more than he bargained for"; he ignores it, but the exhortatory portent comes to pass: now the cosmic billiards champion, though no one is present to see it, Klugman is left as he was at the episode's beginning—entirely alone, talking to the walls and the hanging portraits. For Fats, the loss is liberating, and, as Serling lets us know in the closing narration, he has gone fishing. (In heaven?) Klugman, however, is bound to take over Fats' undesirable old job (after his death, presumably years later), to forever protect his title against all the young chumps begging for a game against the best.

Being the champion, according to A Game of Pool, isn't all that it's cracked up to be; in fact, as Fats mentions in the dialogue during the game, people need champions more than they need to be them so that they have something superior to measure themselves against, something to inspire them to work harder. (Sounds like capitalist propaganda!) But according to Marc Scott Zicree's The Twilight Zone Companion, an essential resource for any fan and particularly this project, the televised ending was not Johnson's; in his original finale, which he preferred, Klugman loses the game and Fats, rather than take his life, damns him to an existence of more vain practice and, finally, death in meaningless obscurity. "If you'd beaten me," Fats gloats in the unfilmed script, "you'd have lived forever." Philosophically it's a tremendously different ending, and not just a small matter of taste as Zicree suggests, that would require a good deal of alteration in the tautly scripted episode, thusly making it difficult to know for sure what parts of the script ought to actually be ascribed to Johnson. His ending is much harsher than the one that aired in which, though Klugman is sympathetically damned (in heaven?), the audience has been freed to not worry so much about being the best bar none, just the best you can be. Anyhow, as it often works out, today's mediocrity is tomorrow's legend.

But for Johnson, according to his original, unaltered script, being the best really is all that it's cracked-up to be. "There are certain satisfactions" to being the best, Fats admits during the game, to having your picture on the wall of Clancy's Poolroom. After the writer's rant regarding the undesirability of supremacy, his confidence wanes, and he slumps at the desk. All I want, he moans, is to be remembered in greatness. As it stands, George Clayton Johnson, talent though he was, has merely, regrettably faded away.

For Netflix purposes:
On Vol. 3 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVD Collection.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

3.09 "Deaths-Head Revisited"

Season Three, Episode Nine

Written by: Rod Serling
Directed by: Don Milford

Wrathful and plaintive, vicious and humanistic, Deaths-Head Revisited (the title is a rather dark and coarse play on the title of Evelyn Waugh's famous comic novel), is, specifically, a pointed and poetic assessment of Nazi barbarism during World War Two, but also an examination of war in general, using the Holocaust symbolically as simply the most egregious example of modern warfare; that is, the episode's sympathy for the victims of war does not stop at European Jews. Porcine, in stature and in character, and gleeful, erstwhile Nazi officer Captain Lutze (Oscar Beregi), alias Herr Schmidt, takes a trip to das Vaterland from his safe South American hideout, a nostalgic vacation down memory lane; he visits, specifically, Dachau, the quaintly, charmingly scenic town now synonymous with human cruelty, where he was once stationed in his days as a merciless officer. (The episode is notable not least for its set design, a recreation of a concentration camp that, for low-budget television, is surprisingly palpable.) Feeling no shame, guilt or remorse, he wanders the grounds, enthusiastically re-envisioning the horrors he inflicted there; hallucinated corpses appear, for a moment, hanging from dusty gallows, and Lutze shows hints of a satisfied grin. Ah, the good old days.

Soon, however, the flashbacks take on a tactile nature; Lutze's memories are anthropomorphized in the form of a former inmate, Becker (Joseph Schildkraut), who appears to the erstwhile captain in ghost-form. Lutze mistakes him for the grounds' living caretaker; in a way, Becker acknowledges, he is—minus the "living" part. Becker proceeds to berate Lutze with effusive, accusatory speeches that in the hands of a lesser actor would've descended into pretentious speechifying; here, they sting, and director Don Milford knows how to keep the nightmare afloat: without spatial consistency, as in the logic of a (bad) dream, Lutze is transported around the camp and into the old barracks where he is confronted by a ghostly pack of former inmates. Seen in large groups and in canted angles, dressed in white against black backgrounds, they pose an awfully frightening image, even for me and I had nothing to do, personally, with National Socialism or the Final Solution. For Lutze it proves to be unbearable; he is driven mad by the overwhelming guilt, both personal and legal, handed-down to him by his spectral victims/judges, who, following the "fair trial" they have the decency to give him (while he is unconscious), cosmically sentence him to insanity. Though it claims otherwise—"this is not hatred," Becker explains, "it is retribution. This is not revenge, it is justice"—Serling's script is vicious and vengeance-minded, though not unduly so.

Broadcast during the Adolph Eichmann trial, Deaths-Head Revisited offers a scoffingly sharp rebuke of the "Nuremberg" defense that was Eichmann's mode of exculpatory apologia, as it was for many of the captured and tried post-war Nazis. "I was a soldier," Lutze declares in passionate defense. "You were a sadist," Becker counters as the howls of Lutze's victims bellow in the background. The ghosts of war's victims can never be put to rest, placated and sent away; they are a permanent fixture on the cultural and psychological landscape of the world we've wrought with constant combat. Deaths-Head Revisited works well on a very specific and literal level, but it also hints at a commentary on the essential nature of soldierhood, that war never has the benefit of moral clarity or justifiability, and soldiers rarely have the opportunity to exercise the power of their consciences.

When Becker levels charges at Lutze for killing and torturing not only men but women, children and infants, it evokes, in my modern mind, thoughts of Vietnam's My Lai massacre, and though that atrocity succeeded Deaths-Head... by eight years, the horrific violence of the War in Southeast Asia couldn't have been far from Serling's mind, as the Vietnam War is a frequently recurring subtext in The Twilight Zone. Serling closes-out the episode with one of his most moving final narrations, which explicitly, and uncharacteristically, announces the episode's moral in relation to the real world:

"...All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes—all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers. Something to dwell on and to remember, not only in the Twilight Zone but wherever men walk God's Earth."

Of course men turning the earth into a graveyard has hardly stopped in the decades since the Second World War, nor was it particularly new to the Nazis, and Deaths-Head Revisited is all the more effective, and devastating, for its apparent timelessness.

For Netflix purposes:
On Vol. 6 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVD Collection.

Monday, July 9, 2007

2.28 "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?"

Season Two, Episode Twenty Eight

Written by: Rod Serling
Directed by: Montgomery Pittman

"Is this a diner or Gestapo headquarters?" a fussy old man (John Hoyt) righteously asks, in the middle of Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?, from his seat in the Hi-Way cafe, a roadside greasy spoon where the passengers of a bus to Boston have become temporarily stranded during a snowstorm. The seven passengers and their driver have become the subjects of an interrogation from the local sheriff's department, who're investigating a suspicious unidentified flying object that landed in nearby Hook's Landing, and had a set of footprints leading up to the restaurant. While the driver insists there were only six passengers on his beaten-up old bus, seven now inhabit the diner, and no one is sure who wasn't originally one of them. "One of them didn't get off the bus!" the dim-witted driver declares, stating the obvious.

"They have to find a Martian in a diner," Serling, rather nicely, sums it up in the opening narration, comparing it somewhat hyperbolically to finding a needle in a haystack. It's like a "regular Ray Bradbury!" a batty old man (Jack Elam, gleefully turning the enthusiasm up to eleven) playfully shouts, his hirsute bummery allowing him to function as the obvious decoy, distracting the audience from who may be the real Martian. Elam gives a notably wall-climbing performance, and there are more than a few reaction shots of fellow diners chuckling at his antics. Otherwise, however, the mutual suspicion begins to drive the gang apart, even established couples as they question whether or not their spouses are really their spouses. "Didn't you used to have a mole on your chin?" a young bride asks her offended husband. There's some potential for subtle McCarthyism critiques here, but ultimately the episode abandons what was done much better in The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street and settles for letting the Martian, whoever it may be, have a heck of a time, as he (or she) presumably uses his or her outerspace powers of telekinesis to make the sugar tins explode and—more than once—suddenly turn on the jukebox and flicker the lights off and on.

Once the storm clears and the bridge is finally declared safe for passage, the policemen let the passengers move on. "[You] can't hold someone on suspicion of being a monster," one declares, offering up a fine civics lesson. But Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? (the title's a clever spin on the catch phrase, popular at the time, from the game-show To Tell the Truth) is not content to stop at a mere civics lesson; while it's an absorbing mystery with a slick twist—and exceptional character development for a twenty-two minute television episode—it ultimately proves, uncharacteristically, rather politically conservative. Without spoiling the surprise, though time will have spoiled it for most, Serling suggests, metaphorically speaking, that not only are there Communists in the State Department, but there are Jihadists there as well. The boogeymen are not only real, and already here, but there are multiple groups of them, competing to be responsible for our destruction. As that doesn't sound like Serling, it seems he opted to ignore political subtext here for good science fiction storytelling; it makes the episode memorable but, ultimately, not exactly exceptional.

For Netflix purposes:
On Vol. 41 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVD Collection.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

3.14 "Five Characters in Search of an Exit"

Season Three, Episode Fourteen

Written by: Rod Serling
Directed by: Lamont Johnson

Five Characters in Search of an Exit is one of the most incredibly silly episodes of The Twilight Zone, even though the eponymous characters, for the most part, act very seriously throughout, and its plot description sounds like the set-up of a bad joke: a clown, a ballerina, a hobo, a bagpipe player and a military officer find themselves inhabiting a tall cylinder, rather than walking into a bar, with no memories of who they are or how they got there. It's an intriguingly simple and mysterious premise, and the episode plays out as one of the series' most self-conscious and autocritical; as the audience watches and begins to hypothesizing as to what might be going on, the characters join in as well, ticking off the various theories, including the obvious and the more complex, and quickly dismissing them, frustrating the audience by relentlessly teasing them as their attempts to make sense of the episode are smarmily discarded by a playful Serling. "We don't actually exist"; "we're characters in a dream"; "we're on a spaceship"; etc. until the clown declares there can be no other reasonable explanation other than that they are in Hell.

I suppose he's not too far off; the suspense builds right up until the end (although like many episodes of The Twilight Zone it'd be more effective, particularly on repeated viewings, at an abbreviated running time) as the newly arrived officer, played with desperation by the notable William Windom, passionately inspires his resigned fellow prisoners to attempt escape; they stand on one another's shoulders, and when Windom finally gets over the canister top, he slips and falls into a mound of snow. It's revealed that they are all dolls, thus their cartoonish archetypes, inhabiting a charity toy collection drive barrel. Oh. I guess you could argue the episode is a metaphor for the way that human beings find themselves trapped in a prison of their own complacency, how our world is a narrow loveless hell populated by people defined by nothing more than their profession, but it's hard to shake the feeling that this isn't anything more than a half-assed concept Serling got while staggering home drunk past a bell-ringing Salvation Army major. It's cleverly done, but deliberately so absurd as to surprise even the most hardened Twilight Zone veteran that the twist feals cheap and unduly snarky.

For Netflix purposes:
On Vol. 21 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVDs.

2.06 "The Eye of the Beholder"

Season Two, Episode Six

Written by: Rod Serling
Directed by: Douglas Heyes

The Eye of the Beholder, as in where beauty is, is one of The Twilight Zone's most well-known and beloved episodes, and not without good reason; it's well-written, impressively executed, and packs a legendary twist, even though on repeated viewings it can be a bit tiresome—just take those damn bandages off already! While ostensibly it's a simple fable, an allegorical reaffirmation of the old adage's veracity, it plays out more as a thinly-veiled critique of American racism, specifically the policies, in certain quarters, of segregation.

Janet Tyler (the voice of Maxine Stuart, later the body of Donna Douglas) is introduced with her face wrapped entirely in bandages, and she remains obscured in this manner for the bulk of the episode, a formidable acting challenge that the lovely-voiced Stuart handles finely with Olivierian gesturing. She's lying in a hospital bed, where she has received "injections" meant to alter her appearance; we learn from the dialogue that she is hideously ugly (one nurse histrionically declares if she had the patient's face she would, "go bury herself in a grave somewhere") in a fictional and assumedly futuristic society that won't tolerate such physical aberrations. If the injections haven't taken this time—this is her ninth attempt—then she is likely to be shipped-off to live with other people as ugly as she. Though, at least while in public, the nosocomial staff argues that this is awfully generous of the State, Tyler protests, apostatically shouting, "the State is not God!" and insisting they have no right to cut her off from ordinary society and the sweet smell of garden flowers.

While the phrase "the State" sounds like Communist argot and may hint at Cold War patriotism, enough to trick the censors, it's ultimately misleading and the phrase is better understood with an "s" at the end, as in those United; similarly, though the appearance of "the Leader" on ubiquitous television screens during the finale hint at fascism, and Hitler specifically in the speeches about the need for homogenous appearance (akin to racial purity), it's clearly meant to bring to mind the ranting of racist Southern politicians, namely the rhetoric of certain Senators and governors and thusly, exaggeratedly, likening Strom Thurmond to Das Fuhrer. Aired in 1960 in the midst of the struggle for Civil Rights in America—six years after Brown v. Board of Ed and four years before the Civil Rights Act on the one hand and George Wallace's presidential candidacy on the other—The Eye of the Beholder functions as a cautionary tale about the character of Dixiecrat domination, about the inevitable consequences of segregationist policy—a profoundly unjust world of arbitrary distinction, as demeaning to the US Constitution as a George W. Bush presidency. The episode's original title, A Private World of Darkness (which still appears at the end of the version in syndication) takes on a weighty double meaning when "darkness" is understood as a description of the color of one's skin.

When Janet's bandages are finally removed—slowly and with unbearable suspense in a nearly five minute sequence—it's revealed that she is in fact Donna Douglas, an undeniable beauty, and the self-declared "normal" doctors are mutilated monstrosities, porcine-faced deformities by our usual human standards. (Credit is due to the episode's careful choreography under director Douglas Heyes, who cleverly bathes the episode in shadows and successfully prevents the great revelation until the very end.) As in another episode, The Masks—except here on a cultural, rather than just an individual, level—the characters' subficial ugliness of character is determinatively manifest right on their faces.

For Netflix purposes:
On Vol. 43 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVDs.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

5.02 "Steel"

Season Five, Episode 2

Written by: Richard Matheson
Directed by: Don Weis

An inventive take—as though, from The Twilight Zone, you would expect anything less—on the John Henry legend, Steel opens on a bustling small-town street, where a Greyhound bus is pulling up. Two men, "Steel" Kelly (Lee Marvin) and Pole (Joe Mantell) disembark wheeling what looks like a restrained, Hannibal Lechter style, mental patient. Upon closer inspection it resembles, perhaps, a wrapped-up mannequin, but whatever it is it's creepy as hell; the obvious elephant in the room, writer Richard Matheson takes his sweet time addressing it, and no passersby or fellow bar patrons—the two men have stopped off for a top off—acknowledge that anything might be out of the ordinary.

Kelly and Pole bicker like an old married couple, a spirit of combativity that continues throughout the entire episode. These are two men obviously together a long time, deeply in love, platonically, but buckling under the pressure of their dire straits. After a drawn-out, snarkily cryptic conversation about a need for parts and repairs, a bit more becomes clear—Kelly is a "manager", Pole is a mechanic, and the neatly wrapped-up mystery man is a robotic pugilist, or more accurately an android, as Serling corrects in the opening voice-over. The year is 1974 (the episode was broadcast in 1963) and boxing matches between two lumps of living flesh has been outlawed since 1968, when the expression "fists of steel" went from figurative to literal. Pole and Kelly have an outmoded B2 roboboxing model, by the memorable name of Battling Maxo, and have traveled from the East (Philly) to the West, Nowheresville to be exact, aka the fictional town of Maynard, Kansas, for just about the only bout they can book. No one's battled anything less than a B4 in years, they're told—as if they didn't already know!—but with Kelly's passionate commitment to their fighter and Pole's passionate commitment to Kelly, they prepare for a battle with a vastly superior B7.

Not only are they lugging around an inferior model, though, but it's in desperate need of repairs and new parts, which they can't procure, if they could even afford them, since nobody uses B2s anymore. (Akin to my trouble finding a typewriter ribbon, I suppose.) Kelly, though, is foolhardily fixed on going through with the fight; Matheson's script, in a consequence of the medium's prescribed brevity, largely underplays Kelly's motivations, but Marvin picks up the slack, three-dimensionalizing the character by delivering a moving show of desperation and a sympathetic, regretful understanding of his own obsolescence; Kelly, as he explains in a movingly pathetic scene, used to be, back in the day, a blood-and-bones boxer, and they nicknamed him Steel because he never got knocked down, no not once. Replaced by machines, like many a worker, Kelly finds himself with nothing to do but wheel around a hunk of metal as outdated as himself. He tries to brag about his glory days to the manager of the stadium and his money-counter, but they never heard of him and they could care less—they've got work to do and cigars to chew—and Marvin is reduced to just another sad, rambling old man, the sort that should've been washed away years ago and now wanders an earth wherein he no longer belongs.

So he slunks off with Pole, since they've got some work of their own to do, like getting Battling Maxo (love that name!) ready for the fight. "We got ourselves a piece of dead iron here," Pole insists, trying to drive home a point that Kelly just won't acknowledge—the robot needs repairs and he can't fight. But Kelly insists they'll go through with the fight, and then be able to use the money they make to not only get back on their feet, but to get Maxo back on his feet, too; in a symbol of his deteriorating state, a wheel on his right foot keeps popping off. After a few minutes of preparatory sparring, a spring pops loose from Ol' Maxo and leaves the two men with nothing but a busted and irreparable robot. Kelly refuses to believe they can't get the parts until Pole finally breaks down screaming. "Dontcha understand?" he pleads with the monomaniacal Kelly, "they don't make 'em anymore!"

Well, that's that then, I guess. So, whatta you wanna do tonight, Kelly? But rather than offer the familiar, "I don't know whatta you wanna do?" Kelly madly decides that he'll fight, in defiance of the law. "You'll get killed!" Pole protests, to which Kelly replies, cool as a cucumber in a moment of suicidal fanaticism, "then I will." Kelly needs the money, but he also needs to prove to himself that he's still "got it in him", so to speak, that not even a machine could knock down the super man they called Steel. Moreso, he needs to prove to himself he's not as broken down as that feeble machine, that he still matters. So, unbeknownst to the crowd and owners, it'll be "Steel" vs. steel in an allegorical supermatch; as the children will sing, Steel Kelly, Steel Kelly was a steel-punchin' man, Steel Kelly was a steel-punchin' man, man, man...Kelly, painted-up to look palely mechanical, is of course nearly beaten to death by his opponent, the soulless automaton, after about only two minutes of fighting; watching that supergadget bear down on that poor man, his humanity oozing out of his face in dark red puddles, is heartbreaking if not terrifying, as the robot's emotionless rubber-face and Stepford eyes (halved Ping Pong balls, painted black) are the stuff of nightmares. (And Van Cleave's deliriously atmospheric score, from darkly swinging jazz to frenetic string lines, only makes it creepier.) The crowd jeers, "get that pile of junk outta here!" and though they think they're gibing a robot, their characterization is apt. Kelly's in over his head; he's just an old piece of junk.

The man who never fell has been felled, proving, in the general sense, that even the strongest man can't compete with the strongest machine; in a more specific sense, Kelly has realized he's licked...this time, at least. Pole wheels him back to the locker room, where he immediately and dramatically collapses to the floor. "Did you get the money?" Kelly eventually manages to muster through his broken, bloodied teeth. Only half, Pole admits; after all, he only went one round instead of the agreed-upon six. Kelly protests but Pole quashes it; forget it, Kelly, it's Maynard, Kansas. While Matheson's script points towards a tragic defeat of man by machines and, by implication, of age by youth, Serling offers a glimmer of hope in his closing narration; though he points out the tale is "proof positive that you can't outpunch machinery," he offers an inspirational caveat: "proof also of something else: that no matter what the future brings, man's capacity to rise to the occasion will remain unaltered. His potential for tenacity and optimism continues, as always, to outfight, outpoint and outlive any and all changes made by his society." Kelly may not be dancing around the ring—he may be a broken hunk of Steel rather than gloating over one—but hey, he's still alive and he's got $250 to show for it. Men can do one thing that popped-spring machines and mere boys can't do, and that's to keep on keeping on.

For Netflix purposes:
On Vol. 3 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVDs.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

3.21 "Kick the Can"

Season 3, Episode 21

Directed by: Lamont Johnson
Written by: George Clayton Johnson

George Clayton Johnson was wise beyond his years, spending the early '60s—when he was only in his thirties—writing a string of moving and mature teleplays on the nature of aging and death; indeed, the first story he ever sold was entitled, "All of Us Are Dying", a blunt statement that just about sums up the mortality-obsessed worldview expressed in his writings. His first episode of The Twilight Zone's third season, Nothing in the Dark, deals with an elderly woman's coming to terms with her own imminent demise, but frankly, though sweet, it's a tad cloying in the way it plays out. (Read our review of it here.) His next episode, Kick the Can, threatens to succumb to the same sort of sappiness, but through a last minute reversal of tone it becomes an effectively tragic tale about loneliness and the forsaken character of old age.

Charles (Ernest Truex, fiesty) may have a bed at Sunnyvale Rest on Tranquility Lane, but he doesn't quite live there, if you know what I mean. Surrounded by zonked-out, senile and half-blind droolers, he still has a spunk about him and an unwillingness to go gently into that good twilight of soup and half-a-sandwich lunches. Against the backdrop of stationary senescents that opens the episode, tow-headed kids are seen playing the children's classic kick-the-can. Charles spots their can and selfishly steals it, against the protests of the children. "Hey mister, that's our can, we're playing with it," one pleads, but Charles, gripping it madly with a far away look in his eyes, is completely oblivious to his imploration.

That's because he's suddenly too preoccupied with pondering the nature of age. Is age an effect of time, or is it merely a state of mind? Charles is fascinated by the idea that the Fountain of Youth might be just a way of thinking, but his cantankerous roommate and lifelong pal Ben (Russell Collins) wants no talk of such silliness. He peers out the window, crotchetily complaining about those dang noisy kids, loud enough to "wake the dead", or at least just the elderly fusspots near death living at the home. Charles is more forgiving, admiring their sense of play and remarking, in reference to the retirement home's grounds, "kids can't resist going where the grass is." (Certainly a cleverly subtle joke from well-known marijuana-legalization advocate Johnson.)

In contrast to the playing children, Charles' fellow septua- and octo-genarian housemates are nothing but "vegetables on a porch", seemingly unflappable until something happens—then they're all nosy and crabby commentators in typical senior citizen fashion. "Let him drown himself if he wants," one remarks of Charles as he dances in a sprinkler.

"We all get old," is the repeated, defeatist refrain that Charles just cannot accept; he becomes convinced that the secret to juvenescence is in play, and that a game of kick-the-can will restore their youth. "[But] I can't play kick the can alone!" he entreats his fellow residents, with a fervor on par with Howard Beale. "Wake up! This is your last chance!" Or, "I want you to get up, and go to your windows, and shout, 'I'm old as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!'"

Preceding this outburst is a rather touching scene as the old timers discuss the changes that accompany old age. "It's the running I miss the most," one remarks, to which another woman agrees. This coaxed-out spirit of mournful melancholy is what ultimately inspires all the seniors to finally agree to play Charles' game. All but Old Ben, that is, who wants nothing to do with it; Ben won't go because, as Charles asserts, he's afraid—afraid to look foolish, afraid to make a mistake; Johnson, playing up a prominent theme from Nothing in the Dark, is saying that it's not only a surrendering-to-the-inevitable mindset that makes people "old", but that it's a driving sense of fear, the sort that adults of any age often feel and what ultimately separates them from their youthful counterparts. Eventually, Ben rouses the home's president, played by notable character actor John Marley (who got a bedful of horse's head in The Godfather), and asks him to put a stop to this foolishness.

Of course, when they get outside there are no old folks, just children at play. It worked! Charles was right, there is still magic in the world! This expected and inevitable happy ending almost makes Kick the Can nothing more than pleasant and well-acted feel-good fare, but then comes the tragedy--Ben, now the only old person left, begs his old friend Charles, now a young boy, to take him with them, to restore his youth. The small boy stares frightenedly at Ben, before simply running off to Ben's despair, a moment of devastating abandonment later revisited by Serling in On Thursday We Leave for Home. But the scene mirrors the opening scene, in which Charles thinks he is leaving the rest home to live with his son. When his son arrives there's a single line: "I didn't say you could come home, I said we'd talk about it." Charles exits from his son's car, understanding Sunnyvale is now his final stop on the merry-go-round of life. Charles' son abandons him, just as Charles abandons Ben, because that's what children do; that's where Kick the Can's true pathos lies.

For Netflix purposes:
On Vol. 3 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVDs.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

1.5 "Walking Distance"

Season 1, Episode 5

Directed by: Robert Stevens
Written by: Rod Serling

An overworked Vice President "in charge of media", Martin Sloan is sick of the rat race and the Madison Avenue lifestyle. "I want to rest," he says, "I want to stop running." Out for a drive, just to get out of the damn city, he pulls into a gas station with rancor and bluster. Asking for a lube job and an oil change, he notices he's only a mile and a half (i.e. walking distance) outside of Homewood, the hometown he hasn't been back to for twenty-five years. Deciding to kill the time there, he walks on down the road, framed in the gas station mirror as though he's walking right through the looking glass. Coming out on the other side, and still shot in a mirror, he enters Homewood's soda shop, asking for a chocolate soda, three scoops. (A lot of Martin's childhood memories seem focused around food.) He's amazed it only costs a dime—I mean, nobody charges ten cents for three scoops no more, to which the soda jerk asks him, "where you from?"

"New York," he answers. Well, go figure! Walking around the rather busy small-town, an impressive set from the MGM lot that was also used for a television remake of Meet Me in St. Louis, he enjoys a leisurely afternoon until it slowly dawns on him that he's traveled back in time to 1934. After an enlightening discussion about marbles with a very young Ron Howard ("the clear ones we called 'clearies'"), he has awkward run-in with his eleven year old self, whom he scares the livin' daylights out of; afterwards, he confronts his parents who, to his implausible confoundment, don't believe that this full-grown, hysterical man is actually their young son, just simply traveled backwards through time. He stalks his old house, trying to get someone to talk to him, until he's informed that eleven year old Martin is at a carnival. A frenetic merry-go-round sequence ensues, every angle canted, as Sloan the Creppy Madman chases Sloan the Little Boy around the carousel until the boy falls off and injures his leg. "I just wanted to tell you this is a wonderful time," he mournfully mutters to no one. Not with you around, it isn't.

Walking Distance, written by Serling, was inspired by a walk through the MGM backlots that triggered some latent longing for his childhood. (Only to Rod Serling could a journey through an ersatz town inspire feelings of nostalgia.) A CBS executive called the script "shit", but that's a bit of an exaggeration; it is a bit slight and a bit sloppy, but it's still pretty effective as a cautionary tale about being too caught up in sweet memories of yesteryear while not living for the future, a source of many a person's misery and the source of this episode's popularity. (Not to mention it's a valuable illustration of why there's to be no horseplay on the carousel!) "We only get one chance," his rather credulous father tells him, after coming to believe his story; it's only when Sloan comes to understand this, and stops lamenting that there are "no more merry-go-rounds [and] no more cotton candy," that he's loosed from the past—in which he was presumably stuck in, literally and figuratively, like a prison—and released back into the present, where some swingin' blues blares on the juke, a chocolate soda costs thirty five cents—some future—and he walks with the limp he got as a kid when he fell off the merry-go-round, a physical expression of the mental handicap that was his yearning for the past, a battlescar from his defeat over crippling nostalgia.

It's become a bit of a banality to say so, but you really can't go home again—not even in The Twilight Zone!

For Netflix purposes:
On Vol. 3 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVDs.

Monday, May 21, 2007

3.16 "Nothing in the Dark"

Season 3, Episode 16

Directed by: Lamont Johnson
Written by: George Clayton Johnson

Exceptional episodes of The Twilight Zone generally fall into two categories: the allegorical, usually realted to a larger and specific American issue like war or racism, and the philosophical, which tend to offer sapient insights into broader profound topics, such as death. Nothing in the Dark is an example of the latter; Gladys Cooper, a marvelous actress known for her work on the English stage (and some supporting roles in American film and television), plays Wanda Dunn—as in done—an old woman terrified of dying, or more specifically of Death himself in anthropomorphized form. According to Serling's opening narration she has fought 1,000 battles with him and always won but, of course, as The Seventh Seal has taught us, not to mention all the real-world cemeteries, Death is not the kind to accept such defeats graciously and move on.

Cooper's character lives "cooped-up" in a small, decrepit basement apartment to which she never opens the door—not for the gas man, not for the man from the city, not for nobody. They're all elaborate ruses, she's sure, a series of pretenses for Death to get in and get her. So when a young and dashing Robert Redford appears outside her door, as a police officer who's been shot, she is faced with quite a dilemma. Can she just leave him to bleed to death? Surely allowing someone so handsome, and a cop no less, to die is a capital offense and would result in her death anyway, at the hands of the courts. "It's not fair, it's not fair," she sympathetically and repeatedly rues, ultimately surrendering to compassion—she takes the wounded man in and nurses him to health.

Redford is nothing but unthreatening and gracious for her help, so Wanda begins to trust him. Not to mention she touched him but did not die. But as anyone who's ever seen The Sting knows, that Redford fellow's a con-man who ought never be trusted. Of course, Wanda had no access to a movie made over a decade later, not even in the twilight zone, and so she makes the fatal mistake of letting him recuperate in her apartment. Just then a man forces his way into the apartment, almost killing Wanda by scaring her half to death and she collapses into unconsciousness. When she comes to, the man identifies himself not as Death but as a contractor for the city who has orders to tear down her building, which has been declared condemned.

The contractor's scene is an extended double entendre, clever to a fault as every line has a double meaning that'd lead you to believe that he is the long-awaited Mr. Death. The cleverest of these come in his grand speech about why he does what he does, also giving the episode some spiritual heft: "I just clear the ground so other people can build," he defensively asserts, implying it's the way of the world. The "old make way for the new."

While taking small swipes at the heartlessness of urban "renewal", Nothing in the Dark, written by the man who went on to pen Logan's Run (another rumination on age and death), is essentially one long comforting and saccharine assuagement, as the protagonist makes her way from an overwhelming fear of expiration to enlightened understanding and acceptance. (spoiler alert) "It's not me you're afraid of," Death, revealed to be Redford, tells Wanda, "it's the unknown," and though he created an elaborate scam to get into her apartment, he's gone to such great lengths in order to show her that death isn't such a scary trip after all, and Death's not such a bad guy, just misunderstood. Well, sure death won't seem so frightening when Redford the Dreamboat is the Glam Reaper; when he beckons for Wanda to take his hand and come with him, her reluctance seems absurd—I would do anything a young Robert Redford asked me to do without blinking an eye.

But the episode also functions as a warning about how being overly preoccupied with death and dying results in a life not worth living, trapping us in a "box" like the cramped flat that Ms. Dunn inhabits. As Bertholt Brecht once cautioned: "Do not fear death so much, but rather the inadequate life." Though the episode's a tad cloying, Cooper's tender performance lends Nothing in the Dark some genuine pathos; besides, it's remarkably rare and somewhat refreshing to, nowadays, see something on television asking us not to be afraid. As Serling closes the episode: "There was an old woman...who had discovered in the minute last fragment of her life that there was nothing in the dark that wasn't there when the lights were on." So take a deep breath America and relax.

For Netflix purposes:
On Vol. 1 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVDs.

2.15 "The Invaders"

Season 2, Episode 15

Directed by: Douglas Heyes
Written by: Richard Matheson

Another episode that functions as a sly reproach of the conflict in Vietnam, Richard Matheson's The Invaders is a useful didacticism on the natures of invasion and defense. Agnes Moorehead, in a fine and wordless performance, plays a senescent farm-woman whom we find living in a ramshackle wooden house. As she is preparing a meal—her only concern up to this moment, according to Serling's opening narration, is procuring food—she hears a funny whirring sort of noise and is soon knocked to the floor by a powerful thud. Going up to the roof to investigate, she discovers what looks to be a large cocktail-shrimp serving tray; arguably more interesting, however, it turns out to be a small flying saucer that has crash-landed. Miniature aliens, looking like creepy wind-up toys, exit and scare the heck of Moorehead, who starts hitting them with a broom, knocking them off ledges, etc. In turn they attack her with her own knives, and she strikes back, killing one and then the other by destroying the spaceship itself.

Matheson, in a later interview, claimed he was unhappy with the way the episode turned out, that his original script moved along much more smoothly. It's a fair complaint, as for starters the episode takes far too long to get going; director Douglas Heyes clearly had something to learn about pacing, but he's not half bad with the atmosphere—that is, though The Invaders tells a story that could've been told in ten minutes in twenty-five instead, it is nevertheless, for the most part, unsettlingly effective; the fear of strangers invading our personal and private spaces is a primal one, exploited by the episodemakers in the creepy ambience created by the faux-candlelighting and menacing stock music, not to mention the eerie barrenness of the house and surrounding area.

But, this being The Twilight Zone after all, Matheson has more up his sleeve than simple frights, (spoiler alert!) as he cleverly switches our paradigm of identification at the end; while rooting for Moorehead all along, as we tend to side with our own species, the twist ending reveals that the tiny men were in fact Americans (the spaceship reveals that it's "U.S. Air Force Space Probe 1") and Moorehead a giant space monster. (A part for which she was excellently cast, as an already funny looking woman is made-up to look even more unusual; of course, by the end, it makes total sense that she's not an Earthling—just look at her! And look at her you must, as at one point Heyes shoots her in a surprisingly grimy close-up, capturing a frazzled Moorehead graphically drooling, I'm talking strands of wet spittle, while waiting for one of the Americans to fall for a trap she has set.) When stabbed or cut by the tiny Americans, Moorehead elicits our sympathy by groaning and crying in terribly pitiable pain. But by changing gears at the end, Matheson teaches the audience a lesson about seeing conflict through the eyes of one's enemies. It applies now to Iraq, in particular (of course): when a person or people causing you no immediate threat are suddenly invaded, it ought to be expected and understood that they're bound to respond in defensive retaliation. It's only when we understand the humanity of our enemies that we can begin to make real peace, but the real moral of the story is voiced at the end, by one of the Americans in his final radio transmission to home: "Stay away." Would that Mr. Bush had heard and listened to such advice.

For Netflix purposes:
On Vol. 1 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVDs.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

2.11 "The Night of the Meek"

Season 2, Episode 11

The Night of the Meek is disposable Serling that feels like the result of a contract requirement which stipulated that he produce at least one feel-good Christmas episode. Serling, that avatar of the FDR Democrat, tosses in some rousing speechifying and some tasty, subversive socialist undercurrents, but the lackadaisical storytelling, coupled with the crude video it was shot on, makes this an ultimately forgettable fiasco.

And that's unfortunate, as the gifted Art Carney, in his only Twilight Zone appearance, stars, turning in a laudable performance as Henry Corwin, a Department Store Santa Claus introduced in an empty bar getting hammered. When he eventually shows up at work an hour late, he's berated by his boss, Mr. Dundee (John Fiedler, obnoxiously overplaying): "See if you can keep from disillusioning a lot of kids that not only isn't there a Santa Claus, but the one in this store happens to be a wino who'd be more at home playing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer!" Well, Corwin shows he can't when he disillusions a whole queue of kids by collapsing from his throne as a child, Percival Smithers, is telling him what he wants for Christmas ("a new front name".) "Santa Claus is loaded!" Percival declares with intrigued incredulity (this is at least one of Serling's funniest scripts), and his mother adds, figuratively kicking him while he is literally down, "you oughta be ashamed."

"I am ashamed," Corwin admits, an achingly sad confession that Carney pulls off masterfully. Mr. Dundee fires him on the spot, but not before he's able to give a stirring speech on the crass commercialism infecting the Holiday spirit. "Christmas is more than barging up and down department store aisles," he pleadingly lectures the gathered crowd, noting that it should come with patience, love, charity and compassion. Make no mistake, though—A Charlie Brown Christmas this ain't.

Corwin drinks heavily, he explains, because, as he says, "I can either drink or I can weep," although he shows through the course of the episode that he can easily do both simultaneously. "I live in a dirty rooming house on a street full of hungry kids and shabby people where the only thing to come down the chimney on Christmas is more poverty!" (You go, Serling!) The same hungry kids who surround him as he's collapsed drunk on the curb, begging for dollies and guns (!) but also, more desperately, for a job for daddy. Boo hoo hoo. "Why do you suppose there isn't a real Santa Claus," Corwin slurrily asks his brambly bartender, "for kids like that?"

Complete with a piano sadly tinkling out the notes of "The First Noel"—to remind the viewer that the appropriate responses would be frowning and pity—The Night of the Meek is insufferably mawkish. Redemption comes to Corwin in the form of a thaumaturgical bag that he stumbles across in an alleyway, an enchanted sack that transforms him from a bum in a dirty red suit to a real-life Santy Claus...though still in that same dirty red suit. A Kris Kringle for the penurious and meek, he wanders the ghetto, giving the bums whatever they desire as it magically pops out of his bag. Now he's drunk on "the spirit of the Yule," as he tells a police officer, though clearly he's also still a little drunk on whisky.

In an act of the universe balancing itself out, as Saint Nip (hiccup!) doles out the presents, they simultaneously disappear from Dundee the Fusspot's department store, as Serling radically redistributes American wealth. Soviet balderdash! Of course, capitalism sees to it that Corwin is arrested almost immediately, but when touched by those impure of heart the bag spits out only tin cans and alleycats. "We're dealing with the supernatural here," a frightened Officer Flaherty remarks, and on a lack of evidence Corwin's released.

This frees him up to do more Santa Clausing, and he hits the streets again to supply the children of skid row with the toys they crave. There's no real twist, no frights, just a lot of maudlin treacle shot on videotape that's at best distracting and at worst offensive to the eyes. Corwin is recruited by an unintentionally terrifying elf to become the real Santa Claus, or Santa Corwin, and near the episode's close he flies off on a sled led by two reindeer (production budgets!) as Fusspot and Flaherty look on, disbelieving their own eyes. The episode ends, rather scandalously, with Dundee asking Flaherty to come back to his apartment so he can get him drunk, and you're left mourning that this is certainly not Serling's finest moment, and a rather curious way for Image Entertainment to start off their forty-three disc Twilight Zone set.

For Netflix purposes:
On Vol. 1 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVDs.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

5.22 "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"

Season 5, Episode 22

Written & Directed by: Robert Enrico

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge makes for an unusual twenty five minutes of American television, given its sophisticated sense of visual poetry and near total lack of spoken dialogue. It uses long, lyrical passages to play with the nature of time, memory and imagination, as well as employs unconventional grammatical devices, such as surprising subjective shots, a protracted reverse tracking shot, and provocative jump cuts characteristic of the French New Wave.

That only seems appropriate, given that the short film, which won awards at both Cannes and the Oscars under the title La Rivière du Hibou, was originally an independent French production not intended for American television; it was sold to the producers of The Twilight Zone for $10,000—less than a sixth the cost of an average episode—under the stipulation that it could only be shown twice. Like The Encounter then, but for different reasons, it was subsequently dropped from future syndication; yet the film, based on a late nineteenth-century short story of the same name by Ambrose Bierce, has maintained a beloved popular and critical reputation—short and sweet, it's become a standard fixture in Middle Schools everywhere, a marvelous way for passive educators to kill half an hour.

Appearing to be set during the American Civil War, a man (Roger Jacquet) of curiously Gallic features is set to be hung off of the Owl Creek Bridge by a small group of soldiers. (His crime is only vaguely alluded to by a sign that begins the episode, declaring that anyone who attempts to block or destroy the bridge will be executed.) When the plank that suspends him is kicked out, however, the absurdly long rope, rather than snap his neck, plunges him into the river below; the man loosens his binds, surfaces to the water and swims to safety amid flying bullets and cannon fire. As forces continue to pursue him, he runs into the forest and attempts to make it home to his beloved.

There are some marvelous moments here, such as the unbearably tense sequence in which he races to remove his noose underwater, the prolonged opening sequence in which he nervously awaits his fate, and the idyllic flashback of his lover on a verdant, sun-soaked estate. Our protagonist rolls around in the sand, smells the flowers, and watches such trivial events as a spider construct its web, all gorgeously photographed to underscore how beautiful the world is, and what a gift it is to be alive. (This is also not so subtly underscored by a soulful ballad called "A Livin' Man" that plays throughout.) Even as he teeters above the water, when not daydreaming of his sweetheart or mustering courage he spends his time listening to the chirping birds and observing something as simple as a twig floating in a river (which also foreshadows his imminent fate), seemingly saying goodbye to the world with the clinging reluctance of a teenager at the airport, incessantly kissing her sweetheart as he pulls away, en route to Europe for study abroad.

But more to the point, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is an artistic experiment that examines the credulous nature of the average spectator's relationship to his narrator, and it packs a wollop of an ending; even if I were spoil for you (which I won't), you would still leap with surprise. "My heart literally stopped beating," declares a poster on the IMDb message boards. It is a cruel, shocking and violently sudden finale to an impressive and elegant short, an episode of The Twilight Zone in name and spirit but in neither form nor style.

For Netflix purposes:
On Image Entertainment's "Treasures of the Twilight Zone, Vol. 1" DVD.

5.31 "The Encounter"

Season 5, Episode 31

Directed by: Robert Butler
Written by: Martin Goldsmith

A caustic vituperation of war and dehumanizing military propoganda, The Encounter just barely qualifies as an episode of The Twilight Zone, thanks to a samurai sword apparently possessed by the spirit of a slaughtered (Japanese) soldier and a mysteriously locked door that can't be opened. The supernatural aspects seem perfunctory additions to what is otherwise a tense, theatrical confinement drama, played out between two guilt-ridden men: Fenton (Neville Brand), a square-jawed All-American type who served in WWII, and his prospective gardener Arthur (George Takei), a Japanese-American. The two meet while Fenton is cleaning out his military-memento filled attic—sorting through the ghosts of the past, as it were—and over beers they engage in battles of barbs and blades, forcing one another to confront each's personal shame: Fenton, for having killed a surrendering soldier in cold-blood; Arthur, for the treasonous sins of his father. (Those Japanese and their ancestor complexes!) The war may be over, as Fenton says, but the fighting hasn't stopped. Serling narrates: "It's twenty-odd years since Pearl Harbor, but two ancient opponents are moving into position for a battle..."

It was a risky program for CBS to air in 1964, as the Johnson Administration was escalating US involvement in "the conflict in Vietnam", and a popular antecdote posits that the episode received such an incensed response from viewers that it was subsequently removed from syndication. Watching now, it feels a tad dated, though it's refreshing to see something on television deal with WWII outside of the presently predominant paradigm of "The Greatest Generation". The Encounter dares to present an American veteran of the Second World War as something other than an unambiguous hero which, despite its Vietnam parallels, is its most striking aspect. (And I would assume what elicited so much mail.)

Fenton's only defense against his guilt is to do now what he did then—demonize the other, and the racist shots he takes at Arthur still sting, despite Takei's exaggerated indignation. Confronted with Arthur, Fenton goes on the proverbial emotional roller coaster, defensively bitter one moment and the next calmly telling Arthur, looking for validation, "I'm not such a bad guy"; he's confused, and has trouble accepting responsibility, whether for what happened in Japan twenty years prior or what happened yesterday; he drinks heavily to forget the war that haunts him (the episode includes him experiencing an aural flashback), and when the alcoholism costs him his job, he blames the influx of cheap, foreign labor—and when it costs him his wife, he blames her.

For good reason, though, The Encounter is not out to point fingers at individuals. Fenton is the result of the conflict between a military complex that brainwashes its soldiers into hating the animals on the other side of their guns, and a liberal, civilian culture of tolerance that teaches respect for other societies. "In the Pacific we were told you guys weren't even human—you were some kind of ape," Fenton tells Arthur, "and that we shouldn't worry about burning you out of your caves. Now all of a sudden, you're fine people—highly cultured!" It'd be interesting to see a capable writer/director update this material, changing Japan to Iraq, but as all modern wars are, despite their particular differences, essentially the same, The Encounter still hits pretty hard.

For Netflix purposes:
On Image Entertainment's "Treasures of the Twilight Zone, Vol. 1".

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

1.1 "Where is Everybody?"

Season 1, Episode 1

Directed by: Robert Stevens
Written by: Rod Serling

For a show as dripping with allegorical sociopolitical commentary as The Twilight Zone, the premiere episode couldn't have a more germane introduction. "The place is here. The time is now," declares Rod Serling, narrating in his unmistakable inflection—coming from the jaw through clenched-teeth—setting the stage not only for this particular episode but for the entire series that would follow.

A presumable drifter wanders into a roadside diner, but nobody's there. The obvious question, as the title implies, is "where are they?" The juke's a-swingin' and the coffee's percolating, but not a soul is in sight to make this guy his eggs. However, the more important and not as obvious question, at least not at first, is, "who is this guy?" Not even he knows the answer to that, though as the episode unfolds he comes to remember more and more small fragments. "I'm in the Air Force!" he shouts, running through the abandoned streets of the town up the road, proudly screaming his revelation loud enough to wake the dead. Unfortunately, not a soul stirs nor appears.

Where is Everybody? is a declaration of intentions, of sorts, for Rod Serling, as it tells the story of a man trying to "find himself". As well, it explores the fear of confinement, not only in a simplistic claustrophobic sense but rather in a figurative sense—the fear of being "stuck in a rut"; our nameless hero is almost locked inside of a phone booth, until he breaks it open, and the door of a prison cell nearly closes on him while he inspects its interior—these threatening entrapments come across as expressions of Serling's fear of writing copy for The Kraft Television Theater for the rest of his life. Serling must have been aware of his own talent and the fact that he had "something to say", and the script for this episode lets the world know he won't be stopped by sponsor censorship, that by getting his own show he is liberated to say what he wants, even if no one is there to listen.

The episode addresses, then, the fear of the artist, particularly the writer, of being a recluse and secluse. But, more to the point, Where is Everybody? expertly taps into the primal, universal fear of loneliness, the human need for companionship that even modern science, for all its advances, is powerless to overcome; they can put a man in space, but they cannot conquer the despair of human solitude! The episode's most frightening aspect, and it is a scary episode, is the abandoned landscape itself, a depopulated town that takes on the force of a nightmare. After all, the abundance of nothingness implies the iminence of something, and waiting around for it to arrive, if it will ever arrive at all, is unbearably tense even at the abbreviated length of a television program. It works, because the key to cinematic horror, which applies to television as well, has always been recognizing that the audience is more afraid of their own imaginations than any image that could be made to stand-in. (This could be traced as far back as Poe, in literature, and I'm sure even farther: "here I opened wide the door/Darkness there, and nothing more.") The episodemakers increase the tension by implying that our hero is being watched: a smoldering cigar rests in the jail's ashtray and the faucet is running—just like the roadside diner, it seems to have been abandoned only moments before our hero arrived. A large eye on the window of an optometrist's shop drives this point home. Is someone watching? They sure are, and the audience itself it gleefully implicated in the terror unfolding on its television set as a legend of the airwaves is born.

For Netflix purposes:
On Vol. 43 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVDs. Also on the same company's "Treasures of the Twilight Zone, Vol. 1".