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".