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.