Tuesday, June 8, 2010

TZP Goes Portuguese

For some of our international readers: Brazilian "Twilight Zone Project" fan Thiago Manzo has started "Projeto Twilight Zone," a Portuguese spin-off of our blog here that will feature translations and original work.

Check it out! And thanks, Thiago!

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 and...as 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.