Thursday, March 17, 2011

RIP Michael Gough (1917-2011)

Well, this is another tough one: Michael Gough has passed away at the age of 94.

While Gough had a long, long career, for the generation I was a part of, the man will always be known as the definitive Alfred Pennyworth from the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher's series of Batman film. While the latter two films in the series were far from stellar, Gough was always the highlight in the films, bringing a sense of class and respect that they did not always deserve. Gough also reprised the role in a 1989 BBC radio play, and a radio adaptation of the famed Knightfall storyline as well.

As I said though, Gough had a long and amazing career, ranging from Hammer's The Horror of Dracula, to appearances on the original series of Doctor Who in two separate roles. Notable highlights include the Julius Ceaser (1970), Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, The Phantom of the Opera (1962), and The Age of Innocence (1990).

God be with his family, and may he rest in peace.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Great Scenes and Sequences in Cinema - Twilight Zone: The Movie (Dante, Landis, Miller, and Spielberg 1983)

Hello everyone, and welcome to a new segment here at The Experience Cinematic, Great Scenes and Sequences in Cinema. Here, I will take selected scenes from overall films that I find are worthy of discussion and do just that. And to kick things off, the scene being discussed today is the opening of Twilight Zone: The Movie.

When I was a kid, about the age of five, one of the things I tended to do when I couldn’t sleep was to get up and try and convince my parents to let me watch what they were watching. Usually, I failed. However, one Saturday (I think it was a Saturday), I pushed my luck and won; I was going to be allowed to stay up and watch what my parents were going to watch. In this case, it was to be a late night airing of a film, one which was preceded by an interesting, if slightly creepy, advertisement. I wasn’t going to leave though, as I was curled up beside my mother and ready for anything this film called Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) could toss at me.

Four minutes later Dan Aykroyd turned into a monster, killed Albert Brooks, and I tore down the hallway to my bed as fast as possible. If it needs to be said, I didn’t sleep well that night.

However, that opening scene always stuck with me, and when the opportunity to tape the film off of “Space: The Imagination Station” came in the late 1990s, I took it and watched the film with glee several times. The film was one I eagerly anticipated on disc, and when it finally hit DVD, it was a day of release purchase, no questions asked. Sure, the film is flawed, and the production of the film is one of the most notorious in cinema history due to the horrific deaths of Vic Morrow and two children in a helicopter stunt gone wrong, but I love the film just the same.

The best element of the film though is that opening scene with Aykroyd and Brooks, a scene so strong that it almost sabotages the rest of the film. The scene is a perfectly executed jump scare, one of best ever put to film, but the scene has a much greater function than merely scaring the hell out of the audience. While Twilight Zone: The Movie is update or remake of the original show, the film is also a love letter to what Rod Serling created, examining the show’s place in American popular culture. It is a reminder about how the series examined the society it was part of, highlighting said society’s best and most negative attributes through Serling and crew’s imaginations. The opening scene of the film is a tightly constructed piece of meta fiction that directly comments on the series intent and power, while acting out itself a moral/political drama that would not have been out of place in the original series.

The scene (and the film overall) begins with the folk song “Midnight Special” performed here by Creedence Clearwater Revival, playing over shots of a highway at night in the middle of nowhere. Already the themes of the film are being set, with the song recalling America’s cultural past while the images remind us of the increasingly interconnected nature of America in the late 1970s/1980s. Said images finally give way to the image of a car wheel barrelling down the road to…somewhere, and finally to the two nameless occupants, singing along to CCR, engaged in their culture. Presumably, from the images we see, these two are friends. After all, why else would two men be driving in the middle of nowhere together, just singing along?

Soon, an all too familiar event for those who had cassette players happens: the tape is eaten, and the duo are left to talk to one another. Or not, as the case turns out to be, as the driver (Brooks) states that they already have talked to one another. The writing at this point is clever and subtle, as the nature of the relationship of the two is complicated when the passenger (Aykroyd) notes that he knows where the driver is from, but not the other way around, a point ignored by the driver. The driver instead begins to joke about by turning the lights on his vehicle off as he races down the road, much to the discomfort of the passenger who calls the practice unsafe, another point ignored by the driver as he kids about running over pedestrians.

As simple as the scene thus far is, some rather complex material is happening just below the surface. What we have is a tale of two men of seemingly similar backgrounds (a point only to be enhanced in the events to follow) but with two vastly different world views. The nameless driver is seemingly empowered in all ways - it is his car, he is driving, he decides how the conversation is going to go - and he treats this power as a joke. He could very well kill someone, but his self confidence is unshakeable as he heads into the darkness without direction. The passenger, quite possibly a hitchhiker, lives up to his position as being passive, out of control of what is going on. He is also more thoughtful and concerned about the driver’s behaviour.

The moment of dangerous driving gives way to the pair bantering back and forth about TV theme music, a topic suggested by the driver, until the conversation reaches its ultimate point, The Twilight Zone. The conversation from this point on turns into a complete geek fest, with the driver mixing up a Zone episode for an Outer Limits episode and claiming that he bought an additional pair of glasses after viewing the classic episode “Time Enough at Last.” While a seemingly innocent conversation, the driver’s unfounded conviction about which series a specific episode belongs to and the misunderstanding of “Time Enough At Last” points to a superficiality of the character, his own self-absorption. He “knows” the culture, but he does not understand it beyond how it may or may not apply directly to him. Just as his driving is solely for his own benefit. Just as he controls the conversation and games to his own benefit, not caring about the man in the seat beside him.

At this point, the passenger asks the same question of the driver that the driver asked him earlier: do you want to see something scary? The driver does, and the passenger illustrates the difference between himself and the driver by asking him to pull over before he will show him, an act of social responsibility and awareness. Once the car has stopped, the passenger indeed show the driver, and the audience, something scary, as he punishes the driver for his self absorption and lack of social consciousness, out in the middle of America.

Cue the iconic music; kick in Burgess Meredith’s narration.

As noted earlier, the scene serves a dual function. First, it is a reminder and commentary about the intent and importance of the original Twilight Zone series, with regards to its political, cultural and moral concerns, as brought to the show by creator Rod Serling. Second, while explicitly explaining the series, the scene itself plays out a type of morality play that would not have been out of place in the original series, were it to be expanded to fill a proper television spot. It is a complex scene, written and directed by John Landis, a scene which makes one wish that Landis had managed to come up with something half as clever in his full segment, which becomes lost in its grandiose attempts at political relevance.

The casting is also a vital reason that the scene works as well as it does. It is not merely that the casting of two stars primarily known at the time as comedians that adds to the creepy and unsettling tone of the scene, but just how average the pair are. Aykroyd and Brooks may have been major stars at the time, but at no point do they come across as such: they are just a couple of geeks cruising about and having the same nerdy conversations as anyone else. It is a tough quality to find in modern cinema, and one that makes me miss the style of American studio cinema of the 1980s all the more.

To be perfectly honest, I am willing to admit a nostalgic bias when it comes to Twilight Zone: The Movie, but that doesn’t change the brilliance of the film’s opening. If nothing else, I highly recommend the film for that sequence alone. And who knows? Maybe you’ll stick around for the return trip into the Twilight Zone…