Saturday, December 18, 2010
In short, this 2010 film book from McFarland doesn't disappoint.
Meehan returns to his film studies with a well-written monograph on the "juncture of criminality and monstrosity" in cinema, the crossroads where horror and film noir intersect.
In his introduction, Meehan rightly notes that, in large part, film noir and the horror film share a "realm of cinematic style," meaning, as he enumerates them: low-key ratio-lighting, absence of fill-light, wide-angle lens use in close-ups to distort faces, etc.
Meehan also points out the deployment in both genres of "anti-traditional narrative techniques," meaning flashbacks and voice-over narration specifically. This chapter nicely sets the parameters of the ensuing survey, allowing the reader to understand which productions exist in the unique "space" of the horror noir, and why so.
Following the introduction, Meehan provides a nifty and pithy distinction between supernatural and psychological horror, and then launches right into the macabre meat of the book: a decade-by-decade survey of films he highlights as belonging to this union of genres; to this so-called "horror noir."
The author begins the study in the 1930s with films such as Dr. X (1932) and Freaks (1932) and then moves into the 1940s with examples such as Nightmare Alley (1947) and Night has a Thousand Eyes (1948).
The chapter-by-chapter scan of the decades brings readers right up to the present with discussions of recent films such as The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008). That often-derided (but I think genius...) Chris Carter film is actually the epitome of horror noir, particularly in its emphasis on the film noir theme of "black medicine," (think Eyes without a Face, as Meehan trenchantly points out...).
I must confess, this was not an angle of the Carter film I had really considered thoroughly, and which makes an I Want to Believe re-watch absolutely necessary. On a side-note, I deeply respect and admire film books that achieve this goal; they make me want to go back and see a film again, with new information critical to a different interpretation of it. In the course of the book, Meehan achieves this threshold over and over, bringing a new and valid viewpoint to films you have enjoyed in the past, but perhaps on a different basis.
In between the decade survey chapters, Meehan takes the reader down some fascinating side alleys too, into "Monster Noir," "Hitchcock's Psychological Ghosts and Dopplegangers," "The Noir Horrors of Hannibal the Cannibal" and my personal favorite, "Mean Streets of Hell," the chapter that discusses Exorcist III (1990), Jacob's Ladder (1990), Se7en (1995), Lord of Illusion (1995) and Scorses's Shutter Island (2010). All of these films endlessly fascinate me -- even if some don't quite work -- and it was illuminating to read about them under this new, organizing rubric of horror noir.
As a writer of reference books myself, I am sensitive to reviews that note how I reviewed 300 films reaaly well, but forgot one. I mean...nobody's perfect, you know? Gee whiz! I don't want to be a book reviewer who can't see the forest through the trees like that.
However, -- that caveat established -- I must point out that Horror Noir does not mention or review the film I consider to be the greatest horror noir of the 1990s, and one made by the film noir's greatest modern director, Roman Polanski.
I'm talking about 1999's The Ninth Gate, starring Johnny Depp. That work of supreme intelligence and depth co-opts the highest quality of the film noir (the outward "investigation" leading to an inner discovery about the nature of self) to imply a world beyond our mortal perception; a world of authentic evil. The Polanski film also features a great, infinitely ambiguous ending which was perfect for the Y2K times in which the film was crafted.
Beside that gap in the discourse, however, Meehan ably and intelligently surveys over 110 horror noirs (from Alias Nick Beal  to The X-Files I Want to Believe ) here. And to his credit, does a fantastic job discussing and analyzing Polanksi's famous Rosemary's Baby (1968) and the noir elements it co-opts so successfully.
Meehan ends his nearly-three-hundred page film survey with the thought that film's evil twins -- horror and noir -- will take new shapes in the years and decades to come. If so, I hope Meehan will continue to document these evolutions and revolutions, and perhaps even tackle another intriguing subject he mentions tangentially in the text: Western Noir.
Paul Meehan's Horror Noir: Where Cinema's Dark Sisters Meet is now available at Amazon.com and also through the publisher, McFarland, here. I can recommend the latest Meehan book without reservation, and also suggest you pick up a copy of Meehan's groundbreaking Tech Noir.
Friday, December 17, 2010
Here's the word:
Syfy will end its original action-adventure series Stargate Universe when the show returns with the final 10 episodes of its second season in the Spring of 2011. The Stargate franchise — consisting of Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universe — has aired on Syfy since 2002. Syfy has a slate of new scripted projects lined up for 2011 including the series premiere of Being Human on January 17, the recently green lit one-hour drama series Alphas and the much anticipated, Battlestar prequel pilot movie, Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome. Warehouse 13, Eureka & Haven will also return w/new seasons next year
And here's some of my original review of the series from June of this year:
Stargate Universe is a bit edgier, somewhat more serious in intent, and far more mysterious than what I've seen of the other Stargate series. It showcases flawed but interesting human characters instead of gun-toting, romanticized ideals. It's also -- at least from what I've seen -- not as overtly militarized in bent. There are still several military characters involved in the drama, but the show isn't all guns and salutes. Not hardly.
SGU dramatizes a tale of disaster and survival. A group of officers, scientists and technicians from Earth are unexpectedly forced to abandon an off-world base called Icarus following a surprise attack on the installation.
But when the group evacuates through a star gate, it returns not to Earth, but lands bumpily aboard a damaged, colossal spaceship traveling at faster-than-light velocities towards the end of the universe itself.
The man responsible for this selection of destination is the inscrutable Dr. Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle), who has been working for years to puzzle out the last "chevron" on the Stargate technology in hopes of discovering more about the race that constructed it: The Ancients.
So, a group of about fifty or so people -- the "wrong people" -- according to Colonel Young (Louis Ferrara) are now trapped together aboard this inhospitable vessel named Destiny. In the opening three-part episode, "Air," life-support power fails and the crew is forced to scour a desert planet for resources needed to repair the C02 scrubbers. In the second episode, "Darkness," the ship's power fails completely, and in the third, "Light," Destiny becomes trapped on an apparent collision course with an alien star. A lottery is held to see which fifteen people will board an escape shuttle, and who will be forced to remain aboard the ship as it plummets towards the sun...
Outside of the Stargate franchise, SGU is heir to a rich cinematic and television legacy of space adventuring. The series' impressive opening shot -- of the huge Destiny gliding through the void -- puts the Empire's Star Destroyer and the inaugural shot of Star Wars  -- to shame. Then, in the very next shot, the opener cuts to a Ridley Scott-esque tour of quiescent interior corridors, evoking the Nostromo in Alien (1979).
The notion of boarding and deciphering a starship of alien construction reminds me of the Liberator and Terry Nation's Blake's 7. And the scenario of men and women trapped on an out-of-control "vessel" unable to control speed or trajectory made me think of Space:1999's Moonbase Alpha. For good measure, the opener also throws in some (largely unnecessary) character flashbacks that evoke the early years of Lost (2004-2010).
And did I mention that the soundtrack boasts the Far Eastern, melancholy feel of Firefly?
Despite all these familiar touchstones, SGU makes some intriguing and positive modifications on formula. For one thing, the series eschews the horrible techno-babble that scuttled late-era Star Trek (Next Gen, DS9, Voyager and Enterprise).
On those 1990s programs (which have not aged well, for the most part...), the resolution of the crisis of the week always involved a simple re-shuffling of a deck of cards. Let's re-modulate the power array to shoot a graviton pulse at this tertiary domain of subspace that will seal the space/time rift blah blah blah.
Somehow, no matter what hand the crew of the Enterprise-D, Deep Space Nine or Voyager was dealt, it always managed to pull an ace from that deck. Once or twice of course, this was fine but after a while, the cumulative effect was actually a negative statement about humanity and the supposedly-heroic Starfleet characters. They had no real resourcefulness or ingenuity of their own but they did have great technology, and simply by reshuffling the same deck every week, they could survive and flourish in the universe.
My hero and mentor, the late Johnny Byrne -- who served as story editor on the first year of Space: 1999 -- once compared late era Trek and Space: 1999 in the following way. He said that shows like Next Gen and Voyager assumed the characters already had everything they needed to succeed, whereas Space: 1999 adopted the perspective that the characters did not already have what they needed to survive.
Which approach do you think is inherently more dramatic?
And indeed, this is reason why so many episodes of Next Gen, Voyager and Enterprise feel so rote. The sense of danger is missing. In drama, when characters have everything that they need (even when separated from home base by a quadrant or two...), space adventuring just becomes a workaday job. And besides, the holodeck is open all night...
Refreshingly, SGU revives the earlier template, and adopts the perspective that the characters don't have the resources or know-how they need to survive, or, at the very least, don't yet understand how to master the technology that would permit survival to be anything approaching easy.
In other words, the Destiny may provide for all, but the crew -- again, the "wrong people" -- don't necessarily have the skill set to figure it all out. This is Johnny Byrne's Space:1999 principle applied, and applied well.
What I admire about SGU is that, even in these early shows, there's a lot of trial and error on display, a lot of attempts that go nowhere. At one crisis point in "Darkness," I was suddenly, out-of-the-blue, reminded of the Apollo 13 incident in 1970...of people working in space to solve pressing (nay, urgent...) problems with ingenuity, grace, available resources, and luck. The series really captures this vibe well. It's something about the danger of space travel and human inspiration intertwined...and it works. It's a concept that in large part, modern space adventure series have abandoned, and it's nice to see it back at the forefront of the medium.
SGU also gets something else right, and this is crucial. By and large, SGU allows the viewer to scan the drama for subtext rather than spelling out that subtext as, well, actual text.
This was always my primary concern with the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica [2005-2009]. Not that the producers seemed more interested in telling stories about Abu Ghraib, September 11th, Al Qaeda, the Geneva Conventions and late 20th century East/West perceptions of God than tales of survival in hostile galaxy, but that they did so in such an on-the-nose, obvious fashion.
By contrast, the early episodes of SGU feature some vivid human drama, but the series isn't crushingly self-important or pretentious in the way that Galactica often was. It doesn't spoon-feed you with obvious analogs for current events. It doesn't pat viewers on the back for knowing that "go frak yourself" is the same as Dick Cheney's famous "go fuck yourself." I mean, we get it, right?
Also, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series was alarmingly lazy about creating the universe around itts human characters. On alien planets half-way across the universe, people drove late 20th century, American-produced Humvees. This was basically an admission on the part of the producers that television can't believably do "sci fi" -- a theorem I disagree vehemently with -- and so no real imagination was afforded for the look or design of the show; to create believable alien vistas, technology or cultures. The only civilizations in all of Battlestar Galactica were humans and their creation, the human-looking Cylons.
I just find that idea...immensely depressing. Kind of like us getting to outer space and discovering that in all the cosmos, in all the stars, there are just Liberals and Conservatives, or just Muslims and Christians. As a sci-fi series taking place in the great unknown, Battlestar Galactica could dream nothing better for mankind than perpetual divisiveness and partisanship. Of course, this is an entirely valid philosophy and approach...just not one that engaged me, personally, I suppose. I could always watch the series as an adrenaline-inducing pressure cooker...it worked very well in that sense. But the new BSG had no curiosity about the universe itself.
I have enjoyed what I've seen so far of Stargate SGU because it remembers that there is more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamed of in our human philosophy. The universe is a riddle; human nature is a riddle. There are mysteries and terrors in space beyond anything we can imagine. The series is actually based on a riddle itself, the mastery of an alien ship, Destiny. Why was the ship built? Where is it headed? What was its mission?
Because I am so immersed in the history, details and minutiae of sci-fi television, I often check with my barometer, my wife, Kathryn to see how she registers new programs. She watched the first disc of SGU episodes with me and, if anything, enjoyed the show even more than I did. She's no pushover. On the contrary, because she is not strictly a "sci-fi" fan, Kathryn can be cutting, even brutal, in her assessments of these programs.
One of her observations I found especially trenchant. She noted that the actors in the series seemed to have been cast for their abilities, not for their looks or youth. There are few underwear models here, in other words. The characters aren't all "smoldering" hotties in their early twenties, but real people doing their best in a difficult environment. And again, being the "wrong people," being unprepared for this journey, makes them, by and large, interesting to follow. Young clings to his military training. Rush clings to his belief that he can learn everything on Destiny...if given time, Eli clings to his sense of humor, and so on.
You can never guess what right or wrong turns a series will take as it continues down the long years, but in these early episodes, SGU is promising, dramatic and much better than I expected it would be. It hasn't dropped any land mines that may come back to haunt it (like the identity of the fifth Cylon, or the invisible tree-shaking monsters), and instead seems focused on a good concept and, so far, solid scripts.
I appreciate SGU for the same reason that I've always enjoyed original Trek and Space:1999. It's a program about Humans -- us -- trying to make our way in the stars with danger -- and opportunity -- around every turn. In each adventure, human constitution and ingenuity gets put on the table. Sometimes it fails, sometimes it succeeds in completing the task at hand. But these are programs that tell us, in every hour, that despite the failures, the sky can still be the limit.
Anyway, I'm disappointed to lose SGU as an ongoing series.
Personally, I think it's folly for Sy Fy to double-down on the shaky Galactica franchise after the dramatic failiure of the prequel Caprica to lure an audience. Blood and Chrome better be exquisite, but here's the thing: even a weekly war drama with robots, set in the past of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, is going to have to contend with the (poor...) way the earlier series ended. Why? What kept a majority of fans going on BSG throughout the up-an-down, rocky network run was the tantalizing notion of a "Cylon plan" emerging, and the solution to a compelling mystery, or rather set of mysteries. What are the Cylons doing (what's their strategy)? Who are they (in terms of the hidden final five)? How does this saga connect to us here on Earth?