Friday, December 30, 2016

aspersions reflected

"The Painted Mirror" (NIGHT GALLERY, originally broadcast December 15, 1971)

Can a born or inherited quality (or inclination), or one’s natural language, also be considered a talent?  Should the ability to make the world know and hate you so acutely be patently dismissed as one's innate demeanor?  I ask these questions, naturally, because I am considering the talent and career of the recently-passed socialite and actress, Zsa Zsa Gabor, whom—to nobody's surprise—managed to claw her way within 2 months of her 100th birthday.

Whenever Zsa Zsa would enter the frame, my frame, whether it a guest appearance on TV, or movie cameo, or in the gossip pages, she never failed to elicit a visceral response.  I really detested that woman; hell, hated her, without any seeming right to beyond what she projected to the world.

She was the very face of glamour and extravagance, both casually cruel and impenitently ostentatious, and wore her cool, callous heart plainly.  The rest of us, shabby, common, and unadorned, were the object of her considerable disdain. 

Can that be right?  Could anyone be so awful, much less a performer from whom such behavior was more or less expected?  Whether she was or not, one thing is certain: she had a remarkable ability to project that unabated hauteur straight through your television set.  You knew if you ever met her she might spit right in your eye; on a gut level, at least, that much was understood.

I might be taking the long way around getting into this particular vignette of The Night Gallery (brief as it may be), but Zsa Zsa is the star of this one and its success seems hinged on just how much we're supposed to dislike her.  Because what they do to her here is just plain nasty, and while it is passed off rather routinely as due comeuppance, there is a bitter aftertaste that lingers, as if these just desserts cannot possibly bode well for one's digestion.  
Under the tutelage of executive producer/showrunner Jack Laird, Night Gallery had earned a reputation for unevenness, both in quality and tenor; early on, a struggle for control of the show between the gruff producer and writer/host Rod Serling resulted in a wild array of content.  

Executive producer Jack Laird, left, as the hunchback in the second season vignette, "The Funeral".

Whereas Serling had wanted to keep the approach to the fantasy anthology format much as he had honed on The Twilight Zone, Laird wanted something else entirely. With the then-recent popular resurgence of the Universal horror monsters on late-night TV, as well as the success of the idiom established by Hammer Studios of England (and the popularity of Famous Monsters of Filmland and the Revel models), Laird, perhaps aiming for a younger demographic, felt the show's viability would pivot squarely amidst the kooky riffs of "The Monster Mash" and creature feature free-for-alls such as FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN (1943) and HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945). The man wanted his monsters, something Rod Serling had been determined to avoid when he'd initially signed on to the show.

Except for some of the handful of episodes written by Serling himself, gone was the moral imperative and social conscience that had often been guiding principles of The Twilight Zone.  As a result, there were a fair share of morally ambiguous episodes; some even flaunted pronounced mean streaks, such as this one and the memorably sadistic, "A Feast of Blood".

Written and directed by Gene Kearney (based on a short story by Donald Wandrei), "The Painted Mirror" begins with an interminable clatter, as the story takes place in a thrift shop located in the middle of a busy urban construction zone.  The unavoidable noise seems to have everyone a bit on edge, especially the elderly proprietor of the shop, Mr. Frank Standish (Arthur O'Connell), who'd recently sold half his store's space and interest to the younger, far more assertive Mrs. Moore (Zsa Zsa Gabor).

And her answer to all that noise is more noise, as she blasts the volume on her record player and tells the man installing the already blaring doorbell that it needs to be louder yet.  "Louder, Mrs. Moore?", bemoans Frank.  "Yes, Mr. Standish.  Loud, clear, and business-like."

Mr. Standish is a kindly, charitable soul, which is one of the reasons why his business has been struggling.  This much is apparent when long-time patron and friend, Ellen Chase (Rosemary DeCamp), stops by with an old, paint-covered mirror to sell.  As becomes clear, this isn't the first dusty relic Ellen has scavenged and brought to his shop for resale. What's equally clear is the immediacy of her dire financial situation and the desperation it's fostered.  She's all but in tears when he insists on giving her money up front, rather than on consignment.

But it seems he's rather in the same financial straits as Ellen, and has to beg Mrs. Moore—hell, Zsa Zsafor ten dollars.  Which Zsa Zsa more or less dangles before mocking the man and his business acumen.  Adding insult to injury, she then focuses her scorn on Ellen, who storms off after selling her only means of transporting goods to the store, a handcart, for one dollar.

"A dollar for your cart, Mrs. Chase."  "A dollar-fifty."  "A dollar."
And so Mr. Standish sets about removing the paint from the mirror, a task that necessitates a chisel when the usual solvent doesn't seem to work.

But there's something strange underneath that paint.  Something otherworldly...

"Rise and shine, Mr. Standish!"  The next morning, Frank is very rudely, abruptly awoken when Zsa Zsa arrives, blaring loud music and placing her perpetually barking dog, Pookie, on his counter-top perch.  Part of their recent deal involved assurances from Frank that he would be moving out of the back room where he sleeps, which hasn't happened fast enough for her liking.  

And just as soon as he's out of bed, he's back to the mirror, scraping away.  Moments later, Ellen arrives, vexing the already annoyed Zsa Zsa.  "This is a place of business, Mrs. Chase.  We've no time for social events."

After calling her lawyer to inquire about a clause in their deal, Zsa Zsa tells Frank she's buying him out, an option in the contract he apparently was unaware of.  Head slunk, the timid old shopkeeper resigns himself to fate.  "It appears I'm not the businessman I thought I was."  And just like that, with a meager check in hand, his business is no more. "That should be enough to put you up in a hotel for a couple of months...until you find another job."

But then, chasing a ball tossed into the strange mirror by Ellen, Zsa Zsa's beloved Pookie runs into the other world beyond the frame. "You awful woman, see what you've done now!"  And so Zsa Zsa chases after him, seeming not to register her bizarre surroundings.

A stowaway from the Black Lagoon, angling for a comeback.
And back in the room, Ellen, having initiated this course, spurs things along even further.

Everything uttered from inside this other dimension is carried by echo, and so every time Zsa Zsa yells for little Pookie in her grating Hungarian timbre, it is amplifiedas if the producers want us to beg them to shut her up.  

And then, confronted by some unseen horror, Zsa Zsa is screaming for dear life and barreling back towards the other side of the mirror from which she came.

And kindly old Frank, somehow now sinister and beaming with devilish delight, hurriedly paints over the last strip of mirror just as the screaming Zsa Zsa returns.  And then the screaming stops.

One can only guess what Zsa Zsa had to gain by appearing in this 14 minute segment on Night Gallery.  She certainly didn't need what little money this offered, having already burned through 5 of what would be 9 husbands (including hotelier Conrad Hilton and movie star George Sanders).  She had countless roles on TV and in movies, so why appear in something so unflattering, and just to be the sacrificial lamb?  

The simple answer would be that this was the kind of role she thrived in.  She was hated for a reason.  While nobody ever made the case that she was a great actress, she was an absolutely believable villain.  

Or perhaps it was just, strange as it may sound, her way of giving back.  Maybe by taking this role, Zsa Zsa was saying, with a bit of a wink and nod, "yes, isn't this what you want after all, dah-link?"  . 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

make way for the morrow

THREADS (originally aired September 23, 1984; d: Mick Jackson)

As we cross the threshold into a burgeoning dystopian tomorrow and pause at the edge of the steepest precipice of that dreaded, unfathomable hereafter, braced for the worst, it's best we prepare for whatever untoward scenarios might come our way.  

While the imbecilic new leader of the free world and de facto tyrant-in-training prepares to deregulate industry, dismantle the EPA (and the FDA), and ramp up international tensions, it’s a fair guess that if our complete decimation of the environment doesn’t get us, our escalating capacity to murder on a grand scale will.  Sure, we can keep our chins up and our resolve strong, and try to remain positive—but all that and a can of soup will leave you hungry.  

So let us take a moment and have a look at one possible worst-case scenario, as indelibly related by the cataclysmic made-for-BBC sonic death knell from 1984, THREADS.

From its opening moments, it is quite clear that THREADS is playing by its own set of rules and was created to deliver one message only: mankind is heading in a very bad direction and if we continue, there will be apocalyptic results.  Concisely written by Barry Hines (and directed by Mick Jackson), it’s a dire warning steeped deeply in the anti-nuke rhetoric of the mid-1980’s.  But to a troubled world that has learned so very little in the ensuing years, it’s just as relevant as ever.

As THREADS begins, we're introduced to a pair of young lovers, Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale) and Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher), and through them their parents and siblings.  And as they all go about their day-to-day existence in gritty, industrial Sheffield, England, a foreboding, escalating international crisis plays out in the newspapers and on the TV sets and radios which speckle the backdrop.

It's all played out very matter-of-fact, and with no music or sermonizing to skew emotions, its decidedly sober, quasi-documentary approach lets the viewer know early on that as things go from bad to worse, the stoic, unflinching THREADS will offer no spiritual reprieves.  

After weeks of rising tensions due to an alleged U.S.-backed coup in Iran, Russian troops cross its northern border, which prompts the U.S. to send its own soldiers to protect the much-coveted oil fields. (familiar?)  When an American nuclear submarine disappears in the Persian Gulf and the mounting evidence points to Soviet involvement, an irreversible course is set.

Throughout THREADS, detailed lists of logistics, scientific analysis and hypotheses unspool onscreen, offering rare insight into the numbers and probabilities of an ensuing nuclear war. Early on, we learn that Sheffield, already an industrial target, is also only 17 miles from the nearest military target, an RAF base.

As we get to meet and know the Kemp and Beckett families, respectively, there is a growing sense that their stories are not the story, but rather just further detail in a singularly grim cinematic tapestry.  With very little in the way of traditional character motivation or individual conflict, it's as if we're being set up to watch lab rats respond to some awful trauma. THREADS goes about the forbidding, untidy business of disassembling our civilization with a cold, uncompromising candor necessary to compel its audience to action.  It is a message of certain, utter doom, meant to entertain nobody.

At the bar, now weeks into the growing crisis, Ruth tells Jimmy she's pregnant.  "It's not the end of the world."  It's all handled rather perfunctorily, with Jimmy, hesitant at first, deciding it best they marry, and the two families getting together over dinner to hash it all out. 

But as the young couple begins setting up house in a new apartment, the crisis reaches its boiling point.

Soon after, we meet yet a third group of characters, the Sheffield Emergency Response team, which convenes in a basement office and begins pondering the worst. 

And then...

Bike (with rider), suspended from a tree.

The first half of THREADS does its work preparing the viewer for its second half. Its deadly serious theme and tone are unmistakable.  But nothing can quite prepare the viewer for what is in store.  There is simply nothing like what you'll experience in all the annals of movie history.  

It isn't simply the graphic realism I refer to.  After the bombs fall (210 total megatons on the UK alone), all that remains on the other side of that equation is endless suffering, hunger and hopelessness.

I had initially planned to focus much of my attention on the implacable force of the second half of THREADS, if only because the anti-nuke movement which propelled this essential film to fruition has all but ceased.  But I feel this prolonged dirge through hell has already spoken its heart and mind and much further dwelling on this subject will do me no good whatsoever.  Just a couple of moments remain that I would like to leave you with.

After the bombs have their way with Sheffield, Jimmy Kemp's parents hide behind a makeshift shelter (a kitchen door) for what seems like days, too sick and weak and injured to muster much more than occasional muted cries of anguish and vomiting.

Like most of which follows, it is a scene of total despair, and one can only hope their suffering will end soon.  But Mrs. Kemp, badly burned and aware that her time is limited, becomes determined to look for Jimmy's little brother, who was nearby during the blast. And so husband and wife set out, shamblingand then on hands and kneesto find their boy.  

And the fires rage on all around them.

And Mrs. Kemp, in a crawl, spots a shoe.  His shoe.  He's buried in rubble, but at least the boy was spared a worse fate.  

Sobbing weakly yet without respite, it takes all but her last shred of energy to hoist herself forward so she can grab hold and kiss the last piece of her boy she'll ever see, his sneaker.  

Across town, the Beckett's have fared a bit better using their basement as a shelter. Of course, the fallout has made everyone ill, regardless.

And Ruth Beckett, too distraught for food, responds in kind when her mother insists she eat for her unborn child's sake.  "I don't care about this baby anymore!"

After her grandmother dies and the three remaining Becketts drag the body upstairs, a despondent Ruth wanders off into the streets, perhaps looking for Jimmy, though seemingly aimless.

Through a haze of toxic smoke and fallout, she plods tentatively onward, from one awful scene to the next, a reluctant arrival to hell.  

When a hysterical young boy approaches her screaming for his mother, eyes bulging psychosis, she regards him briefly but keeps pressing forward.  

During this excursion, it becomes clear that the lucky ones are already dead.  The survivors, for however long they may last, are either terribly burned or sick or injured, with many having simply gone mad.  

By the end of her tour, Ruth is not quite the same woman.  As she approaches a mother holding a baby—a charred, lifeless baby—Ruth has already emotionally run the gamut and seems incapable of being shocked.  And so all she can manage is to return the woman's cold, barren stare.

The entire movie, uncut, if you can ignore the Italian subtitles.