#TBT Classic: “A Boy and His Dog”

In my return to a #TBT Classic review, we’ve got a bit of a two-fer: both the original novella by Harlan Ellison, and the 1975 film starring Don Johnson.  But while I went for both (I had the film on my Amazon Prime watch list, but wanted to read the short story/novella first), you certainly don’t have to.

The story is basically the same: we’re in a post-apocalyptic world, with the surface world a free-for-all of gangs (“roverpaks”) and “solos,” and the “decent” people living, literally, underground in controlled communities.  Vic, our protagonist, lives on the surface, with his dog, Blood (hence, the name).  Vic is completely amoral, as the surface world has devolved to be concerned only about survival; Vic’s interests are limited to finding food, finding sex, and avoiding death.  Occasionally Vic and Blood find some base civilized settlement, run by various gangs, where he can watch “beaver flicks,” and the other men there will overtly masturbate.  Vic is aided in his quests by Blood, with whom he has a telepathic bond; one of Blood’s particular skills is locating females, so Vic can “get laid.”

Blood identifies a girl (Quilla June) while Vic is watching a beaver flick at the movie house, and when they leave, the pair follow her to a YMCA, where Vic intends to rape her.  Unfortunately for Vic, an attack by a roverpak (who likely also became aware of the female) delays his gratification.  Our young anti-hero defeats the roverpak, claims his prize – then deals with the shock of learning that females may have their own desires, and is confronted with the question of . . . love.

Now, I hope your love is pure and true, but that doesn’t make the best drama, so naturally, love is followed by betrayal, which is followed by revenge, which is followed by redemption.  By the end of the story, there is more to life than feeding and getting laid.

Ellison’s original story is a masterpiece of post-apocalyptic fiction.  He was perfect in crafting Vic’s voice – Vic knows the basics about how the world became a dystopian nightmare, but he doesn’t dwell on it.  From our perspective as reader and observer, we can see the dystopia; Vic only sees the challenges of survival, and his carnal desires.  When he is confronted with the “downunders,” those who live in the underground settlements, he views their regimented lives as unnatural.  Vic kills for his own survival, and rapes for his own pleasure, but he doesn’t come across as “good” or “bad,” because such judgments have no place in Vic’s world.  Between Vic and Blood, the telepathic dog usually comes across as the more rational creature.  Still (as the title would suggest, as I don’t want to give many spoilers), Vic demonstrates growth over the course of the story, finally forming meaningful emotional connections.

Ellison’s prose puts you in the mind of the protagonist – we see the world as he sees it.  While the language is crude and the vocabulary sparse, the language evokes the constant action, the reader can share in Vic’s sensations, whether anxious, angry, desirous, even his confusion as he starts to appreciate the needs of others.

By comparison, the movie was a huge disappointment.  It could be my own bias, but from the start Don Johnson didn’t feel right for the role, and it goes beyond knowing how his career would unfold; already 25 when the film was released, he doesn’t exactly scream, “boy.”  I don’t know that I have any complaint about the particular dog used, but the telepathy didn’t work well – it didn’t feel like Blood’s voice as much as it felt like a disconnected foil for Vic (you could argue that this is a possible way of handling a telepathic dog; all I’m saying is that it didn’t work).  Right from the start, “boy” and “his dog” had major problems.

The movie really falls apart when Vic goes “downunder,” though.  In Ellison’s novella, Topeka (the post-apocalypse underground settlement) feels bizarre and unnatural to the savage Vic; but what makes Topeka surreal is how foreign it is to Vic’s reality, and the dangers are those that will naturally accompany a closed, homogenous, highly-regulated society.  Producer and director L.Q. Jones isn’t content to let the juxtaposition of Vic with a puritan society define the surreal; instead, he takes the film through scenes that look like cutting room remnants from A Clockwork Orange.

Blood’s voice could simply be the result of the limitations of the technology of the time, but the major problems I had with the film were more related to the characterizations of the actors, and the choices made by the director in presenting the dystopian future.  Mad Max came out in 1979, and had no significant special effects that weren’t available in 1974-75, but is exponentially better in portraying a crumbling society.  A Boy and His Dog was well-received when it was released, winning a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, and earning Johnson a Saturn Award for Best Actor.  Unfortunately, the film doesn’t stand the test of time.

Fortunately, the novella does.  If you haven’t previously read or seen “A Boy and His Dog,” skip the movie and go straight for the story; you’ll finish it in under an hour (less time than the movie), and your mind will create a world far more vibrant and immediate than the film does.  If you’ve seen the film, whether you liked it or not, you owe it to yourself to check out the novella anyway – it will either redeem the story for you, or show you why “the book is so much better than the movie” even if you liked it.


Flashback Friday Classic Movie: Mars Attacks!

In my month long trek through the varieties of space visitors, we’ve seen visitors just visiting (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), visitors silently taking over (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and visitors coming to save a humankind bent on its own destruction (The Day the Earth Stood Still). But for the finale, I just figured I’d go with the most classic scenario – the flat out assault on the Earth.

I considered Independence Day (the original, I can’t figure out who thought it was necessary to make the new one, and have avoided it successfully thus far). It captures everything that’s typical about an alien invasion blockbuster: the aliens suddenly appear, larger than life, humanity can’t figure out if this is an opportunity or a threat – until it is all too clear that the threat is present, and beings that can travel across the galaxy in ships the size of cities naturally have technology that the human race simply can’t match.

And that’s all well and good, but if I’m taking a “classic” from the 1990’s, it’s got to be Mars Attacks!

Mars Attacks! is technically an adaption – of a trading card set released by Topps in 1962. The look and feel of the movie is true to the cards, especially with the design of the aliens, as well as the aliens’ single-minded (or should that be mindless?) destruction of the Earth. From the little I know about the Comics Code Authority (CCA), I have to wonder if releasing the “story” as a card set sheltered Mars Attacks from the censorship more common in comic stories of the time; even without the censorship, some card designs were considered too gory – or too sexy – to be sold to kids, and the whole set was eventually pulled from the shelves. Today, the easiest way to get your hands on the set is to buy the commemorative book published by the Topps Company celebrating the 50th anniversary of the original set, which features the front and back of each card, including the censored cards, and later additions to the set.

Who but Tim Burton could turn a trading card set into a classic movie? I was unaware of the card set when I first saw the film, but I was aware of Tim Burton’s biopic of cult director Ed Wood, best known for producing what some (many?) consider the “worst movie of all-time,” Plan 9 from Outer Space. With that as a reference, my assumption was that Mars Attacks! was a sort of Ed Wood film perfectly realized, with the fleet of flying saucers converging on the Earth during the film’s opening credits, the “little green men” aliens who seem to have a complex language based on single syllable words, most resembling “aaakk!” in a sort of verbal Morse Code.

The story also progresses as a 1950’s sci-fi B-movie perfectly realized: scientists spot the alien fleet approaching the Earth, and the scientists and military men disagree on whether the aliens are opportunity or threat. The scientists (led by the chief White House science advisor, played by Pierce Brosnan) reason that a society would have to be highly advanced to engage in interplanetary travel, and an advanced civilization is certain to be a peaceful civilization. President Dale (Jack Nicholson) chooses the optimistic view of the scientists over the aggressive view of his military advisors.

First, the President decides to interrupt all television broadcast to address the nation about the Martian visitors; the President’s address is interrupted by the leader of the Martian fleet. A contact point is established in the Nevada desert; after an auspicious first contact, a spectator releases a dove – which appears to anger the Martians, who proceed to (ray) gun down the military and much of the media present to record first contact. Despite the carnage inflicted by the Martians, the President opts to view the incident as a cultural misunderstanding – and invites the Martian ambassador to address a joint session of Congress. After the Martians take out Congress, the President delivers my favorite line from the movie: “I want the people to know that they still have two out of three branches of the government working for them, and that ain’t bad!” Given the destruction that was to follow, he was right.

Humanity is outgunned by the Martians, but they underestimated our determination to defend our home planet. With our technology no match for the Martian ray guns, Byron Williams (Jim Brown), former heavyweight champ and current casino greeter, takes on the Martians mano-a-Martian. The Topps card series had no ending for the story, so Tim Burton (and writer Jonathan Gems) came up with a solution so bizarre, no one else could have come up with it.

The film works for me because it walks the fine line between tribute and parody. In some ways, it may have “worked” better without all the big stars – seeing Jack Black and Natalie Portman in early roles is fun because at that time, they would have just been actors to play their parts, unlike much of the rest of the movie, which has you constantly thinking, “It’s Jack Nicholson/Danny DeVito/Glenn Close/Pierce Brosnan/Jim Brown/Michael J. Fox/Sarah Jessica Parker/Pam Grier/Annette Benning!” (I’m leaving Tom Jones off the list, because if part of the movie is taking place in Las Vegas, of course Tom Jones should be there.) The stars have small roles, but not cameos; it may be the most impressive ensemble cast ever assembled. Incorporating that many stars sometimes distracts from the story, but it also makes the film feel like Hollywood’s love letter to the films of the 1950’s that paved the way for the blockbuster sci-fi special effects bonanzas we are treated to every summer.

#TBT Classic Movie: The Fly – the original one!

Is it science fiction? Is it horror? We’ve got a monster, we’ve got Vincent Price, both of which suggest the latter. I’m writing this on a sci-fi blog though, so obviously I’m comfortable calling The Fly sci-fi, but with a horror angle. Kinda like Frankenstein, with it’s questions of the relationship between science and what it means to be human, and whether there are things that we are best off leaving unexamined.

I vaguely remember the Jeff Goldblum remake from the 1980’s, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen the original film. The movie starts as a murder mystery – a woman, Helene, calls her brother-in-law, Francois, to report that she has murdered her husband, Andre. Francois (Vincent Price) and the police inspector meet at the family’s factory, where they find a body, with the head and arm crushed in a machine press. The wife’s story is flimsy, but she basically knows how the death happened. In examining the factory, the police inspector finds evidence of experimentation, and asks Francois if Andre did any experimentation with animals or . . . insects. Naturally, Francois replies that Andre wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Helene, bedridden for her nervous condition, breaks down when the nurse swats a fly in the bedroom; when his nephew asks over dinner about the lifespan of flies, and mentions the fly his mother was looking for, Francios decides to investigate on his own. With only a little pressure, and assurance that Francois has the fly, Helene goes into flashback.

Andre was working on a matter transference machine; he works out the glitches with inanimate objects, but manages to lose the family cat in the ether when he spontaneously decides to experiment (this film was probably not PETA-approved). Andre shows Helene a working experiment with a guinea pig, and admits to losing the cat; she makes him promise not to experiment further on animals (Helene may be PETA-approved). Andre is excited about the prospects of progress, while Helene takes a more cautious view; still they decide it is time to show Francois the invention. Andre fails to appear; coincidentally, their son has caught the most interesting fly he ever caught, with a white head and a funny leg.

The thing about classics is their themes quickly become clichés, and we all know how this one turned out: Andre tried to transport himself, and a fly was in the machine with him, leaving Andre with a bug head and arm, and the fly with a white head and funny leg. Andre shows an impressive acting range using one knock for “yes,” and two knocks for “no”; Helene’s interactions with him are heart-wrenching. I’ve never thought much about how hard it must be to catch one particular fly, especially alive, but the film is a showcase of the family’s struggle. Unfortunately, Andre is falling into despair and madness, and is determined to end it all – with Helene’s help.

Still, at Helene’s insistence, Andre attempts going through the machine again, to see if his “atoms” will get sorted out – and when he emerges, Helene removes his hood . . . to find that he is still the horrifying fly. Helene screams and faints, Andre smashes all of the equipment, eliminating any chance he would have to reverse the process even if the fly was found. There is nothing to do but end Andre’s miserable existence.

Of course, the inspector does not believe the story, and is going to have Helene arrested – until he and Francois find the fly about to be eaten by a spider, now evolved with a human head and arm. The inspector kills the fly and spider, and Francois reasons that it is as much murder to kill a fly with a human head as it is to kill a human with a fly head. The two quickly develop a likely story of Andre’s suicide, and two minutes later, everyone lives happily ever after. Yep, it really is wrapped up that quickly and neatly.

Like I said, classics often end up becoming cliché, and that’s a sign of respect. The special effects, the human/fly combos, definitely reflect the state of the art of the late 1950’s – which is to say, they look pretty funny. But while my summary makes it sound like a B-movie cheese-fest, The Fly actually features some pretty compelling storytelling and plot development (for a story about a guy who accidentally combines his atoms with those of a fly). For most scenes, Andre wears a hood after his unfortunate accident, leaving the audience to imagine what’s underneath – and making the revelation all the more shocking, even if it is expected.

This was the first time I’ve seen any of The Fly movies in its entirety – I haven’t seen any of the sequels or remakes, other than a few minutes here and there flipping through channels. This doesn’t make me want to watch any of them – the remakes appear more focused on updating the special effects, and the original movie doesn’t leave an opening for a sequel. But as a self-contained story, The Fly is a classic well worth your time.

I’m planning to be on the road for the next week, so no promise of updates until after Labor Day – but I may try to check in if I come across anything interesting.  Stay safe until next time, my friends.