Tell me your five favorite films and I’ll tell you more about yourself than your mother.
by Michael Bergeron
The path to cinematic appreciation is paved with the memories of our youth. As a child of the 1960s, I bent towards “Star Trek” over “Lost in Space.” The Beatles over Elvis. Sears catalog over Playboy.
Certain movies watched on late night television would form the basis for my future appreciation of cinema not to mention my understanding of life. It’s my personal belief that people are most influenced by the movies they watched coming of age. But as a corollary we are similarly influenced by the same decade of our maturation for the rest of our existence.
Two films immediately transformed my worldview upon initial viewing as a lad staying up late for the Friday night sci-fi flick on KENS-TV’s “Project Terror:” “The Time Travelers” (1964) and 1969’s “The Monitors.”
But another film I’d never even heard of blew my mind years later when I saw it for the first time at the 2012 Telluride Film Festival, the psychosexual drama from director Jack Garfein “Something Wild,” (1961).
Garfein’s cosmology was molded under harsh conditions. As a boy growing up in Czechoslovakia he was the sole surviving member of his family to survive Nazi concentration camps. Garfein was one of the first Holocaust survivors to arrive in America, still a teenager and taken in by relatives.
In the 1950s, he was one of the founders of The Actor’s Studio and was responsible for training some of the best known actors who would go on to grace the silver screen. Garfein would only direct two narrative films.
“Something Wild” faced censorship and criticism for its then groundbreaking treatment of rape. The film stars Ralph Meeker, a brilliant actor whose credits include “Kiss Me Deadly” and “Paths of Glory” and Carroll Baker who was at the time married to Garfein.
Consider some of Garfein’s other collaborators: composer Aaron Copeland provided the score; Saul Bass designed the opening credit sequence; and the cinematographer was Eugen Schüfftan whose credits include special visual effects for silent classics like “Metropolis” and “Napoleon.”
Baker plays a young woman brutally assaulted in a park near her home in the Bronx. Traumatized she returns home and tears up her dress and bathes away any evidence of her ordeal. In fast order she drops out of college, moves out of her home, rents a squalid apartment in New York’s Lower East Side and gets a job at a department store.
Still haunted by her experience Baker tries to commit suicide by jumping off the Manhattan Bridge only to be saved at the last moment by a working class mechanic (Meeker). He takes her back to his apartment offering to nurse her back to health. He keeps her locked up in the vain hope she’ll fall in love with him.
It gets even weirder. A drunken Meeker tries to force himself on Baker at which point she blinds him in one eye. Despite the whirlwind of events Garfein still has mileage left in the story, which defies audience expectations while summarily playing into the myth of survivor’s guilt.
“Something Wild” could be the kind of contemporary art house du jour movie one would see playing a one-week lock-in at the River Oaks or LaCenterra Drafthouse.
The Time Travelers
Time travel in movies was an unproven quotient even in the 1960s. Sure, a few films had explored these themes at that point: “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (1949) and “The Time Machine” (1960) spring to mind. But most time travel movies dealt with spaceships that had traveled so fast they accelerated in time and advanced into the future like 1956’s “World Without End.”
At the beginning of “The Time Travelers” university scientists have opened a portal to the future in the form of a giant screen depicting the space-time continuum. This concept obviously influenced the “Star Trek” episode “City on the Edge of Forever.”
“We’ve not only created a window to the future but a doorway,” says Dr. Erik Steiner (played by veteran actor Preston Foster).
“A warp of the space time continuum through which matter can pass,” adds Philip Abbot playing fellow physicist Steve Connor.
Other actors include Merry Anders as their technological equal, and Steve Franken as their lab assistant, who’s the first to go through the portal.
The academics pass through their portal only to find themselves in a post-apocalyptic future of 2071 where what’s left of humanity lives underground to protect themselves from the surface mutant population.
Some scenes use practical effects that put modern CGI to shame. One sequence shows an android in one continuous shot having its head removed and another put in its place, all while the robotic creature is moving. Obviously they had a short actor in a suit below the makeshift head, yet it’s a wonderful effect.
Another scene has a technician, really a magician, using sleight of hand to render a round object into square objects. There are a half-dozen moments where sleight-of-hand magic tricks are used in one-take sequences to confound the viewer.
The most provocative scene has the femmes of the group in a suntan lab with Anders’ breasts and pelvis hidden by horizontal heating units while her companion lounges in a tanning bed discreetly dressed with towels.
The renegade mutants constantly threaten to attack the underground fortress and destroy a rocket ship that the scientists hope to use to escape to Alpha Centauri.
Maybe the real reason “The Time Travelers” has entered the pantheon of cult films has to do with its incredible ending. When our heroes finally return to their own time they find themselves confronted by their own selves. Yet the scientists are moving at such a rapid metabolic speed that they are invisible and their other selves seem to be moving in ultra slow motion.
The surprising conclusion has the time traveling scientists reentering the time portal again. At this point director Ib Melchior shows the audience the entire film fast-forwarded in one-minute, and then repeating the entire film in increasing edits so fast that that the entire movie feels like a subliminal flashback. The ending of “The Time Travelers” has one of the most existential endings in a B-movie ever.
Melchior also wrote or directed such enjoyable grade-B pictures as “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” and “Angry Red Planet.”
Vilmos Zsigmond was the cinematographer on this and our next film “The Monitors.” Over successive decades Zsigmond would become an award-winning photographer achieving acclaim for his work with directors like Spielberg, De Palma, Robert Altman and Woody Allen.
“The Monitors” represents the zeitgeist of the turbulent ‘60s. The story revolves around aliens who have taken over Earth with the express purpose of imposing peace.
The main action is set in Chicago. All of the aliens wear bowler hats. This look was imitated in the more recent but unrelated “The Adjustment Bureau” (2011).
This time the aliens are the good guys, yet humans won’t stand for being forced to live in harmony. This comic situation is not only played for laughs but broad satire, complete with supporting roles from members of the Chicago comedy troupe Second City including Avery Schreiber, Alan Arkin and Peter Boyle.
Susan Oliver headlines as a famous actress who also works for the Monitors and Guy Stockwell as a pilot who refuses to be monitored.
Oliver has been assigned to keep tabs on Stockwell who himself has been contacted by the anti-Monitor underground group SCRAG (Secret Counter Retaliatory Group). Other supporting players like Sherry Jackson and Larry Storch provide an injection of sexuality and comic relief. Note that both Jackson and Oliver were femme fatale guest stars on “Star Trek.”
When “The Monitors” came out in October of 1969 “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In” was the number one television show and the advertising for “The Monitors” emphasized its combination of real life and actor cameos, not unlike the weekly participants of “Laugh-In.”
Such pop-up appearances include Senator Everett Dirksen and musician Xavier Cugat. Dirksen, noted for his gravelly voice, was the Senate Minority Leader and while a Vietnam hawk was in full support of civil rights. Cugat, a Cuban-Spanish bandleader, was a leading champion of Latin music during this era.
Director Jack Shea gives the film a rich editing profile highlighted by multiple montage sequences. Shea was primarily a television director yet during his tenure as President of the DGA (1997 – 2002) he was a staunch advocate for diversity in the guild.
All throughout “The Monitors” we cut to television commercials that promote the new rulers of Earth with cutesy short songs extolling their virtues. In a sense this is the kind of derision that permeates films like John Carpenter’s “They Live” (1988).
When Stockwell finally penetrates the Monitors stronghold with a SCRAG bomb you think the film has reached the apex.
“I admit Mr. Jordan, we have been able to look into your heart, but I don’t think we have ever or could ever fathom your hearts,” the head alien Jeterax (played by veteran actor Shepperd Strudwick) tells Stockwell.
The aliens calmly accept their defeat and await the explosion. The bomb turns out to be a dud.
“We’re willing to die, but we will not kill,” Jeterax says. “Yes I don’t laugh, weep or get drunk, Mr. Jordan I only serve. Now that’s no longer possible.”
And with that the Monitors leave and the Earth returns to its barbaric day-to-day lifestyle.