Monday, December 16, 2013

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

“Can I help you?”

Those are the first words spoken by Steven Spielberg in his memorable cameo as a mustached Chicago tax collector in John Landis’ The Blues Brothers (1980). Munching on a sandwich during his 5-minute break, he pokes his head through the door and asks if he can help our heroes. With no time to lose, the Blues Brothers grab him, drag him to his desk and plop him down.

“This is where they pay the taxes, right!??” frantically asks John Belushi’s Jake.

“…Right,” Spielberg replies.

Dan Aykroyd’s Elwood takes out a thick wad of cash from a briefcase and holds it up: “This money is for the year’s assessment on the Saint Helen of the Blessed Shroud Orphanage in Calumet City, Illinois.”

“Five thousand bucks! It’s all there, pal!” Belushi adds.

As hordes of hotheaded Chicago PD blast their way to the top of the building, Spielberg patiently signs, stamps, and completes the Brothers’ transaction. “And here is your receipt,” he concludes, attempting to hand it to the Brothers—just before their wrists are suddenly handcuffed and they slowly turn around, faced with the disconcerting sight of an untold number of rifle barrels pointed right at them.

Sure, the Brothers wind up going to jail. But at least Spielberg was able to help them first. And what’s more, he got to help out John Landis with a witty little cameo. Must’ve been his way of returning the favor after Landis’ own cameo in Spielberg’s 1941 (1979), where he played a dust-covered motorcycle messenger yanked off his ride by Belushi (and distracted when Belushi literally cries wolf—“baby wolf!” to be exact).

A couple of years later, Spielberg and Landis would help each other again on Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), for which they would both serve as producers and for which they would each direct one of the film’s four ambitious segments. It seemed like a marvelous attempt to combine their respective talents until Landis made a fateful, pre-dawn telephone call to Spielberg on July 23, 1982, informing him that the worst possible thing had happened: under Landis’ watch, actor Vic Morrow and child actors Renee Shin-Yi Chen and My-Ca Dinh Le had been decapitated and crushed by a helicopter on the film’s set.

“Do you have a press agent?” Spielberg asked Landis over the phone.

It would be the last time Spielberg ever helped Landis. And Twilight Zone: The Movie would destroy their friendship.

The long headache which followed began when a truck driver from the set began claiming that Spielberg had been present on the set that night. Landis called the allegations “preposterous”, and defended Spielberg. The truck driver later admitted he might have confused Spielberg with Frank Marshall, and Spielberg himself swore to the NTSB that he had not been on the set that night—“or at any other time.”

But the tension between Spielberg and Landis didn’t end there.

As the investigation dragged on, Landis’ attorney publicly demanded that Spielberg be investigated for his possible involvement in the hiring of the two children who had been killed alongside Morrow. When the DA’s office did nothing (the statute of limitations had already expired on the matter of the children’s’ employment), Landis’ attorney accused Spielberg of trying to be above the law: “What other major witness could avoid questioning by signing a piece of paper?” A couple of the films Spielberg would later make in the 1980’s (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Empire of the Sun) afforded him the luxury of being out of the country for much of the time and, thus, the luxury of dodging all attempts at being questioned during the investigation, as well as Landis’ involuntary manslaughter trial.

Landis was finally acquitted in 1987. By then, Spielberg had already gone to great pains to distance himself from him. Irreparable damage had been done to their friendship, and there was no avoiding it. When Joseph McBride tried to interview Landis, in 1995, for his Spielberg biography, Landis simply declared, “I haven’t talked to Steven in years,” and heatedly refused to answer questions about Twilight Zone: The Movie.

So, what of the movie itself? Is it any good?

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Twilight Zone: The Movie. I basically agree with the general consensus: that Landis and Spielberg’s segments are sometimes-interesting but mostly thin, whereas Joe Dante and George Miller’s segments are fun and imaginative—the way a Twilight Zone episode ought to be. Roger Ebert summed this up in his original review of the film: “The surprising thing is, the two superstar directors are thoroughly routed by two less-known directors whose previous credits have been horror and action pictures.”

Some critics believe that Spielberg’s segment is the least successful of the four. I think Landis’ segment is the least successful; it’s hurt not so much by its weak script as it is by the way it was butchered by the real-life tragedy that burned down its production.

Landis’ segment begins promisingly, with Vic Morrow’s bigoted William Connor introduced by Burgess Meredith’s narrator as “a sour man—a lonely man—who’s tired of waiting for the breaks that come to others, but never to him.” He enters a bar, miserable about a job promotion he lost at work to a Jew. He’s rejected by the waitresses. He goes on a tirade about black people and Asians, but reserves his most revealing discriminatory comments for Jews: “Them kikes. They always get more money, you know that, don’t you…What else the hell they want, for Christ’s sake? They own everything as it is!”

“Come on, Bill. Jews don’t own everything!” nervously laughs one of Connor’s friends, played by Charles Hallahan, from John Carpenter’s The Thing.

“The A-Rabs won’t let ‘em!” adds the other friend, played by Doug McGrath, most famous as the dopey cop from Black Christmas, and who later appeared as a dying bus driver in Spielberg’s Always (1989).

Morrow goes on one racist tangent after another. His character isn’t meant to be likable, but, as Landis’ dialogue begins to make clear, we are meant to at least empathize with him. “I love this country, dammit!” he roars. “And I fought for it in Korea!” Such dialogue suggests that this man is not entirely bad, that he’s done good things in his life but has been blinded by prejudice along the way. He is clearly meant to undergo some kind of redemption at the end of the segment by overcoming his prejudice.

And so he would have… had the helicopter incident not happened.

In the segment, the Twilight Zone takes William Connor to task for his prejudices by transporting him to Nazi-occupied Paris, a torch-lit Ku Klux Klan rally in the Deep South, and war-torn Vietnam. Along the way, he is chased by Nazis, Klan and U.S. soldiers who all mistake him for some kind of ethnicity and try to kill him. By the end of the segment, Connor was supposed to be so flustered by experiencing so much prejudice all at once that he finally overcomes his prejudices, and attempts to save two small Vietnamese children from an exploding compound while a U.S. helicopter flies overhead.

And so he would have… had the helicopter not crashed on the set, and claimed the lives of Morrow and the two children.

Unable to film the segment's original ending, now that his star had been killed, Landis and his editor, Malcolm Campbell, were forced to re-arrange the segment during post-production so that William Connor now suddenly (and rather abruptly) ends up back in Paris, is captured by the Nazis, is thrown into a boxcar with Jews and sent off to a death camp. For added insult to injury, the Twilight Zone contorts things so that he even spots his two friends from the bar standing aimlessly outside the train; his screams for them go unheard.

This is such a disgusting way to end the segment, for a number of reasons. For one thing, it trivializes the Holocaust. It’s also dramatically confusing; Landis' script has already made it clear to us that William Connor is a Korean War veteran, and Burgess Meredith’s narrator has made it clear to us that Connor is a “lonely” man and, therefore, something of a complicated, tragic figure.

What, then, has William Connor ever done in his life that is bad enough to merit a fate as ghoulish as being shipped off to die in a gas chamber? You’d think he’d have learned his lesson by the end of the segment, so… what is the Twilight Zone trying to prove, exactly, by not only disciplining him, but then proceeding to kill him as well? The other Jews in the boxcar are, of course, even more innocent than Connor is, which begs the question: If the Twilight Zone truly possesses the extraordinary power to catapult a perplexed bigot into three hateful periods of time, then why can’t it also, you know… somehow rescue all those Jews in the boxcar? Or, here’s an idea: reverse history completely and stop the whole Holocaust from happening? (The show would later try to do just that, of course, in the 2002 episode “Cradle of Darkness”). Furthermore, I also wonder what the hell must have been running through Landis' mind when he realized that by editing the segment this way, he would, essentially, be horribly killing off Morrow on-screen -- after Morrow had already died horribly off-screen.

All of these issues are just a lead-up to the very thing that killed this segment’s chances for success: the helicopter accident. It should never have happened. It was the worst possible thing that could have happened. It ruined post-production. It ruined the careers of everyone who worked on it. It even ruined Vic Morrow’s performance, which had so much potential.

On that last criticism, the filmmakers would disagree with me. At Morrow’s memorial service a few days after his death, Landis eulogized, "Tragedy can strike in an instant, but film is immortal. Vic lives forever. Just before the last take, Vic took me aside to thank me for the opportunity to play this role." And the film's associate producer, George Folsey, added, "If there is any consolation in this, it is that the film is finished. This performance must not be lost. It was Vic's last gift to us."

But the truth is that Morrow’s performance would have been far more affecting and cathartic had the segment ended as originally planned: with William Connor rescuing the two children, and becoming a better man in the process. Without that ending, the segment merely ends with a bigoted man getting shipped off to be gassed. It leaves us cold and disoriented. We don’t understand the point of it all, and we don’t understand why the segment was made in the first place.

Consequently, there is a kind of disturbing emotional detachment to the segment which colors my opinion of Landis as a filmmaker. I’m of the opinion that when Landis does screwball comedy, he can be brilliant (National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Blues Brothers), but that when he tackles a project that involves big emotions, he chickens out. An American Werewolf in London (1981) is, in many ways, his most well-directed film, but it is nevertheless compromised by a mean-spirited ending that shies away from the emotion that’s been building throughout the whole thing. We become so wrapped up in the romance between David Naughton and Jenny Agutter that when Naughton’s demise at the end of that film is followed abruptly by Landis’ tongue-in-check decision to play “Blue Moon” over the end credits, we feel hurt and betrayed by the director; the ending is not given the delicate attention it deserves. When Landis recently appeared on a European show alongside Terry Gilliam, another emotionally-frigid director, to discuss what they both think of other films and filmmakers, I was surprised that they never once discussed Spielberg, a far more emotional filmmaker whom they both have chilly relationships with (Gilliam has criticized Spielberg’s directorial style on countless occasions).

Spielberg’s own segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, a remake of the episode, “Kick the Can”, is, predictably, a far more emotional segment than Landis’, though not without problems of its own. Originally, he had been scheduled to remake a different episode from the show—“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”—but, after the helicopter accident, he wisely elected to avoid directing a segment involving young children and frightening special effects. In fact, Spielberg, according to Joseph McBride, “tried to abandon the entire project, but Warner Bros. lawyers, fearing that cancellation of the film could be construed as an admission of guilt, insisted he fulfill his contract.”

Of Spielberg’s “Kick the Can” remake, Roger Ebert was onto something when he suggested, “Spielberg's visual style in this segment is so convoluted and shadowy that the action is hard to follow; the master of clear-cut, sharp-edged visuals is trying something that doesn't work.” A more simpler way to put it is: The segment suffers from dull pacing. The tale of magical wanderer Mr. Bloom, who grants the gift of youth to a group of retirement home residents, just doesn’t benefit from the exuberant imagination that one expects from a Twilight Zone story (and which flowers beautifully in the Dante and Miller segments which follow Spielberg's).

There are three great moments in Spielberg’s segment, however, that make it worth seeing. The first is when sad-eyed Leo Conroy (Bill Quinn) waddles out of Sunnyvale Rest Home, a briefcase hand-in-hand, and attempts to hitch a ride with his son, a real estate agent.

“You said… maybe you think I could come visit,” Conroy pathetically asks his son, with deep sincerity. “Come visit?” The son is evasive, claiming “bad timing” and half-heartedly suggesting, “Maybe next week?” while he’s egged on by his wife to get going. The son departs with a quick, indifferent kiss and waves goodbye, while Leo Conroy walks miserably back into the rest home.

From inside, old playboy Mr. Agee (Murray Matheson) has been watching the whole thing, and informs a newcomer, Mr. Bloom (Scatman Crothers), that this is not the first time this has happened: “Every second Saturday, he carries those cases down to his kid’s car. And every second Saturday, he carries them back upstairs, here, and unpacks them.”

It is a surprisingly-moving way to begin the segment, and in some ways feels like Spielberg’s tribute to Yasujiro Ozu and Tokyo Story. An old man wants to spend time with his adult son, but is politely refused. In all its simplicity, this is an achingly visceral moment, one in which Spielberg makes us recognize the feelings of isolation that come with old age—all the more startling because it occurs in the Twilight Zone, where intimate, human emotions are rather uncommon.

The second great moment in Spielberg’s segment is a beautiful speech by Mr. Bloom (Spielberg described Scatman Crothers in this role as “the Black E.T.”), after the now-young retirement home residents tell him that they don’t want to remain children forever, and would rather return to their older lives. “Well,” sighs Mr. Bloom with a pearly smile, “you can always go inside, and go back to bed. Maybe, if you old folks had a little of that magic still left in you, you could wake up back in your old, nice bodies. But, with fresh, young minds.” Jerry Goldsmith’s music during this scene is particularly wonderful.

The third great moment in the segment comes close to the end, when Mr. Conroy, who had earlier refused Mr. Bloom’s gift of youth, witnesses a young Mr. Agee (Evan Richards) fleeing out the rest home’s window. He stops him—not to try to get him in trouble, but because he, too, now longs for the gift of youth.

“Please...” Mr. Conroy begs, “Take me with you. I wanna go, too.”

The young Mr. Agee replies by paraphrasing Hamlet: “You can’t come with me, Leo. You’ll have to stay with yourself. There’s a destiny that shapes our ends, rough hewn though it may be. I’m sorry. Well… let’s AWAY!” before flying off into the night.

“I’m ready, now,” pines Mr. Conroy. “I’m ready.” The other residents comfort him with hands on his shoulders, as they all stare out into the night. The following morning, Mr. Conroy is found on the front lawn gleefully playing kick-the-can. Off to the side, Mr. Bloom observes Mr. Conroy at play, then looks into the camera and grins, “He’ll get it.”

These are the three great moments that make “Kick the Can” worth watching. For the most part, it’s a fairly tedious segment that drags during the long passages of the residents bickering in the rest home and, later, goofing around after they’re transformed into little kids. But every now and then, that invaluable Spielbergian magic kicks in during the segment and shows its face. “Although filmed in an excessively whimsical manner that blunts some of its emotional potential,” agrees Joseph McBride in his Spielberg biography, “”Kick the Can’ represents a further step in Spielberg’s maturation process. Under the sobering influence of the events of the previous summer, he made a bittersweet film about the need to turn one’s back on childhood and accept the coming of age.”

So, from my perspective, Spielberg’s segment, while problematic, is superior to Landis’ segment, mostly because it’s the more cathartic of the two and because it wasn’t butchered by real-life circumstances during its production. It is, of course, unfortunate that Twilight Zone: The Movie ultimately destroyed Spielberg's friendship with Landis, and the mystery behind Spielberg's possible involvement in the hiring of the two children will probably never be solved, but, at the end of the day, it cannot be ignored that three people died in a horrible accident. And Spielberg’s own subtle criticisms of Landis’ conduct during that accident are a painful reminder of the responsibilities of being a filmmaker:

“A movie is a fantasy—it’s light and shadow flickering on a screen. No movie is worth dying for. I think people are standing up much more now than ever before to producers and directors who ask too much. If something isn’t safe, it’s the right and responsibility of every actor or crew member to yell, ‘Cut!’”

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