Category Archives: The Twilight Zone

May 13, 2017

The Twilight Zone: 17. The Fever


directed by Robert Florey
written by Rod Serling
starring Everett Sloane and Vivi Janiss

Friday, January 29, 1960, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

Oh my god! The stern anti-gambling moralist turns out to be a latent addict!

Of course, we all see it coming from a hundred miles away. Everyone has an intuitive grasp of the principle: the scold is always the one most in thrall to the thing he scolds. And that’s not just for TV shows; it’s how projection actually works. The difference between a negative fixation and a positive fixation is just words, and words can be ignored; the essential emotion being expressed is only fixation itself. The rule of thumb for the TV audience is that any character who says “If there’s one thing I know, Flora, it’s morality” is going to be exposed as a creep. Even if we can’t articulate it consciously, drama has taught us well that all disapproval is projection; all moralizing is hypocrisy. It’s just that being hypocrites ourselves, we’re generally not ready to admit that we know it.

Everett Sloane’s performance is quite good in this respect; he shows us physically that the severity of the scold is identical to the severity of the addict. The domineering husband whose wife doesn’t dare contradict him is transformed into: the domineering husband whose wife doesn’t dare contradict him.

All very straightforward stuff. So straightforward, in fact, that one may wonder why The Twilight Zone, which is to say Rod Serling, took up this subject at all. Reportedly the idea came to him while — get this! — playing the slots in Las Vegas. He observed his own sensation of compulsion, and thought “there’s an episode in that!” But the episode feels thin, or at least simplistic, because you don’t get the impression he was actually worried about being a gambling addict. It was just a hypothetical fear, with no real sting in it.

As with “Escape Clause,” our hapless protagonist is more of a cautionary nudnik than he is a real audience surrogate. That’s why the wife is there: to scoop up all of the leftover sympathy that we aren’t inclined to grant to the grimacing Mr. Gibbs. We might have once or twice entertained a worry about becoming an addict, on a whim, but really let’s be honest: that’s the kind of thing that happens to other people. And Franklin Gibbs is far, far older than 36.

Addiction is an interesting subject for the Twilight Zone treatment, but this isn’t a particularly insightful portrayal of addiction generally or gambling addiction specifically; Gibbs’s motivations are too vague. In the second half when he’s agitated because he’s got to win back his losses, that makes a certain sense: the shame of having begun to gamble is the same blot as the shame of being susceptible to temptation in the first place, and he’s willing to expend any amount of energy to wipe the blot away. But his actual seduction is left awfully sketchy. All we get is the creepy voice of the coins calling to him, after his hand is initially forced by a highly unlikely chain of events.

By keeping the thought process of the addict in shadow until he’s good and crazy, the episode lets the viewer off the hook. If he has no actual reason to become an addict other than a bunch of TV nonsense, then neither do we. Of course, we know that even a stock sourpuss character must have some inner wound. What is it that Mr. Gibbs wants, deep down, that makes him such a scold at the outset? That would be the real source of his being haunted, and Rod doesn’t dare touch it. We have to fill in the blanks ourselves. He’s lonely, probably? His parents were cruel to him? Oh who cares.

The hallucination that generates the climax is obviously contrived and silly, but for the blog’s sake I’ll still briefly address the principle of the thing: he projects this monster, and it’s with him. It knows him. As always, that means it’s a part of him that he hasn’t accepted. “A monster with a will all its own,” he calls it.

Franklin, like Rod, has a subconscious impulse to use the slot machine, and because it’s subconscious, it seems somehow external to him. He isn’t quite able to identify with it, because he fears his own subconscious — which is to say he fears other people’s responses to it. Why else would he lie to his wife, when he claims he’s only going to dump the coins back in the machine to rid himself of their sin? He makes excuses because he doesn’t trust her with the truth of what he feels, and the rationalization he invents to deceive her is soon adopted to deceive himself, too. The thing gargling his name at the end is just his own private inner experience, which he has tried to deny.

The obligatory Twilight Zone bet-hedging is to show us the machine lurking nearby even after there’s nobody left to perceive it; “maybe it was real after all!” But under the circumstances it just feels like going through the motions. Of course it wasn’t real! There hasn’t been any ambiguity about what we’ve been watching here. The wife couldn’t see it; it wasn’t there. The “literal” version, where an objective haunted slot machine objectively menaced this guy, doesn’t even hang together as pulp. (Why would it go hang out near his corpse?)

If you’re less jaded than I am and are able to grant the final shot its intrinsic meaning, it’s this: even the catastrophe that the anxious mind foresees for itself will not stop the subconscious, which lives ever on in its eerie otherness.

A more psychologically realistic ending would be for us to see Gibbs dead on the pavement, see the slot machine looming in the shadows… and then see Gibbs the next day, back at it again in the casino. The notion of being driven to some ultimate disaster is itself just part of his hallucinatory pathology. This is Gibbs’s bad dream, and every bad dreamer lives to bad dream again.

We have here a particularly absurd instance of the trope wherein suicidal madness can drive a man “out the window” at any moment. Mrs. Gibbs stands by in helpless horror because she understands all too well that walking very very slowly toward a window is an unstoppable act of absolute doom. Franklin has to back out of the window accidentally so that we don’t have to broach the subject of actual suicide, since under the flimsy circumstances it would seem distasteful. But we all know it’s code for suicide, or at least for self-induced psychic cataclysm. Rather than being what it is literally: a man getting a little upset in a hotel room.

Sadly, Everett Sloane really did commit suicide, six years later, possibly because he feared he was going blind. I didn’t know that before, and it’s going to make my viewings of Citizen Kane a little sadder in the future. We’re only 17 episodes in and we’ve already had Gig Young and Inger Stevens, too. The Twilight Zone isn’t shaping up to have a very good track record on this count.

In a sense, this is the most forthright Twilight Zone episode yet; it gets at the same old themes, but in what is essentially a realistic context. Barring the couple of hallucinations set to film, there’s nothing supernatural here. The issue is, as always, whether we can bear to live with our own fear, and what we do to rationalize it and push back against it when it overwhelms us. Here Rod gestures toward what are, indeed, familiar real-world answers to those questions. But he does it sloppily and with no great insight. Just enough to get the episode out the door.

Second one directed by Robert Florey, after the artsy “Perchance to Dream.” This assignment is pretty ordinary by comparison but he still brings some panache to it. Gibbs’s death sprawl is nicely laid out.

The monster in action. Bet you didn’t imagine it was yellow.

This episode uses library music, but in a limited and cohesive way. After a few loose establishing cues, it’s essentially just a score by Jerry Goldsmith borrowed whole from a Studio One in Hollywood episode of the previous year:

“The Fair-Haired Boy,” aired Sunday March 3, 1958 at 7:30 PM on CBS. Written by Herman Raucher. Starring:

Darren McGavin as Tom Kendall
Jackie Cooper as Dave Tuttle
Bonita Granville as Ann
Robert H. Harris as Pogani
Patricia Smith as Clare
Lyle Talbot as Trent
Ainslie Pryor as Dalsky

I find the action of “The Fair-Haired Boy” described variously as

“Partners in film company clash over ethics of public relations.”

“Although favorable results are soon realized with the art director and a young promising public relations man working as a team in a concerted effort to promote the company’s films, an animosity develops when the older man is suspected of claiming his partner’s ideas.”

“A murder takes place in the public relations department of a motion picture company.”

Which feels like a pretty good plot summary right there.

“The Fair-Haired Boy” doesn’t seem to be in the Paley Center collection, so for all I know it hasn’t survived, and nobody will ever again get to see Jackie Cooper kill Darren McGavin, or possibly the other way around. But we can still hear what it sounded like! Cool, is what it sounded like.

Plus Goldsmith’s music is supplemented by a perfectly matched piece of library music by René Garriguenc, called “Street Moods in Jazz.

This atmosphere of forbidding angular hepness was a standard palette color in those days. “Crime jazz” had been on the rise for a while in TV and movies. That said, I suspect that the particular angles heard here are deliberately taking a page from West Side Story (1957).

I like the philosophical ambiguity in this kind of music: is it comic or serious? Is it threatening or charming? The less certain you are about how to name the mood it evokes, the richer the art, I think. These scores are richer than they might seem at first glance. Goldsmith and Garriguenc are responsible for imparting to this shallow episode a few faint suggestions of depth.

December 21, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 16. The Hitch-Hiker


directed by Alvin Ganzer
teleplay by Rod Serling
based on the radio play by Lucille Fletcher
starring Inger Stevens
with Adam Williams, Lew Gallo, Leonard Strong, Russ Bender, and George Mitchell

Friday, January 22, 1960, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

Oh sure, women get to be 27 years old.

This is a genuine thrills-and-chills episode, with multiple jump scares. They got me! But a jump scare is just a buzzer. If it feels like more, it’s because of fear that has already accumulated, set free by the shock. Something has to have primed the pump. So what’s the underlying fear here?

Let’s get straight to the psychoanalysis. Loyal readers should at this point be entirely unsurprised to hear me assert that this episode is about the individual self being haunted by the social self. (Yeah, yeah.)

By now some of you should have received your own decoder rings and will be able to work out the following on your own. For the rest I’ll try to be concise:

Nan travels away from her accustomed people and places, into the wide-open country of being an individual, alone. In this realm, she is fundamentally confident and relaxed, as we see her in the opening scene, but she gradually becomes aware of a vague fear of a vague other. As with all ghost stories, this is a depiction of a real-life sensation: the social circuits misfire when there’s no one around, creating an eerie afterimage — specifically, the afterimage of one’s social defenses. In other words, she lets her guard down, and then begins to experience residual anxiety about how risky that is.

She wants to be rid of the anxiety, so she tries to get help from other people, but of course by definition other people can’t help her with her experience of being alone; only she can make peace with her asocial core. In the end, she does: she accepts that to be truly oneself, alone, means allowing the social self to die for the moment — which is to say allowing oneself to have died in the eyes of others. Having done this, she now recognizes that the spooky “other” who has been menacing her was only her own projection, and calmly reintegrates him back into her zone of selfhood, within her car, her innermost privacy. He says she’s going his way, and of course she is.

Read this way, it’s actually an entirely happy ending. The threat it seems to hold over our heads is that she’s “really” dead, permanently, and will never be able to be with other people again. But that’s not what the show actually tells us. She’s still sitting up and driving a car at the end, after all. The sense that she has met her doom is something the audience imposes on this story from their own phobias, which warn that once you’ve completely detached from society, even for just a moment, there’s no coming back. It’s not so, of course, but the phobia is common and runs deep.

Maybe some of you are thinking this interpretation seems like a stretch — fine for a term paper but, you know, kind of bullshit. I can hear you now, saying: “She really is dead, at the end. It’s not ambiguous. They say so, in so many words.” To such skeptics, I put it to you that you don’t need to play any esoteric Freudian games to arrive at my reading. Consider:

Even in the most literal-minded viewing of this episode, the audience understands that only Nan can see the hitchhiker; he is in her reality but not the mechanic’s or the sailor’s. This is a standard ghost-story conceit. Well, all it takes to get from there to my psychological reading is to consider that the revelatory phone call at the end might be in the same category.

After all, the phone call is certainly “uncanny,” so we have to wonder about its status in relation to the “only she can see it” rule: what would it have look liked to the other characters? We don’t get to see the scene from anyone else’s point of view, but we can imagine that perhaps the sailor might have seen Nan standing by a payphone in a trance, not dialing. Or having an ordinary conversation with her mother, but with a glazed look in her eye. Or just sitting in her car. Whatever. The point is just that if you are willing to allow that “being informed that she is dead” might be just as much her private burden as the invisible hitchhiker is — just as exclusive to her reality — then it becomes quite natural to see them both as elements of her psyche, and with the values I’ve outlined.

(It’s true, Rod says that “she didn’t make it” to Los Angeles. But who’s to say what he means by “she”?)

(Also maybe she just decided to go somewhere else.)

Almost every story of the supernatural will at some point tease the audience with the possibility that the spooky phenomena are only the protagonist’s subjective hallucination. “Is it real or is it just in the character’s head?” is almost as fundamental to supernatural stories as “who done it?” to mystery stories.

But of course, the whole thing is always in our heads. This may seem absurdly obvious but it bears attention. The value of any story, for the audience, is exactly that we experience it even though it’s not “real.” And our emotional access to the characters is always through the lens of subjectivity; we relate to their experiences as experiences. How else are stories about ghosts and magic and monsters and aliens even comprehensible? The fact that we are able to make any sort of meaning of such things is proof that these things exist for us; i.e. that they correspond to elements of our perceptual complex. And so any attempt by an author to decisively resolve the “is it real” question is going to be beside the point. The ambiguity, the equivalence, is the point: ghosts are in our heads, which means they’re real. That’s how stories work, and that’s how heads work.

That is to say: the received meaning of a story where ultimately the author says “it was real!” and a story where ultimately the author says “it was all in her head!” is absolutely exactly the same for us. And we’re the only ones here. The question of whether it’s the same for the character is just a hall of mirrors.

If you have a puppet on your hand and you make it say “ow,” did the puppet get hurt? Obviously the truest, most correct answer to such a question is a shrug. That shrug isn’t evasive, or highfalutin’ relativism. It’s a shrug; the question merits it. If you’re sufficiently at ease with yourself, you’ll feel it.

This is all, again, to defend my position that Nan is fine at the end of the episode.

“Yes, but isn’t she dead?”


The voice-over talks about intense loneliness, about being “unspeakably, nightmarishly alone.” This seems mostly inherited straight from Lucille Fletcher’s original radio play, and not from Rod Serling’s psyche. Contrast Rod’s conception of loneliness in “The Lonely“: the character’s isolation is simple, absolute and unquestioned, because it’s been deliberately imposed on him by other people. The entire barren asteroid is a manifestation of the hostility of his jailers; the whole landscape has in this sense a voice of its own. It is the “other.” Fletcher’s “Hitch-Hiker” loneliness is more oppressive, is “unspeakable” and “nightmarish,” exactly because it is uncertain and incomplete, because it comes from nowhere and nobody is in charge of it. It’s sticky and existential; it has nothing to say for itself, but it still has the echoes of other people floating around in it. That’s what it is to be truly alone.

In fact maybe it would be best to make a distinction between “loneliness” — i.e. the desire to be around other people — and being “unspeakably, nightmarishly alone,” which is an unpleasant sensation but not necessarily a desire. Nan turns to other people for help but it’s just an expression of desperation; the thing she really wants isn’t people themselves. She wants in fact to be more purely free of them. So I shouldn’t have said this episode is about “loneliness”; rather, it’s about “being alone.” The condition of being alone can give rise to fears, but the fears aren’t always of the condition itself. This episode is about the other fears that live in that space.

There seem not to be any recordings of the first performance of the radio play on The Orson Welles Show in 1941, but Welles brought it back several times, and later performances have survived (including this 1942 version for Suspense and this 1946 version for The Mercury Summer Theater of the Air).

The most obvious difference from the Twilight Zone version is that the radio play has a male rather than a female protagonist — played by Orson, naturally. Your mileage will vary as to whether this feels like a consequential change.

I was originally planning to talk a bit about feminist themes and concerns — such things naturally come to mind while watching this episode — but having heard the Orson Welles version of the story and recognized it as functionally identical, I decided that feminism was a less significant topic than I had thought. I’ll just say that I think the sex swap was a good choice on Rod’s part; in modern American society, women tend to have an even more fraught relationship with “being alone,” so the story is richer for it. But it’s not essential. (“Lady?” “Yes. That’s what I am. I’m a lady.”)

(The male version of the character is — you guessed it! — “36 years of age.” Like I said: if you want to be younger than 36, you’d better be a woman. Though Welles was only 26 when he first performed the role.)

It’s also worth noting that Lucille Fletcher’s original ending is different:

ADAMS: (In a strange voice) And so, I am sitting here in this deserted auto camp in Gallup, New Mexico. I am trying to think. I am trying to get hold of myself. Otherwise, I shall go mad… Outside it is night — the vast, soulless night of New Mexico. A million stars are in the sky. Ahead of me stretch a thousand miles of empty mesa, mountains, prairies — desert. Somewhere among them, he is waiting for me. Somewhere I shall know who he is and who… I… am…

This flourish is more truly “weird” than seems to have been Rod’s taste; it lunges outward toward profound disintegration. Whereas The Twilight Zone is committed to an aesthetic of cleverness, tidiness.

The Fletcher ending doesn’t really work for me — the cadence of it, unfortunately, is too much of a cliché for my ear to take seriously — but I recognize that there’s a real idea behind it, not just a stock gesture. The fear of social death — the idea that if one is not observed one will cease to be oneself — here is thrust wriggling in the audience’s face: it’s devouring this guy right as we listen! It will devour you! If he’s not “alive” anymore, not “Ronald Adams” anymore, who… is… he?

The essence of “the weird” (in the Lovecraftian sense) is, I think, fear of the fact that consciousness — the experience of a self and of a world — is an illusion, prone to dissolution. For those of us who feel it, it can be the most potent and profound form of fear. But it’s really just like any other phobia: a morbid exaggeration. There’s nothing actually dangerous about the fact that consciousness is an ever-dissolving mirage — that there isn’t really any such thing as “I.” The mail still gets delivered, etc.

And Rod Serling, for all his insecurities, was not afraid of dissolving. That wasn’t his burden. Like I said, he seems to have been afraid of loneliness, but not afraid while actually alone. I suspect he couldn’t really comprehend the fear behind the “weird” Fletcher ending because it’s wasn’t his fear. So his reworking of The Hitchhiker into something tidy, something that made sense to him, inadvertently does the audience a service that the original doesn’t: it reveals the solution to the phobia, which his subconscious already knew, as does the subconscious of everyone who isn’t phobic.

It’s the same as the solution to any phobia: it turns out you misunderstood the situation. It’s not something perpetually lurking in wait for you, somewhere beyond the horizon; in fact, it’s already in your car. It’s been with you all along. It’s “going your way.” It’s you. Duh.

• Resorting to so much radio-style narration seems a bit weak on Rod’s part. Surely there were visual ways to get the same stuff across. In fact I know there were because two years later, when this episode was shamelessly ripped off as Carnival of Souls, those guys didn’t use narration, and it worked perfectly well. (On which subject: in retrospect I’m a little disappointed in Criterion for not having the guts to admit anywhere in their bonus materials that the whole movie is stolen from an episode of the The Twilight Zone.)

• I love that the first appearance of the hitchhiker not only isn’t foregrounded but isn’t accompanied by any music, either. He’s really just ours to notice and worry about privately, feeling that even “the show” doesn’t know we saw him there.

• She says she’s going from Tennessee to Arkansas but she also says she’s on Route 80. Rod was probably looking at the map of Route 80 but his eye skipped down to Route 40.

• Mom’s phone number: Trafalgar 4—1098. According to this chart, TR(afalgar) was a Manhattan exchange and translates to (212) 874-1098. Today, according to various reverse-lookup services, this is not a listed number. Suspicious, right?

• Eleanor Audley — Cinderella’s stepmother and Sleeping Beauty’s witch — is the uncredited voice on the phone.

• “Hey, so, after the shoot, if you’re not doing anything, I really think you should come over to my place to, you know, have a drink and see my model airplanes. They’re pretty impressive if I do say so myself.

Psycho had begun shooting on November 11, 1959, and would wrap on February 1, 1960. (“The Hitch-Hiker,” for what it’s worth, had been shot July 28–30, 1959.) I can’t find a more detailed breakdown of the Psycho production schedule — I’m sure it’s out there somewhere — but it seems entirely possible that Hitchcock had seen this episode recently when he was shooting and/or editing the driving sequences.

Something else in common with Psycho is of course music by Bernard Herrmann.

This is a library score, assembled from various existing recordings, but the principal material used is, aptly enough, the score Herrmann wrote for the original 1941 production of the “Hitch-Hiker” radio play (and reused faithfully in the extant recordings linked above), which had been re-recorded for the CBS TV music library as general-purpose underscoring. Here it just happens to be having a reunion with its original subject.

It should be here noted for those who are unaware that Lucille Fletcher, author of the play (and of Sorry, Wrong Number), was from 1939 to 1948 Herrmann’s wife, so this material is in a sense doubly linked to Herrmann. In fact the whole thing was inspired by a cross-country drive Herrmann and Fletcher made in 1940, heading to LA so that Benny could work on Citizen Kane.

Unless you’re in a very particular mood, his “Hitch-Hiker” score makes for rather drab listening in isolation, but that’s exactly why it’s so exemplary of his unparalleled craftsmanship in the art of musical furniture-making. This is music like perfectly-milled unfinished wood. No melodies, no form: pure. And yet the drama is served with great sensitivity, both in its whole and in its each individual moment. That said, its ultimate fate as a venerable piece of library music — cropping up on Gunsmoke and the like — demonstrates that a really good piece of furniture, though it might have been designed to match one particular room, will work anywhere.

September 16, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 15. I Shot an Arrow Into the Air


directed by Stuart Rosenberg
teleplay by Rod Serling
based on the story by Madelon Champion
starring Dewey Martin and Edward Binns
with Ted Otis, Harry Bartell, and Leslie Barrett

Friday, January 15, 1960, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

Hey, this one breaks the pattern! It has a progressive twist, rather than a retrograde one.

“It was Earth all along” is the exact opposite of “it was all a dream.” Instead of giving us a convenient excuse for forgetting where we’ve been, it reminds us that there’s no excuse, because we never went anywhere.

It’s a brilliant twist, and it would go on to be the most famous twist of all time, when Serling reused it in his screenplay for Planet of the Apes.

I’m defining a “progressive” twist as one that confirms the subtext of the preceding fantasy instead of brushing it under the rug. It draws the audience’s emotions forward toward the light, in the direction of catharsis. “Turns out you’re home,” it says, “where feelings live. So admit what these feelings have been.”

The feelings at the end are not new feelings about the twist; they’re pre-existing feelings set free by the twist. Charlton Heston falls to his knees for the same reason that Corey does: because, having lost everything that ever mattered to him, he’s been in agony all along. But he needs to realize that he’s home for those feelings to finally be unleashed as feelings. As long as he believes he’s far away, in a land of action and danger, the adventure of manly resilience will continue. The fact that this has all happened at home is not why it hurts in the first place, but it is why it’s allowed to be recognized as hurting.

This goes for the audience too. Fantasy is a playground set off at a safe distance, in which our subconscious has special permission to run around and burn off steam, freed from the burden of believing that the feelings we’re having are really ours; it’s all “just” fantasy. A story that ends with “it was all a dream” tells us to double down on that kind of compartmentalization; it gives us a further exemption within the exemption. Whereas “it was Earth all along” pulls us in the opposite direction; it collapses the safe distance. By reminding us that the characters’ feelings were really theirs, it impels us toward recognizing that ours are too. After all, the only person actually generating the emotions you felt in this fantasy story has been you, the viewer — on Earth all along.

While there are infinite variations to be played on “it was all a dream” — I count at least four in this series so far — there are far fewer ways to deliver the effect of “it was Earth all along.” The difficulty is to contrive a situation where recognition of the familiar can be delayed until the end without being disguised. This is a crucial caveat, because if what we experience turns out to have been a mirage, then the emotions associated with it become mirages as well. To get the full Heston, we need to be able to carry our entire burden intact through the door of revelation.

You may now ask: So, does Soylent Green qualify as a progressive twist? Do, say, The Sixth Sense and The Others? What about “Third From the Sun,” for that matter?

The answer is no, not in the very particular psychological sense I’m talking about. Yes, those are all “it was [X] all along” twists, and yes, they’re not preceded by overt mirages. But the thing we’re looking for, the thing that sets this episode apart, is an ending that suddenly moves everything closer to home — closer to the safety of the familiar, closer to the seat of the emotions. Those other twists all place the action further from normalcy.

In “Third From the Sun,” things weren’t as straightforward as we had thought. In “I Shot an Arrow Into the Air,” they are more straightforward than we thought. That is: it’s just people fighting and killing each other, exactly what it looks like, and not a “space survival adventure” version of the same, a more fantastical thing, to which we’re inclined to apply a more fantastical sense of morality.

In this way, the meaning of the episode is identical for the audience and for Corey. Corey thinks he’s been operating under a moral exemption appropriate to sci-fi and hopeless cases, but then is forced to acknowledge that he’s just been operating as himself, a human being. Like Lord of the Flies.

That you the viewer might be capable of murder, simply because you’re a human being, is a pretty bitter pill for prime time. And as I’ve been saying, this episode doesn’t take the standard tack of using its ending to hedge its bets and smooth things over. But the trademark Twilight Zone ambivalence still makes itself known in other ways. It has to; it’s like an air bubble that’s pushed down in one place only to pop up in another. The ambivalence is simply part of the package deal, as negotiated among Rod, the network, and the audience — not to mention Rod’s superego, the subculture of the science fiction magazines, Dwight D. Eisenhower, etc. etc.

The strongest-pill version of this episode’s story would portray Corey as a sympathetic everyman, and coax the audience into embracing his cold survivalist logic. Movies rope the audience into signing on for “tough-hearted mercy-killing” all the time, so this is clearly doable. Twisting the exemption out from under that would send a real clear message. Probably a painful one, for many viewers.

[I must briefly digress here. As it happens, there is a movie out there that has a full-fledged progressive twist ending and throws it directly in the face of “tough-hearted mercy-killing.” It seems duly to be remembered as having been exceptionally emotionally shocking — well, by those who saw it. You probably didn’t, and I certainly didn’t, and probably never will, because it doesn’t sound like it’s a very good movie.

That movie is Stephen King’s The Mist (2007), and I know about this ending — which was written not by King but by director Frank Darabont — solely from reading about it (and then watching the clip) on the internet. (You can just read the plot summary on the Wikipedia page.) Darabont has described the ending as “an angry cry from the heart from a humanist,” which, as you can imagine, I find fascinating, as an artistic and a social phenomenon. But for present purposes that’s enough digression.]

Instead of luring the audience over to Corey’s logic, the show goes in the opposite direction: Corey is depicted from the outset as a dangerous, untrustworthy lout. Unlike prior sleazeball antiheroes — like the amoral jerks in What You Need and The Four of Us Are Dying — Corey doesn’t even get the formal endorsement of being followed around by the camera like a proper protagonist. That distinction goes to Donlin, a classic “good stern dad” who ultimately gets shot down by the feckless youth that he never stopped nobly trying to keep in line. After only a few minutes of the episode we’re firmly oriented within the masculine-tragic worldview of the John Wayne contingent; we know exactly who we’re better than, what we’re tougher than.

And then as if that’s not all safety enough, the episode goes a step further:

DONLIN: Pierson, you were with Corey during the crash. What happened to him?
PIERSON: Nothing that I know of, sir. I can’t understand it either.

These lines, never followed up, imply that even for Corey, Corey’s current loutishness is an aberration, possibly attributable to some kind of personality injury intangibly linked to space accidents. Deliberately vague stuff, designed to be a moral loophole through which an audience member can squeeze a camel if need be. Now when the end comes you have not just one excuse but two:

1) Corey’s case doesn’t apply to me because Corey was a congenital bad guy, the type who doesn’t even love and fear his good stern dad
2) Corey’s case doesn’t apply to me because Corey wasn’t himself; he went crazy, got hit on the head by outer space or something

And then there’s even a third buffer put in place to protect the delicate audience from the direct shock of this ending: Rod’s narration makes an extremely rare mid-show appearance, contemptuously egging Corey on as he treks toward self-recognition. By the time Corey sees the highway, we’ve already written him off as a philosophical dead man. This is a fairly drastic intervention against the impact of the ending — not to mention the established format for the show — for no other reason than that it is made necessary by the principle of the conservation of ambivalence. It’s all a conservative counterweight to the final twist.

When it comes time for the catharsis of recognition, the audience is primed to have the exciting experience of getting to take it at full force. There’s no risk of anyone getting really knocked down, because the show has taken such care to insulate us, whether or not we knew that’s what was happening. Safety first.

I will grant him this, though: Corey certainly looks the most like Rod Serling of any of the characters. And I’d wager he’s 36. (Dewey Martin was.) Your mileage may vary — from Rod’s — as to whether that complicates your sympathies.

Okay wait, you say, I have one more question: what about Citizen Kane? Do you count that a progressive twist?

Well, sure, that’s a progressive ending — it tells us that things were more emotionally on-the-nose, less obscure than we thought — but does it really count as a twist? It’s just the answer to the question posed at the beginning, like in any mystery story.

Well then, you say, how about Fight Club? And what about Vertigo?

Right, good, those are both interesting cases, but guys, I’m sorry — for the sake of time I’m going to have to move on. If you really need to ask more about specific twists I’ll be holding office hours in the comments.

I’m not going to read too much into it, but I do think it’s worth making a note in our Rod Serling psych file that this episode’s twist, which, as I’ve been saying, stands out so distinctly from most of Serling’s work, was not the product of his own imagination.

Apparently he was at a Hollywood dinner party and a non-writer — Madelon Champion, wife of writer/producer John C. Champion — came up with this twist in conversation, and Serling immediately recognized it as a winner. He reportedly paid her $500 for the idea when he decided to use it, and gave her the generous credit seen above, “based on the story by Madelon Champion.”

Well, in the long run maybe not actually that generous, considering Planet of the Apes. I guess really it was the least he could do.

Loose bullets that I couldn’t fit into the flow:

• The expression “who’s he when he’s at home?” embodies the premises of the discussion above. It’s essentially a psychological idiom.

• The opening rocket launch sequence is fabulously cutting-edge: the “first manned aircraft into space” being fantasized about less than a year and a half before the real thing. I tried to identify the launch footage — which seems to include glimpses of a real control room and possibly real audio chatter, too — but couldn’t. Versimilitude goes a long way in this game; to us now, the real 1960 seen in the stock footage and the imaginary one of The Twilight Zone seem pretty closely related, so I can only imagine the impact it would have had at the time. Putting cardboard Zuckerbergs in your Bourne movie doesn’t come close to how excellently topical this is. I wonder how much of this kind of NASA footage the average audience member had even had the opportunity to see, by January 1960. Maybe not that much.

• Once we switch to the make-believe control room set, the first thing we see is a huge vertical glass map, as seen in Star Wars etc. Is that a real thing in real life? Does it have a name? The guy in the episode has to write on it backward, which seems like a problem with the whole system.

• After the full-bodied intro — with documentary footage no less — to be dropped into such an intensely minimal situation gives a sense of dreamy transport. I suspect the director had the opposite intention in mind: the intro was to ground what followed in reality. But the effect is actually that the intro throws into relief just how blank the stage is on which this little dream is playing out.

• There’s more than a whiff of Cain and Abel in the middle of the episode, something biblical and allegorical, both in the story and in the way the desert landscape is used. There’s also a conspicuous cribbing of the famous Seventh Seal shot of figures on a skyline ridge. I’m not sure whether this stuff counts for or against taking the material more seriously; maybe neither. In any case it gave the episode a quiet sense of style and I liked it. (Stuart Rosenberg went on to be a real high-profile film director, responsible for Cool Hand Luke and The Amityville Horror, among others.)

• Reshoots are apparent: suddenly they’re acting on a tiny set with an obvious painted drop about three feet away. It’s reported of this episode that shooting in the desert was frustrating and there were tensions. Well, naturally.

• This is the second episode (out of only fifteen so far; that’s 13% of the series) about a guy named Corey/Corry stranded on an asteroid that looks exactly like Death Valley. Maybe mix it up a little more than that, Rod.

• This episode’s title is yet another stab at imparting weight and legitimacy with a literary reference — this time a bit more successful than previously. This whole Bartlett’s compulsion is a habit that Rod picked up from the world of sci-fi and fantasy writing at large, where it served a defensive, compensatory function. The vital signifier is not so much the content of the reference as it is the stilted syntax of the “high” idiom. In this case the phrase with the cachet is “I knew not where,” which is too many words into the poem to fit in the title, so to get full credit, a character needs to speak two whole lines of the poem in the course of the episode. Musingly, at a window.

Of course even this fairly unassuming quote has been abused for convenience, to correct the tense and cut out the spoiler — the character says “it landed I know not where.” Then, to pre-empt any accusation of having mangled the reference, he asserts that in the fictional context this is in fact to be understood not as a quoting of Wordsworth per se but as a “nursery rhyme for the age of space.” Not the greatest way to showcase your affinity for fine literature… but weep not, for clearly made your point is, all the same. And lo they wept not.

• At the time of the shoot, Edward Binns, who played Donlin, had just recently been seen by audiences as Captain Junket in North By Northwest! You know, Captain Junket. You know! The one who said the famous line, “Mrs. Townsend, I’m Captain Junket of the Nassau County Detectives.” Yeah! Download the clip to make it your ringtone.

Here is $1353.89 in unclaimed life insurance benefits belonging to John and Madelon Champion. Good luck.

It’s the part I was born to play, baby! I thought that would be a pretty funny line & link to slip organically into the discussion. It seemed doable; I figured I could have Rod Serling’s subconscious saying it. But that didn’t work out and now it’s just sitting here. Maybe you can see where it should have gone.

More stock music but the editing is much better in this one. Some snippets of Herrmann but most of this is library music by Lucien Moraweck and René Garriguenc — both French-born, but unlike the Parisians mentioned last time (Marius Constant and Guy Luypaerts), Moraweck and Garriguenc were both LA residents and lifelong CBS staff composers, with a scoring style and approach not so different from Herrmann’s. I’m not sure whether there’s a traceable chain of influence there or whether there were just basic stylistic ideas common throughout the industry. The world of radio and television music is not widely discussed or studied and mostly opaque to simple Google dabbling. The Twilight Zone is actually one of the very few cases where interest in the music has been widespread enough to churn some of this information to the surface of the web.

And yet who among us hasn’t been deeply influenced by subliminally hearing hours upon hours television music? Listen up!

September 8, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 14. Third from the Sun


directed by Richard L. Bare
teleplay by Rod Serling
based on the short story by Richard Matheson
starring Fritz Weaver, Edward Andrews, Joe Maross, Denise Alexander, Lori March, and Jeanne Evans

Friday, January 8, 1960, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

Third From the Sun‘s final surprise — that the titular planet is a destination rather than a point of departure — is so irrelevant to the preceding action that it hardly even qualifies as a “twist.” The only thing it twists is our assumption that we’re watching an “us” rather than a “them,” which has not been a distinctive feature of this particular story; it’s just a basic assumption made about any fiction. Memorable though it may be on first encounter, this ending is an all-purpose gimmick that can be grafted on to any story. (“If we shadows have offended / Think but this, and all is mended / That you have but chanced to view / The far-off orb of Zorbulon Two.”)

It’s a stark illustration of my thesis that the twists on The Twilight Zone serve to stanch uneasiness, not intensify it. The uneasiness that this episode stirs up — or tries to, anyway — has absolutely nothing to do with people from outer space. But you’ll come away having had the real subject matter wiped from your mind by the last 30 seconds.

What you’ve been watching up until that point is a story about the burden of having to completely jettison your nice suburban life because of The Looming Cataclysm… which is to say it’s about trying to reconcile the simultaneous complacency and terror of Cold War America… which is to say it’s about the nauseating gap between the private, emotional self and the public, rational self. Just like every other episode. Here’s Rod helpfully laying it all out for us:

Quitting time at the plant. Time for supper now. Time for families. Time for a cool drink on a porch. Time for the quiet rustle of leaf-laden trees that screen out the moon. And underneath it all… behind the eyes of the men… hanging invisible over the summer night… is a horror without words. For this is the stillness before storm. This is the eve of the end.

Take away the last two sentences (the ones that start trying to assign words to the “horror without words”) and you’ve got the heart of the Twilight Zone: only the part of the self that knows peace and comfort is free to have the nightmares accrued by the other part.

To the private self, forever yearning for leafy Binghamton, the public sphere of business and politics can feel not just cold and oppressive but genuinely unnatural, uncanny. The anti-humanism of the arms race, which serves as the motivating threat in this story, is just an extreme case of a more general bewilderment: how can this experience of reality — the sensuous immediacy of a cool drink on a porch — be the same world as that — the grim abstractions of politics? How can a newspaper’s talk about “the enemy” — not to mention “mutually assured destruction” — possibly qualify as a reference to the same reality that also contains the delicious actuality of lemonade? All those manly “big words” feel like they can’t begin to touch the physical truth of things: supper, families. Not just because of geographical distance but because of an essential difference of type: it seems like it all exists in a separate category, in a parallel mental sphere.

The story of this episode is that the one sphere encroaches on the other — lives in the physical world are upended by a threat from the world of talk. The crucial thing about the episode is that from the audience’s perspective it remains just talk all the way to the end; we’re never shown any actual attack or destruction, and our protagonists don’t witness any. It makes for lame TV, yes, but if we’re taking it seriously that’s also precisely what’s disturbing; these people have to abandon everything they’ve ever known without ever feeling the necessity with their senses. They have to act on the merely conceptual, in defiance of the soothing suburban setting, the comforts of home and family. This is the essence of anxiety: the impulse to overrule your own physical intuition that you are safe, and commit yourself bodily, by an act of willpower, to a world of danger that you know only through words.

The gradual subjugation of physical reality to apocalyptic thinking is represented by the tilted camera angles. Things are no longer themselves, in this household. They’re now part of the world of concepts.

“This world as we know it won’t exist much longer. It’s about to blow itself up,” says dad. Those big words are the full extent of the threat, but they’ve already poisoned everything. Maybe it’s that poison itself that they’re really escaping. In a sense, there’s no difference.

(After knowing the ending, you might argue that the crooked camera was actually a signal that this wasn’t Earth — but that’s effectively a denial of the intuitive sense it made all along: that the world of comfort has been denatured by anxiety.)

The tough question at the end of the episode, which the feint about Earth serves to push aside, is really: have these people done a sensible and necessary thing? Or have they just thrown away their lives out of sheer crazy anxiety, sacrificing everything on the altar of would-be rationalism? We have no way of knowing.

For me, and I imagine for many others, the greatest wound left by witnessing the destruction of the World Trade Center was thinking “well, I have been hearing on the news for years about the threat of terrorism, so I have only myself to blame for being surprised by this. I always filed that kind of talk away as conceptual rather than actual, and let lemonade etc. predominate in my sense of the world. But I won’t make that mistake again.” As though being my caught off guard were an unforgivable error.

Of course, trying to take reported concepts as deeply to heart as you take your own physical reality is a terribly destructive intention — far, far more disruptive to one’s life and well-being than whatever damage I might have suffered from being “surprised” by 9/11 — which was, after all, widely attested to have been surprising.

I’ve come back around since. I see now that the grains of salt that keep rational abstractions confined to their proper sphere — and keep “a cool drink on a porch” front and center while you’re having it — are a vital talisman for well-being. Yet one more bit of advice I wish I could pass back to Rod.

Besides the tilted camera, some additional clues that the Sturka family is from another planet: they listen to art music, have modernist, surrealist and ethnic painting and sculpture throughout their house, and have what looks like a shamisen on the living room wall. The signs of being cultured on Earth serve nicely as the signs of being an alien on TV. The average audience member’s ambivalence on this point serves the episode’s purposes: if I’m into stuff that’s a little off the beaten path — like, say, science fiction — does that make me an “us” or a “them”? “A little of both,” says TV.

The Sturkas also have rather loud curtains.

My first reaction to this episode was that it was painfully thin stuff, a précis instead of a script, with leaden execution. A second viewing didn’t exactly redeem it, but it did make clearer to me that it’s more dependent on its historical moment than any other episode we’ve seen. To our eyes it plays as duller and hokier than usual because it relies on very specific real-world anxieties that we no longer share. Other episodes, for all their period aesthetics and attitudes, still tend to be about psychological universals.

I for one still fear nuclear weapons themselves — they’re terrifying! — but I don’t have the specific period fear, the Dr. Strangelove fear, the one being played to here: that the petty men who run the world are right now caught up in an unstoppable march toward total destruction. In 1960, the audience had it buzzing in their bones. When the boss, Carling, sneers “You a defeatist, Sturka?” at the beginning of the episode, it doesn’t push my buttons and make me feel defensive. In 1960 it probably would have. And it needs to for the episode to work. Carling has no discernible motivation as written; he simply represents a voice the audience is expected to already have in their heads, abusing them.

It’s worth noting that the news in 1960 was not of nuclear tests themselves — none had not taken place since 1958 — but of the ongoing contentious efforts to negotiate some form of test ban treaty, which wouldn’t come to pass until 1963. I imagine that being exposed to constant political chest-thumping about nuclear policy would be more anxiety-inducing than hearing about actual bomb tests; it’s hubris and obliviousness that are truly scary. These days we don’t say that we’re worried about “the bomb,” we we say we’re worried about who has “the nuclear codes.” Weapons are just inert things; vast explosions may be devastating, but they are, in a sense, simple. Whereas the threat posed by people and their delusions, the threat posed by an untrustworthy society, is endlessly complex and harrowing.

(That’s the appeal of post-apocalyptic fantasies, in a nutshell: having to fight zombies to survive is a small price to pay for the profound relief that comes from the destruction of society and all its infinite menace.)

Serling’s adaptation of the bare-bones Richard Matheson source adds half of the characters and most of the details, but remains otherwise pretty much faithful. And yet tone and emphasis are different just by virtue of its being on film, since film is naturally allied to the sensual outlook, and prose to the rational. In Matheson’s terse, pulpy style, which uses almost no descriptive language, ideas seem to be playing out in the abstract, flattened space of the imagination, so the philosophical tension between the world of the real and the world of talk doesn’t really come across as central. Though we do get:

“For the future of life itself,” he finished weakly. He was sorry he said it. Early on a prosaic morning, over everyday food, that kind of talk didn’t sound right. Even if it was true.

On the other hand, in Matheson’s version the twist ending actually feels significant, much more like the point of the story, since we never get to really see or meet these characters — they all remain nameless the whole time — so finding out that they’re actually a “them” feels like essential information finally revealed, rather than arbitrary pin-the-tail-on-the-episode information.

I’ll grant that, superficial though it may be, that is the ending, and to most people it will be the only thing this episode has going for it, so maybe it seems perverse of me to refuse to take it more seriously. Certainly I agree that there’s plenty worth saying about the notion of saucermen being “so much more like us than we imagine!” I just choose to save such a discussion for an episode where the script is actually about that notion. (I haven’t checked, but chances seem good that there will be one.)

My intention here is to talk about how the episodes feel and function while they’re onscreen. The saucermen topic is more like something this episode encourages us to ponder on our own time — like the patronizing “questions for book groups” in the back of trade paperbacks.

Jeanne Evans (Mrs. Riden) was director Richard Bare’s wife at the time. Bare went on to direct “virtually every episode of the 1960s–1970s CBS television series Green Acres” and died only last year, at the age of 101.

Fritz Weaver is 90 and still alive.

Music is from stock: a lot of “time passes” water-treading cues, which don’t help the drama at all. It’s mostly taken from Bernard Herrmann’s “Outer Space” and “Western” sets of library cues, plus a couple of similar items by Marius Constant and Guy Luypaerts, composed and recorded at the same time as Herrmann’s.

How did these highbrow Parisians end up writing American TV music? I believe I read somewhere — I can’t find it anywhere right now, but I’ll return and edit this if it turns out to be terribly wrong — that during a long musician’s strike in 1957, CBS decided to spend its music budget on overseas sessions, recording general-purpose library music, and music department head Lud Gluskin thought it would be interesting (and convenient) to commission a bunch of local composers to write cues for the Paris sessions. More on this when we get to the famous second season theme, which was assembled from a couple of those pieces.

May 23, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 13. The Four of Us Are Dying


directed by John Brahm
teleplay by Rod Serling
based on a short story by George Johnson
starring Harry Townes, Phillip Pine, Ross Martin, and Don Gordon
with Harry Jackson, Bernard Fein, Peter Brocco, Milton Frome and Beverly Garland
music by Jerry Goldsmith

Friday, January 1, 1960, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

Happy New Year to all Twilight Zone creators, writers, producers, and narrators! It’s 1960! The year you turn… 36! Just like Arch Hammer, that unscrupulous, lowdown, no-good man! (Readers, please be aware that I had written the previous entry before watching this one and had no foreknowledge of Arch or his age.)

With this in mind, let’s consider the opening text as subconscious self-portraiture:

His name is Arch Hammer. He’s 36 years old. He’s been a salesman, a dispatcher, a truck driver, a con man, a bookie, and a part-time bartender. This is a cheap man, a nickel-and-dime man, with a cheapness that goes past the suit and the shirt: a cheapness of mind; a cheapness of taste. A tawdry little shine on the seat of his conscience, and a dark-room squint at a world whose sunlight has never gotten through to him. But Mr. Hammer has a talent, discovered at an early age. This much he does have: he can make his face change. He can twitch a muscle, move a jaw, concentrate on the cast of his eyes… and he can change his face. He can change it into anything he wants.

The seedy con-man in Rod — now the star of two consecutive episodes — is the embodiment of moral anxiety. “What evil am I secretly capable of?” This episode is basically the same as all stories where magic powers — particularly invisibility — are the road to voyeuristic corruption: first the nervous audience is tantalized and titillated by the thought of unlimited sex, money, and cruelty without consequence; then the villainous magicians get their deserts, and we go home feeling relieved to be relatively powerless.

“Voyeurism” is really just an expression of normal impulses, filtered through social phobia: the desire to be with people without suffering the risks and terrors of being known to them. The existence of “invisible man” cautionary tales — in fact, the very notion of “voyeurism” itself, this idea that wanting to look at people even though you’re scared of them is a DIRE PERVERSION — is a product of social-phobic self-flagellation, which is to say a product of social anxiety itself. I.e.: “I like people, but people don’t like or accept me. Oh god, if they ever found out I like them, I’m sure they’d think I’m a super-creep. And since I really want to fit in, I’ll try to get in line with that opinion and agree: it’s true, I’m a super-creep. Oh god, what creepy things might I do? Thank god I don’t have the power to turn invisible, or you can bet I’d spend all my time being downright cheap and tawdry. A cheapness of mind; a cheapness of taste.”

But “The Four of Us Are Dying” brings it even closer to home, by making Hammer’s “most odd talent” be one of transformation, rather than disappearance. If Rod isn’t sure who he is — an innocent kid in idyllic Binghamton? a boxer in the ring? a soldier killing men in the south Pacific? a calculating ladies’ man? a husband and father? a hack writer? a TV producer in a suit? — he may well feel that in any given role he’s a phony, just playing a part for his own gain, hiding behind yet another convenient mask, living out his life in a personal twilight zone. And isn’t that, after all, a writer’s “most odd talent”? You tell lies about yourself, and sell them to anyone who’ll buy. Last week he was “Fred Renard.” This week he’s “Arch Hammer.” The question is, who is he when he checks into the “Hotel Real”?

In other words, Rod’s not even sure he’s entitled to the make-believe on which the show is founded; even this kind of escape is potentially dirty.

And we don’t have to have written it to share in his discomfort. Being audience to fiction is just as protean as inventing it; just as guilty, if you’re susceptible to that kind of guilt. There’s something noir about enjoying something like noir, make-believing your way into a wonderland of neon and cigarettes and dames that really, properly, aren’t yours.

Why not a beautiful dame? Why not? I never had a dish like that! I’ve never been loved like that! Why shouldn’t I?

This story — this girl, this money, this nocturnal glamour — is as much an undeserved fantasy for the audience as for Hammer. Who are we this week? This is a dream, and in a dream, we can be anyone: we just have to think of a face.

Oh god, we’re such creeps!

I’ll admit that the first time I watched this episode it didn’t really hang together for me because I couldn’t feel my way into that basic dream-guilt; I don’t share it with Rod. The episode just seemed like a series of disconnected ideas — especially the melodramatic scene with Mr. Marshak, which felt tonally arbitrary and more than a little silly.

It was only on second viewing when all the above clicked for me — oh, I see, the feeling is supposed to be guilt — and suddenly the Marshak scene made sense too. It’s a classic dream moment: in the midst of all the fantasy of changeability — I’m a cool cat! I’m a tough gangster! I’m a macho boxer! — suddenly deep, dark familial guilt rises up and pins you down. The scene confused me the first time around because I took it literally, as just some weird speech intended for the random boxer from the poster. But of course in a dream, the dad is just as protean as the self; for Rod, dreaming this episode, this dad is the dad. We’re to understand that underneath the borrowed face, in some mythical sense, Marshak has the right man after all. Hammer himself deserves every word, just as he deserves the bullet.

“I gotta concentrate! I gotta concentrate!” he pleads, trying to out-think society yet again, but the inescapable Other who represents emotional truth cannot be escaped, and kills him. To invisible men, the fear of being made visible is indistinguishable from the expectation of death, so here, out of left field, is that death you ordered.

Beyond the sudden contrivance of it, it’s also unsatisfying that the “figure of truth” is just some guy operating under a misapprehension. It would be a more effective ending, I think, if Mr. Marshak was made a little more weird and biblical when he showed up at the end, a little more like an avenging angel.

(A father killing his own adult son is a relative rarity in fiction, no? Nice paired casting, by the way. I thought maybe they really were father and son. Nope.)

I mean, look: I’m trying as always to speak to the psychological root here, and I mean what I’m saying, but the fact is, this is a goofy and clumsy episode. As I’m sure you already agree. Great neon lights set, though.

• The “scattered clippings” on the bed (see above) are just repeated duplicates of the only two clippings actually used in the episode. I guess he bought several copies of the paper.

• More of Serling’s undercooked pretentiousness (a la “And When The Sky Was Opened”): “Mourning becomes you, Maggie.” / “Me and Electra.” What could possibly be the point of this meaningless and utterly inapt allusion? (No, this doesn’t relate to my comment about a parent killing a child; Electra kills her mother in revenge for her mother having killed her father. Like Hamlet. If you want to make a case for how this relates to “The Four of Us Are Dying,” be my guest, but I’m skeptical.)

• I note that Rod oddly neglects to end the episode by reminding us that it all happened “in… The Twilight Zone.” And it feels wrong not to hear it. Why, after all, are we tilting up to the stars if he’s not going to tell us what zone this is?

George Clayton Johnson, author of the source story, will be back with original scripts later, from which we’ll get a better sense of his personality. The original story here, apparently called “All of Us Are Dying,” isn’t available online so I can’t speak to it; reports are that as usual Serling dumped just about everything but the premise. It is worth noting that in this case, the story was unpublished when Serling bought it, and though it did later see print, is generally considered as an appendix to the Twilight Zone episode rather than its precursor.

Passing thought while rewatching: This is the greatest TV series of all time. Look what craziness it gives us the opportunity to see! And think what variety of further craziness it’s going to encompass! It’s a true thrill. And such a show is no longer possible.

The reason this can’t be done again (and why all attempts at reboots seem weak) is because we don’t have a sturdy no-frills directorial standard practice anymore that can accommodate all this stuff convincingly. There is no artistic tradition today that could so easily scoop up this particular story, say, and deliver it, as-is, without aesthetic strain. None of this acting, none of this camera technique, is conceivable in the present culture. And that seems like a sign of cultural weakness. We should aspire to be capable of anything. The cult of originality has deprived us of the reassuring competence of generalism. I’d gladly trade back, if we could.

Now that’s out of the way, I can admit what this episode is really all about: ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Jerry Goldsmith!

30 years old, with only three film scores under his belt, but already clearly embarked on his life’s work of writing terrific, inventive music for mediocre productions. My considerable enthusiasm for his sound world (plink thunk wah-wah buzz whoosh snap!) is sadly dampened by the fact that most of it is wedded to junk. Even with this score, I find myself wishing the episode were better just for the sake of the music. This is great stuff.

Composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith.

Recorded December 4, 1959, 7:30AM–12:10PM, Goldwyn Studios

16 players:

Maurice Carlton, Nicholas Dann, Herman Gunkler, Ralph Lee, and Jack Stacy, reeds
(= 2 flutes, 3 clarinets / 2 alto saxes, 2 tenor saxes, baritone sax)
Leonard Mach, Uan Rasey, and Manuel Stevens, trumpets
Marshall Cram, Edward Kusby, Randall Miller, and William Schaefer, trombones
Sam Furman, piano
Robert Stone, bass
Milton Holland and Bernie Mattinson, percussion
(= drum kit / vibraphone / xylophone / marimba / bongo / boo-bams / gourd)

Incidentally, my source for this stuff also gives the date for the “sideline” call (i.e. the on-camera musicians) and thus the date the bar scene was filmed:

September 3, 1959, 7:30AM—5:30PM (Sideline), 4:15–7:15PM (Recording), MGM Studios

3 musicians: Sam Furman, Maurice Carlton, and Robert Stone (all of whom, as you see, played the real score, too. The trumpet player with lines, however, is an actor.)

May 15, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 12. What You Need


directed by Alvin Ganzer
teleplay by Rod Serling
based on the short story by Lewis Padgett
starring Steve Cochran and Ernest Truex
with Read Morgan, Arline Sax, William Edmonson, Doris Karnes, Fred Kruger, Norman Sturgis
music by Van Cleave

Friday, December 25, 1959, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

Yes, that’s right, we’ve skipped all the way to Christmas, because last Friday — i.e. December 18, 1959 — The Twilight Zone was pre-empted. Press release follows.

“Iran: Brittle Ally,” an hour-long television portrait of the oil rich U.S. ally which shares a 2,000-mile common border with the Soviet Union, will be the third program in the “CBS REPORTS” series on Friday, Dec. 18, 10:00–11:00 p.m. The program will be presented just four days after President Eisenhower visits Iran on his tour of Asian and Middle Eastern nations, and will include scenes of his visit.

CBS News Correspondents Edward R. Murrow and Winston Burdett will narrate the special filmed program. They will interview Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, as well as other Iranians from various walks of life, and American citizens living and working in Iran. Among those on the program will be Abol Hassan Ebtehaj, until recently Managing Director of Iran’s Plan Organization; David E. Lilienthal, former Director of the Tennessee Valley Authority, who is currently supervising the building of a similar project for the Iranian government in Kuzistan; and Col. William A. Kuhn, Deputy Chief of the U. S. Mission to Iran.

Iran, historically known as Persia, is a constitutional monarchy and has been ruled by kings for 2500 years, longer than any other country in the world. Geological surveys indicate that the country fairly floats in oil. The huge refinery at Abadan is the world’s largest, with a daily production capacity of 410,000 barrels. On the Dec. 18 program, viewers will see phases of the oil industry at Abadan as well as scenes of Iran’s two next best-known world export industries, the production of caviar (from the Caspian Sea) and the weaving of (Persian) carpets.

This program sounds like an admirable and surely expensive piece of work by CBS News, so I don’t begrudge it pre-empting the Twilight Zone. As far as I can tell, Iran: Brittle Ally is no longer extant (though a transcript survives). What does it say about our culture that 60 years later, The Twilight Zone is available in pristine condition for anyone to watch, whereas Edward R. Murrow’s interview with the Shah of Iran (of “actual history” fame) has apparently been lost or destroyed?

IT SAYS NOTHING, is the answer. It just happens to be that way. (Also, if it did say something, it wouldn’t necessarily be something negative.)

Anyway, that’s a little blast of The Glaringly Bright Zone — a quick taste of “historical time,” which serves nicely as a palate-cleanser between bouts of mythical time. (That’s why CBS ran it, presumably.)

Now back to our regularly scheduled Twilight.

What You Need is sort of a “goose that lays the golden eggs” story. In this one the goose happens to win, but it doesn’t change the message: “this is why we can’t have nice things.”

(Which is an expression that I deeply dislike. It’s a nugget of pure resentment — ostensibly “something everyone’s parents said” but actually a quite dysfunctional thing for any parent to ever say — now being compulsively passed around in the culture as a supposedly tongue-in-cheek “wisecrack” that is, in fact, tacit perpetuation of the same resentment. “Joke” resentment is always more insidious than overt resentment; it’s like a cockroach that can squeeze into any crack.)

Anyway, it’s not a very good episode, but it’s an interesting spin on the magic-man Santa Claus motif, since it’s about dread of the impulse to abuse him. The lead character (“Mr. Renard,” eh?) represents Rod telling himself: “aw, even if there were a magic man, I’m sure I’d still manage to louse it all up, what with my venal nature.” As usual — as always — the essential conflict is just one fantasy identity chasing another. This time it’s the lowlife and the kindly old man. The test pilot and the nerdy little dork and the ordinary suit weren’t invited to this one, but there’s always next week.

It’s starting to be almost embarrassing how they all happen to be 36.

This episode, in fact, aired on Rod Serling’s 35th birthday (Jesus’s 1959th), which we can read as an anxiety gauge. It means that he gave himself about one year’s forgiveness, intuited about one year left between himself and his day of reckoning. The protagonists have to be 36 — rather than say 66, or 16 — because to Serling, by 66 the question “what sort of person” is already decided (either “a kindly old” or “a mean old”); at 16, any answer to the question “what sort of person” is too obviously provisional. Whereas 36 is the age when the question is answered decisively and irreversibly: the official life-narrative will finally stand revealed! This is what “drama” promises and threatens, so obviously, he thinks, the subject of any drama ought to be at that age. You can hear it in his voice, that to 35-year-old Rod, nothing promises high stakes more chillingly than saying “Protagonist. 36 years old.”

As usual — exactly like I said about Perchance to Dream and The Lonely — the heart of the episode is a dream dialogue between the two halves of the self, the way of nature facing off against the way of grace:

“I don’t need a partner. I don’t need anything. I’m content.” / “Your partner don’t satisfy so easy.”

“Serenity, peace of mind, humor, the ability to laugh at oneself. Those are the things you need most. But it’s beyond my power to give them to you.”

Then we get a convenient ending where the magic man has in some passive sense tricked Renard. This is, as usual, a psychologically phony way of contriving a conventional resolution. In this case it’s also not very satisfying because the particulars are so dumb. “Suddenly, everyone was run over by a truck.

Frankly the whole premise is vague. Is it just that the guy magically knows what people will need? Or is it that he magically arranges good fortune for them, and these props are obscurely the instrument of it? The baseball player at the beginning doesn’t actually need a ticket to Scranton in any magical way; once he has a reason, he can just buy one. What he needs is the job itself, which is offered to him out of the blue immediately after encountering the old man. So did the old man do it, or not? Seems like our writer didn’t really care about the distinction; the important thing is just that this old man is a magic-man Santa Claus. That much comes through crystal clear.

The real underlying premise is just the standard fantasy that life is a story and all our uncertainties are just uncertainties about the text. “Oh I see, then I get hired to coach that team in Scranton. Well that answers that!” This fantasy has such deep roots that it hardly even feels like a fantasy. We can play along without it being spelled out coherently.

Rod is admirably blasé about rules; rules would just weigh these dreams down. When he does give rules, they usually feel inserted, disingenuous. “The things you need you need just once.” Oh?

This story had the rare distinction of having already been adapted for TV, on ABC’s Tales of Tomorrow in 1952. That version is almost entirely faithful to the original story (from the October 1945 issue of Astounding Science Fiction) — except for a moral hedge at the very end.

The original story has actual science fiction in it, and also sort of a point to make about ethics: that perfect knowledge is incompatible with standard morality. Whereas the Twilight Zone version, as usual, strips the scenario down to its simplest paper-doll dream-image, and then invests it with vague psychological angst.

It’s like the stories are adapted for the show by being read to a nervous child and then a script is written based on the child’s drawing. More or less, I think, this is indeed how it works. The child’s name is Rod Serling, and the drawing is in his head.

We think of cultural material as always being siphoned upward, from a state of “folk” where it’s born wild, toward increasingly self-aware sophistication. It’s good to remember that sometimes it also goes the other way. Rod Serling is sort of like the Brothers Grimm, but instead of culling his stories up from the dreamlife of the illiterate commoners, he’s plucking them from the literate world and melting them back down toward unselfconscious fable.

Anyway, the Tales of Tomorrow version is pretty good. It’s certainly interesting viewing as an example of relatively ambitious live TV from 1952; the three-camera technique is already impressive in its way, but the impression is strong that TV still saw itself as “visible radio.” That’s an antiquated point of view but I found it can also be stimulating — how luxurious it is, after all, to be able to see all these people!

Story author Lewis Padgett, by the way, was a pseudonym for the husband-and-wife team of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. Apparently in at least some of their jointly-credited works, they genuinely split their writing — trading off sessions at the typewriter — so there’s no knowing which of them wrote this one, or which parts of this one. (I suspect that if I really studied their individual styles I’d have some guess, but I haven’t and I’m not going to. I’ve read “Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” also by “Lewis Padgett,” but that’s it.)

Van Cleave’s music isn’t in the same league as his score for Perchance to Dream, but it’s not bad — the “magic” arpeggio figure is nice, and I respect how he manages to apply it constantly without wearing it out. Good use of organ, too. I’m not sure “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is so tremendously apt that it needs to be in every scene; I guess Rod must have said “play up the Christmas-y aspect of the story, ’cause it’s airing on Christmas.” And since there isn’t really any Christmas-y aspect of the story, Van Cleave must have felt it was incumbent on him to hit it pretty hard.

Composed and conducted by Nathan Van Cleave
Recorded December 9, 1959, 9AM – 12:15PM, Goldwyn Studios.

9 players:
Joseph Krechter, clarinet / bass clarinet
James Decker, James McGee, and Richard Perissi, horns
David Filerman, George Neikrug, and Olga Zundel, cello
Jack Cookerly and Eugene LePique, organ / piano / celeste

April 13, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 11. And When the Sky Was Opened


directed by Douglas Heyes
teleplay by Rod Serling
based on a short story by Richard Matheson
starring Rod Taylor
with James Hutton and Charles Aidman
music by Leonard Rosenman

Friday, December 11, 1959, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

As you well know by now (but I’m about to say it again anyway, to refresh after a couple months’ break), my basic framework for reading The Twilight Zone is to treat it like dream interpretation. To wit: the unresolved foreboding that makes up the majority of an episode’s running time constitutes the episode’s real meaning, whereas the ultimate twist resolution, no matter how clarifying it might seem, is actually a defense against the true meaning, a rationalizing escape route that allows us to deny and suppress the emotion we’ve just been experiencing.

At first it might seem like “And When the Sky Was Opened” defies this scheme, since there’s no “twist” per se; the nightmare just intensifies in the final act, and the only explanation we’re ever given is fuzzy and mystical:

It’s as if… as if maybe we shouldn’t have come back from that flight at all. Maybe somebody… something… made a mistake and let us get through when we shouldn’t have.

In other words, “the reason this is happening is because some Other is doing it.”

The old pulp convention of alluding vaguely to “somebody… something…” is basically a butterfly net for catching up any and all projected ideas of Higher Authority. Even those in the audience who would scoff at the concepts of “God” and “Fate” still have social intuitions of Authority, like anyone else; they just need to be snagged delicately, without waking the dreamer. Hence all those Ellipses… Of… The Uncanny!… which are the sound of the rational mind being tiptoed toward as it snoozes, its hand loosely grasping the keyring, its villainous moustache fluttering with every wheeze. The keys of course unlock the cell of “sanity.”

“It’s as if… somehow… this was… supposed to happen.” Got ’em!

Anyway, as I was saying: it may seem like “And When the Sky Was Opened” doesn’t follow the standard scheme of repressive rationalization, because it never turns a corner into revealing or explaining itself. But, in a sense, the whole story is an “explanation” that serves to cushion the real core of the episode, the bulk of its action: Forbes’s struggle to be taken seriously and make himself understood. As usual, it’s fundamentally a social crisis that we’re watching, not actually a science-fictional one. Forbes has memories that aren’t corroborated by other people, and so is forced to contend with the terrifying feeling that either he or everybody else must be insane. Everything to do with the test flight into space, the “somebody… something” making a mistake, and the eventual obliteration of these three military men — it’s all a narrative misdirection that just serves to take the edge off the actual angst, the underlying nightmare: the fear of having the contents of your mind differ from the people around you.

It’s really no different from the old Lady Vanishes, North By Northwest, Spanish Prisoner scenario — you return to the scene the next day and lo, it’s all changed and you’re the only one who remembers the thing you remember — but here without any deceit or scam as an “out.” The essential nausea of that dramatic situation, after all, is not of being betrayed but of having the feeling that you haven’t been betrayed, that the discrepancy between realities is in fact socially absolute, which means that your sanity, the root of your claim to social integration, is on the line. For much of “And When the Sky Was Opened,” this horror stands relatively exposed: the direct conflict of mutually incompatible subjectivities.

This episode’s use of the trope is distinctive in that it implies that the nauseating discrepancy between one man’s reality and another’s is transmissible. One version of the world seems to be catching, like a virus; the dividing line between realities is a moving storm front. The world as we know it is all in our minds, so we’re extremely dependent on one another’s minds. The episode shares this idea with “outbreak” plots, movies about zombies and pod people. The deepest horror is not actually of the specific symptoms of the virus that’s going around (in this case, complete non-existence), but of the fact that one’s only defense against insanity — namely, corroboration from other people — is the very part of the the self/world complex that is diseased. If you can no longer trust other people to confirm that you’re a person and that the world is the world, all you have left to work with is your own animal instinct. And that’s where the fear lives.

It’s worth noting that in these sorts of stories — that is, stories where someone says “I know it sounds impossible but you gotta believe me, Harry! It was right there, I saw it with my own eyes!” — we always know that the “crazy” guy is gonna turn out to be right. Our narrative sympathies are always instinctively with the “insane.” Uneasy sympathies, but sympathies nonetheless; deep down we all resent the notion of “insanity,” exactly because it’s a determination always to be made by an unreliable, zombie-susceptible, world of other people. Who are they to say who’s sane?

Escapist entertainment is an opportunity to indulge this resentment. But we’re not ready quite to throw in our lot with pure individual irrationality, either, since that brings its own world of lonely terrors. So our expectation is that such stories will put us through the changes — briefly test the water — and then deposit us back down where we think we belong, in some kind of cute compromise between individuality and “sanity” that conforms to the fashion of the moment.

Consider the philosophical slalom that must obligatorily be negotiated by something like, say, Harvey. (Which I suppose I should admit I’ve never seen all the way through. But would like to.)

Or consider Don Quixote, which, as I recall it from many years ago, seems like perhaps it’s going on and on and on just because Cervantes isn’t truly happy with any particular form of cute compromise. How after all ought Don Quixote to end? Ask your intuition. My gut tells me that, properly, it ought not to.

Maybe I sound inconsistent here. Earlier I said that The Lady Vanishes et al. give some sort of plotted “out” from the horror of experiencing disparate realities (i.e.: The Lady didn’t actually vanish; the people on the train are lying as part of an intrigue), whereas “And When The Sky Was Opened” is more merciless about trapping us with the essential discomfort. And yet just prior to that I was saying, at some length, that The Twilight Zone always provides its own sort of explanatory “out,” and that this episode is indeed no exception.

Well, both things are true. The difference — between The Twilight Zone and The Lady Vanishes — is one of degree, not type. My overarching Twilight Zone theory — that it’s a true fear followed by a false rationalization — is just an extension of the same principles at work in more “realistic” entertainments. What is The Lady Vanishes appealing to in the human soul if not this same thing, more obscurely?

Many stories are fantasies, but don’t dare admit it to themselves, nervously cloaking themselves in the garb of realism. Generally, The Twilight Zone is a fantasy that admits it, but still doesn’t dare admit what kind — that is, that it’s actually an emotional or social fantasy rather than a truly scientific or “paranormal” one.

The sci-fi justification for this particular episode is, as I’ve said, admirably thin-to-absent. But even what little there is doesn’t really hang together. If at the end of the episode, these guys have been removed not just from Earth but from all of Time, past present and future, why does the hangar still have a separate fenced-off area with a dust cover for the absent X-20? That certainly seems like “they never returned from their trip” rather than “they’ve never existed.”

Indeed, there’s already something strange about the idea that this particular test flight brought about their retroactive nonexistence — including presumably the nonexistence of the test flight. If the Eerie Someone Or Something that brings about their absence lives Outside Of Time, presumably It wouldn’t need to wait for any particular moment in time — and certainly not for a spaceship to fly up into Its neck of the woods and catch Its attention — to realize that It wanted to eat these guys.

(So on second thought, I guess what we’re supposed to take away is that the Great Authority hasn’t actually rewritten the past, has only rewritten the present world — including everyone’s memories — so that the permanent abduction of these guys goes unnoticed by the rest of humanity. Which, I note, is the exact inverse of that clever episode of Rick and Morty about memory parasites. I have no doubt the Rick and Morty writers had seen this one.)

This episode — like “Where Is Everybody?” but even more literally — equates the frontiers of military technology with unthinkable extremes, where emotional and existential normality threaten to break down. The recurring association is, I think, not coincidental within the mind of Rod Serling, whose tortured relationship to the Higher Authority of Uncle Sam and the military establishment is fueling a lot of this stuff. As the series continues we’ll be seeing lots more test pilots, astronauts, and soldiers wrestling with deep existential confusion, imposed, in the line of duty, from somewhere on high. 900 miles and higher.

This is our first episode based on a Richard Matheson story, although only very loosely. The differences between the Matheson and the Serling versions are perhaps instructive.

In the original 1953 story, “Disappearing Act,” there is no outer space and no military; the story is presented as the diary of an unsuccessful writer, and his eventual disappearing act is fate’s answer to his private plea for the universe to be simpler (than his tangle of frustrations, infidelities, confused emotions):

I’m sick of it all anyway. Bills, bills. Writing, writing. Failures, failures, failures! And little old life dribbling on, building up its beautiful, brain-bursting complexities like an idiot with blocks.

You! Who run the world, who spin the universe. If there’s anybody listening to me, make the world simpler! I don’t believe in anything but I’d give… anything. If only…

Oh, what’s the use? I don’t care anymore.

This private wish brings about the gradual Lady Vanishes erasure of everyone and everything he has ever known or has ever known him, with him going last, and the diary remaining behind. (Final sentence: “I’m having a cup of cof”)

Matheson’s framework gives a richer meaning to the gimmick, even a moral: recognize that wanting less of the messy stuff of life means wanting less of your own existence. It’s a cautionary tale about getting what you wish for, but since the caution is fantastical, it’s really just a reminder: look more clearly at your wishes.

The Rod Serling version does away with any such overt wishing. These particular three guys weren’t wishers — they were just minding their masculine American business, breaking sound barriers and whatnot, under orders from Uncle Sam. Any cautionary moral is thoroughly buried in their subconscious, underneath and behind their commitment to that system of values. That’s the Rod Serling way.

But perhaps for storytelling purposes that way is actually preferable. It’s truer to the nature of dream not to know one’s wish consciously, or put it into words.

Because “careful what you wish for” does apply, somewhere below the surface. It still feels like a “careful what you wish for” story, even though there’s no onscreen wishing.

What is it, then, that these three men have ventured, that dooms them to erasure? I’d say it’s ultimately something similar to the frustrated writer’s desire for a simpler world. Implicit in their masculine American military ordinariness is their willed dedication to that way of being, as an illusion of order. They followed orders and flew into space and into danger; someone needed them to do it, so they did it, ’cause that’s what men do. So they want to believe.

Look how conspicuously the episode shows them going through the motions of 1. JOSHING ONE ANOTHER and 2. DRINKING BEER and 3. HITTING ON WOMEN. On the face of it, that’s all just there to serve on prime-time TV as some “normality,” as something to get broken down by the coming paranormality — but that’s exactly my point: even the mass audience subconsciously agrees that this tight concept of “normality” is cruisin’ for a bruisin’.

These guys want to believe in their particular world of conventions, a world simpler than the one we actually live in, because they want life to run smoothly. And so the Great Irony Beast makes it so. “You want to comfortably know your place in relation to everyone and everything; you want to just get along with the world and fit in? Then I guess you don’t want to be you. That can be arranged.”

(This is what I take to be the meaning of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, too.)

Another thing Rod has altered is the title. “And When the Sky Was Opened.” What does this title mean?

One guy on IMDB says it’s a reference to Acts 10:11 (in which Peter has a vision of a picnic blanket descending from the heavens with all the animals of the world on it, which he is encouraged to eat — no, really) because in one translation (not King James, for what it’s worth) it includes the phrase “and he saw the sky opened up,” which is as close as the bible ever comes to the exact words “And When the Sky Was Opened.”

Another guy on IMDB says it’s a reference to the line “When the pie was opened” from “Sing a Song of Sixpence” (again with eating animals!)

These both seem extremely unlikely to me, not least because they have absolutely nothing to do with the content of the episode.

As best I can tell, the title is simply an embarrassing Serling stab at “ominous, bookish, biblical-quote-style resonance” without any actual biblical quote to sustain it. Sure sounds like some kind of awesome literary reference, right? Good enough for government work.

Here are some other good grown-up-sounding titles for anything:

“For As The Book Was Sealed And All Looked Upon It”
“Else He Too Be Forsaken In That Land”
“As Ever Unto Little Children”
“Or When In Gardens Green We Tarry”

These titles are especially well suited for stories that take place on Mars, but don’t let that constrain you. Knock yourself out. These titles are offered under a Creative Commons license, etc. etc.

Music is by the fairly esteemed Leonard Rosenman. This is his only Twilight Zone score; I assume the choice not to return — if it was a choice — was his rather than Rod’s, because this is very good work indeed.

Rosenman is sometimes noted for his relatively highbrow approach to the Hollywood style, and while this episode isn’t anything too ostentatious, it definitely has an angular modernist feel that makes a satisfying contrast with Herrmann’s minimalist/Romantic approach. (This points the way that the series as a whole is going to go, toward the bizarre-modern of the 60s, typified by the second (more famous) main title music.)

I thought maybe I’d just link to one standout cue, but the entire track is only 12 minutes and it’s all pretty good, I think. So enjoy.

I happen to have some info on these scores, so heck, I’ll share it. I like thinking about the real place that this stuff came from; maybe you will too.

Composed and conducted by Leonard Rosenman.
Recorded November 23, 1959, 2–5 PM, Goldwyn Studios.

12 players:
Sylvia Ruderman, flute [no relation (?)]
Charles Gentry and Mitchell Lurie, clarinets
Sinclair Lott, horn
Robert DiVall, trumpet
Frank Flynn and Ralph Hansell, percussion
Verlye Mills, harp
Ray Turner, piano and celeste
Israel Baker, violin
George Neikrug, cello [still alive!]
Robert Stone, bass

February 3, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 10. Judgment Night


directed by John Brahm
written by Rod Serling
starring Nehemiah Persoff
with Deirdre Owen, Patrick Macnee, Ben Wright, Leslie Bradley, Kendrick Huxham, Hugh Sanders, Richard Peel, Donald Journeaux, Barry Bernard, and James Franciscus

Friday, December 4, 1959, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

This is The Twilight Zone at its very clunkiest: a single simplistic notion, gracelessly drawn out to length. No story, just a situation. And a situation, at that, whose only justification is: “imagine if God had magically instituted this situation.”

This is highly schematic stuff — one pictures Rod Serling slamming this one out on a pack of cigarettes and no sleep, writer’s block be damned — and I’d like to dispense with it quickly.

The pre-twist unease, such as it is, has to do with one’s sense of place in the world, one’s self-narrative in social life. Having amnesia, or being arbitrarily inserted into a situation that isn’t properly yours, is not so very different a nightmare from something more overtly supernatural like Where Is Everybody? Being socially grounded doesn’t just mean having pleasant or welcoming people around; they have to be the right people. One cannot truly be part of society if one doesn’t feel internally that there is a match between the inner and outer narratives. Mr. Lanser seems to be in the wrong story, which is uneasy-making because it denies him (and us) any natural action. What are his sympathies? What is his agenda? He can’t have one, because he’s been stripped of the basics of social selfhood.

Unfortunately for the viewer, the ultimate nature of Mr. Lanser’s predicament is such that the episode can’t afford for him to make any real headway in dealing with this feeling of social mismatch, so as food for thought, his situation isn’t very rewarding. Mostly he just sits around, waiting for the other shoe to drop, staring into space as though he’s trying to find something between his teeth with his tongue.

The post-war game of pretending to exercise how far conventional sympathies can stretch is, from today’s point of view, awfully dull. (“My god, the Germans were people too?”) Feigning as though such questions were hard and eye-opening and salutary was surely pretty thin soup for even the most propaganda-committed Americans. Watching a straw German undergo this exercise is one degree less absurd, but only just (“Mein gott, ze Allies vere people too?”). Rod seems to understand that this is a nonstarter as a tale of moral growth, and he leaves Lanser’s degree of eventual enlightenment ambiguous. After all, the eternal punishment would start to seem like the work of an evil God, rather than merely a brutal one, if we saw that every night of his endless torment, Lanser learns a lesson of compassion and takes it to heart. So he doesn’t. Nothing happens. And that nothing happens over and over again.

Fear of ultimate eternal punishment by an ultimate authority is about the most psychologically retrograde of devices for creating horror. “What if God, the universe, were a being of infinite malice — and what if that malice were just?” Such hellfire fantasies always strike me as distasteful and inhumane, because as long as we are quaking in our boots contemplating this scenario, we are also endorsing the malice within ourselves. If eternal torment seems in any way like apt “poetic justice” to you, you are carrying the spirit of vengeance in your own heart. The idea that this story is not the pungent fancy of a traumatized veteran’s imagination but, in fact, God’s holy and correct “Judgment Night,” is the flimsiest of all facades to excuse our own indulging ourselves some cruelty. It would have been much healthier to be honest about where these images were coming from.

“That German bad guy only got what he deserved, after all!” A remorseful German “good guy” is dropped in at the end like a kewpie doll to try to wring some sense of moral ambivalence out of an audience already assumed to tacitly approve of eternal torment. But of course he doesn’t show up on the time-loop ghost ship. Unclear what The Twilight Zone had in store for him.

There’s something transparently arbitrary about the fact that the underlying sin is not that Lanser was a Nazi, per se, but that he… didn’t give his victims warning. This is just a technicality with a vaguely “ethical” ring to it, clutched at in attempt to paper over the open secret that war is war and all its victims, by definition, are treated inhumanely.

Rod Serling was in heavy combat in World War II and was scarred by seeing his companions die. Wanting to work those feelings out is only natural, and sharing that process with the rest of the traumatized country, through his TV show, seems a perfectly honorable thing to do. But there’s a big difference between “justice” and “anger,” and you can’t properly work out anger if you insist that it’s actually justice. An episode like this finds Rod (and many Americans like him, no doubt) muddled by his own embarrassment, trying to turn his pain and fury into something neater and more orderly: a system of right and wrong.

That’s a common project, but it never works out. Someone like me, on the outside, with no ax to grind, can see immediately that an equation is being proposed with no solution. Rod is the good German and the bad German and all the victims on the ship and the god whose Inferno this is, and the only way to reconcile it all is through his pain, which is not itself on the table.

To watch this as pure Twilight Zone episode, the audience has to do the work that Rod didn’t manage to do, and connect the dots into something that resembles a well-formed story:

This cold-hearted man doomed the innocent, but there’s no escaping Fate, which thus inflicts that same doom back on him… albeit in a ghostly state of half-awareness. As it must be; such moral inversions can only play out on an inner stage of purely subjective reality. The life of a ghost is necessarily one of constant dream-disorientation, an asocial existence still haunted by the memory of people, and it is that very force, the memory of people, that is having its revenge on him in a state beyond death.

There, see, I understand it all fine. (It’s the same skeleton as Time Enough at Last, in fact.) The show just had to give the slightest indications and the rest was second nature. We’re all eager and ready to dismiss all the stuff that’s extraneous or contradictory. The audience is very practiced at working in tandem with the author to feed itself the nightmares it’s already accustomed to having, overcoming, and then having again. We’re all in this together. Every night. Forever.

Music is stock. Most of it is from Bernard Herrmann’s “Outer Space” and “Western” suites of library music. Sturdy stuff.

February 1, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 9. Perchance to Dream


directed by Robert Florey
written by Charles Beaumont
starring Richard Conte
also starring John Larch
and featuring Suzanne Lloyd
music by Van Cleave

Friday, November 27, 1959, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

This one has a distinctly different texture and spirit. Probably this can be attributed to the three creatives making their Twilight Zone debut: Charles Beaumont, Robert Florey, and Nathan Van Cleave. We may be still stuck inside the head of a neurotic, but the concerns aren’t those of Rod Serling. The fears being plumbed here are more mysterious, wetter. The high expressionist, quasi-surreal style isn’t within Rod’s reach as a writer, I don’t think. It takes a certain daring, a certain social disregard, to put stuff like this to paper. This episode gives a clear sense of a less conventional personality at work.

I was reminded throughout this episode of the unforgettably scary diner scene from Mulholland Drive, where the guy summons his nightmare into reality by recounting it. (If you haven’t seen it before, fair warning: I’m not kidding!) That scene works so well because it correctly captures that in a dream, there is no difference between the feeling of dread and the thing that is dreaded: they are both manifestations of the same swell of emotion. Watching the scene, we understand subconsciously from our own dream experiences that we’re being subjected to a cresting wave of fear that cannot be averted, that must be endured. The idea that one could rid oneself of that kind of fear by “confronting it” is an illusion — there is nothing external about it, so there’s nothing to confront. This is the mistake made by the guy in the scene; his quest to exorcise the godawful feeling is what forces the fear to manifest itself bodily and, at least in the context of the scene, kill him. (More likely, he simply wakes up.)

The car crash sequence in “Perchance to Dream” is the very same scene, even though it’s framed somewhat differently (as a flashback, and explicitly as a case of the mind playing tricks on itself). Every time I watch it I feel dread that the Mulholland Drive monster is going to slide into view in the mirror. (The actual dissolve to mysterious eyes is blessedly gentle.) And the whole episode is an exploration of the same kind of fear: fear of fear itself.

Fear is of course a manifestation of the irrational, subjective side of the mind. So we’re really dealing with the same subject matter as in every other episode, but here the emphasis is shifted. Previously the threat has been: what goes on inside your head might cut you off from society. Here the threat is: what goes on inside your head might kill you, and society won’t be able to get in there to save you.

“Maya the Cat Girl” is Hall’s own irrational self, which he nervously imagines as having attributes relating to sex and to the animal kingdom, and dwelling in a sleazy, mysterious underworld that simultaneously entices and frightens him. All pretty standard stuff, says Dr. Freud. As he moves toward this projected self in his dream, half his fear manifests in “him,” as a sense of impending doom, and half manifests in “her,” as a malicious desire to bring about his doom. She becomes the supposed “source” of his fear — the one who, as the guy in Mulholland Drive says, “is doing it.”

In reality, since she is him, the deadly fear she seems to be inflicting on him is none other than the fear that he is already experiencing, siphoning around in a vicious circle. The roller-coaster ride gets wilder the more frightened he gets; the fear is making it go.

Even before the “twist” reveal that he’s been asleep the whole time, Hall’s ultimate dream-death is already depicted as a perverse suicide — he leaps out the window exactly because he so dreads that he will. He continues to seek relief from terror by “confronting” it.

I can relate to this perverse impulse, which is the impulse of anxiety. But I want to outgrow it. Whereas a piece of art like this episode just reinforces the pattern.

It’s important to note that this twist ending, which might seem particularly gothic, is just as regressive and conservative as always. The “dangerous truth” at the heart of the episode is (as usual) that the world one experiences is inside one’s head and thus isn’t necessarily shared by anyone else. But a full embrace of this truth would actually grant Hall a redemptive ending: because unbeknownst to him, he lives on; because his fear is not permanent or ultimate, even though it has been, in his dream of the moment, all-consuming. Instead, we get the supposedly-spooky reveal that, having died in his own reality, he has also died in the doctor’s reality. Far from being spooky, this actually reinforces the conventional intuition that different people’s realities do in fact correspond, and that the social consensus is superior to any individual subjectivity. More truly spooky would be for Hall — and the viewer — to have to accept that he “really” did jump out the window, and also, subsequently, “really” didn’t. But the episode flattens any such paradox.

It is, however, not generally a timid episode. I really enjoy how close to true surrealism it wanders, even in sequences that aren’t overtly dreamlike. In the very opening moments, perhaps there’s some trite “symbolic” explanation for all the attention given to the revolving door — I haven’t really tried to puzzle one out — but I certainly enjoy it on its surface, simply as a kind of bubbling up of the irrational into the ordinary. The music and the visual style begin to suggest the subterranean capacity of anything to be revealed as mere impersonal pattern and sensation. This is the essence of a very basic kind of “creepiness.”

Usually I would here point out that it needn’t be creepy, if one isn’t afraid of the irrational; that the impersonal pattern of the living world is actually something to revel in. But in this context, where one expects the streamlined storytelling conventions of prime-time TV, it is absolutely creepy. Those conventions form a synthetic psychology, which the viewer assumes while watching. As such, as a “watcher of TV,” I find the interruptions of pure surface into this episode to be splendidly eerie.

“Did you ever look at this picture? I mean really look at it.” That question, and the shot of the dull painting seen over Hall’s shoulder, gave me a special thrill. Hall has become unmoored from the ordinary constraints that govern TV behavior and has chosen to stare at an arbitrary piece of set dressing, forcing the camera — not usually inclined to such silliness — to do the same. This is, to me, a beautiful way of suggesting the dizzying freedom of being an individual. Even in the context of the dream that is The Twilight Zone itself, Hall is worryingly free.

• The episode has a screwy structure. No particular element is essential to any of the others. It just works as a feeling driving itself around in circles. But the feeling is the one being described by the story, which gives a fine form to it — a spiraling dream about spiraling dreams.

• “Marbles can be found, Mr. Hall.” Not true! The false promises of the outside world. In actuality, there were never any marbles to begin with. So there is no antidote to fear of having lost them.

• He blows cigarette smoke right in the doctor’s face. Is this how it was in those days?

• “The mind is everything. If you think you’ve got a pain in your arm, and there’s no physical reason for it, it hurts just the same, doesn’t it?” Well said! That could serve as the motto for the series.

• I think Robert Florey knew very well that he was depicting a conversation between the two halves of the mind when he shot the central exchange between Edward and Maya as between two extreme close-ups of alternating tilt. I feel like I’ve been through a similar dream exchange with myself many times. “You are afraid.” / “Only because this isn’t happening. This is a dream. I’m not here, I’m at home, asleep. And you’re part of that dream!” / “I know that.” / “You do?” / “Of course.”

The music in this episode is excellent! [Nathan] Van Cleave is hardly known at all these days, but this is really top-notch work, and it raises the whole episode up. This is, really, as good a job of horror scoring as any I can think of. (It reminds me a little of parts of Rosemary’s Baby, which is right up there for me.) Listening to the roller coaster cue on its own is plenty unnerving.

According to those who know, the “dream” instrument used throughout that sounds like a theremin is actually just a solo violin with some kind of studio effect applied. There does however seem to be some kind of synthesizing organ in there making bloops and blats, possibly a Novachord.

Van Cleave will be back for a number of subsequent Twilight Zone episodes, so we’ll get some sense of his range.

January 22, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 8. Time Enough At Last


directed by John Brahm
teleplay by Rod Serling
based on a short story by Lynn Venable
starring Burgess Meredith
with Vaughn Taylor, Ja[c]queline deWit, and Lela Bliss
music by Leith Stevens

Friday, November 20, 1959, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

This is the first episode to credit a writer other than Serling. The source story comes from the January 1953 issue of If: Worlds of Science Fiction. In this case, Serling gives credit, because he bought the story outright (for $500) and adapted it faithfully — but all his “original” scripts were just as much indebted to that world of magazine writing, which was at its peak in the 40s and 50s. In coming up with his various storylines and conceits, Rod seems usually to have been operating in the twilight zone that lies between deliberate plagiarism and subconscious influence.

Of course, magazine writing was itself already thoroughly incestuous; sci-fi stories tended to share all sorts of recurring assumptions and preoccupations and tropes. So “plagiarism” isn’t really a fair word to use. And I certainly don’t hold “unoriginality” the least bit against Rod. All I mean to point out is that The Twilight Zone emerges directly from a particular creative culture in which a shared body of ideas had been stewing back and forth for years from writer to writer, a process that tends to mulch things down into their underlying subconscious archetypes. That’s why I think the show merits the kind of reading I’m doing here — because it’s not really one guy’s fantasies; it’s the potent commonalities distilled from among many people’s fantasies, over many years.

Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers. A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock. But in just a moment, Mr. Bemis will enter a world without bank presidents, or wives, or clocks, or anything else. He’ll have a world all to himself — without anyone.

We’re all afraid of being this guy: incapable of participating in the social order because of our emotions and enthusiasms.

The conflict between Bemis and society is exaggerated, to the point where we can’t conceive of any possible reconciliation. He is an irredeemably terrible bank clerk; his wife is impossibly unkind. A pitiable fool and a painfully hostile world. This sort of exaggeration is a more promising mode of comedy than any of the series’s previous efforts. It makes absurdity out of angst, rather than of complacency. We fear that there’s no place for us in the world, but this fear is already an exaggeration, so it’s ripe for further exaggeration. Much healthier than exaggerating something quite real and ordinary; to try to stir up shame about, say, the fear of death, as in Escape Clause.

So, thus taken to its extremest, most anxiously catastrophic form, the question being posed here is: if the rest of the world or you had to go, wouldn’t you pick the rest of the world?

Once you and Henry Bemis sheepishly admit that “yes, I think I might pick the rest of the world,” the teacher’s ruler comes down on your wrist, in the form of dramatic irony. How dare you! The whole rest of the world? You monster. Here’s what you and your glasses deserve.

Angst wins the day after all.

This twist ending is, in a way, completely unnecessary to the story itself. If Henry Bemis just sat there reading, out beyond the end of the world, in lonely thick-lensed happiness, that would be plenty eerie enough. In fact, imagining a slow pull-back from that last shot gives me the willies; that would be a much more provocative final image for this very same episode.

But the twist is necessary for completing the standard Twilight Zone two-step: first we dare, and then we pull back from the precipice. Here the thing we dare is subjective indifference — we dare admit the part of us that thinks that “everybody’s dead but me!” might be a relief, might be fun. So then of course we must spin back around and receive the censure we apparently think we deserve. Otherwise we would really disturb some of the audience, which could affect the sales of Sanka.

The idea that the last living human might still be able to experience meaning and pleasure in existence is much more radical and disruptive than the idea that he would surely have any such pleasure arbitrarily whisked away. I mean, Murphy’s Law, am I right? TGIF!

The episode does a good job seeding the glasses. From the start we understand them as being a conspicuous signifier, but entirely within the realm of wardrobe, a zone without words or names. We don’t generally expect such ineffable stuff to graduate to having a role in the story proper. So we feel good and truly “gotten” when the glasses, with which we have developed a strong subconscious relationship, turn out to have their own fate, in the conscious, conceptualized part of the action.

How chastening, for unspoken comfort to suddenly become spoken discomfort! The sting — the reason everyone remembers this episode — is because in some deep way it’s downright embarrassing. “That’s not fair!” Bemis cries along with the viewer. How harsh and humiliating, for both of us, to be reduced to such whimpering, to have all narrative sympathy suddenly yanked away. It’s like being beaten up by a bully who spent the day pretending to be your friend. You don’t forget experiences like that.

The pacing is sort of surprising. Working backward from the iconic ending, you might think that the way to tell this story would be to spend most of the episode demonstrating Bemis’s frustrated yearning to read, and then have the bomb descend near the end and have him go straight to a state of elation at his good fortune. But a subtler math is in play. If Bemis were unreservedly elated at the end of the world, the situation would be so grotesque that there’d be no punch in the final irony — the authorial coldness would already be too complete. That’s not the Rod Serling way. He wants pathos, if he can manage it; he wants this to really smack. So first Bemis’s fear of solitude needs to be established.

“I’m not at all sure that I want to be alive.” “The very worst part is being alone.” Which prompts the question: why did he love reading so much in the first place? What exactly were other people to him? The answer seems to be that he has always had both an individual and a social side, and is now forced to reckon with making a choice between them. The social side is ready to self-destruct, but, seeing the library and being reminded of the joys of being alive, he crawls out from under his vestigial social fear and chooses himself, the individual, who has a chance at happiness. That’s when Fate lashes out. Hell is other people, but “other people” includes Fate. It includes Rod. It can’t be gotten rid of just by getting rid of physical people.

There’s a psychological truth to this. Being physically alone doesn’t mean your mind stops subjecting you to social standards. If you want to sum up the message of The Twilight Zone — and pretty much all supernatural horror ever — you could do worse than: “other people are all in your head — so you can run, but you can’t hide.”

We dare enjoy the fantasy of hiding, but how boldly we dare it varies from person to person. “Time enough at last” means solitude enough at last. And this show is of (and for) an anxious mindset that believes we can never, ever, ever afford that much solitude. Not even after the end of time.

That all said, I feel like there’s a somewhat odd flavor to the moment when Bemis contemplates suicide. It’s a strangely dark note for this goofy character to sound (especially given that we can reasonably deduce that he will in fact follow through, immediately following the end of the episode). The gun makes sense to me mostly as a kind of misdirection, a tragic threat that forces the audience’s sympathies to rebalance. Bemis’s delight at the destruction of mankind would be untenable in itself; but as an alternative to self-murder, it becomes highly sympathetic. (All the better to eat you with, says the irony machine.)

“I’m sure I’ll be forgiven for this, the way things are,” he reasons of his imminent suicide. He’s right — by Twilight Zone logic, he would have been forgiven for suicide, “the way things are.” What he’s not forgiven for being happy the way things are.

“Just a fragment of what man has deeded to himself,” says Rod at the end. On the face of it this is standard cold war grim grandiloquence about The Bomb. But I prefer to hear it as something more basic: I, Rod Serling, hereby deed this nasty ironic twist to myself, and so too do you, the viewer. We do it every day.

Original music by Leith Stevens, an industry fixture who isn’t much remembered today (despite having at one time been so esteemed as to get this plum assignment). This, his one Twilight Zone score, is done in a sort of generic TV style that only points up Bernard Herrmann’s brilliance by counterexample. Stevens fails to stake out his own artistic position and generally just plays the existing action in an ordinary, redundant way. There’s a little fanfare figure that ties it all together, perhaps meant to be “Bemis’s motif,” but it doesn’t seem to have any psychological meaning; it’s just a compositional device.

Especially at the beginning, Stevens misses the opportunity to give us any particular handle on our sympathies, just offering noncommittal “isn’t narrative splendid” music. (I suppose his intention might have been “a day at the bank” music, which comes to about the same thing.) The long suite of devastation ambiance in the second half is, I think, the most successful passage. And I suppose I respect the way he plays the ultimate irony: neither as sick joke nor as grand tragedy, but as simple pity, clarinet solo over a timpani roll.