Thursday, September 26, 2013

Culture Shock 09.26.13: 'Hangar 18' puts all the pieces of UFO mania together

The 1970s were a high point of UFO sightings, alternative history, New Age mysticism and paranoid conspiracies, as well as a few not-so-paranoid conspiracies. As the decade ended, one movie in particular weaved all of those threads together.

"Hangar 18" betrays its low-budget pedigree from the opening shot: a spaceship filling the screen above a planet. It's a shot that explicitly recalls the opening of "Star Wars," except in this case the spaceship is a NASA space shuttle, the planet is Earth and the special effects look more suited to a TV movie than to anything playing on a big screen. But any movie that would so eagerly invite an unfavorable "Star Wars" comparison deserves our attention.

Released in 1980 and quickly forgotten, "Hangar 18" is back, issued on DVD and Blu-ray by Olive Films ( and looking better than it probably did during its theatrical run.

The film wastes no time getting started. The shuttle we see in the opening is on a mission to launch a top-secret military satellite. But before the launch can occur, the shuttle astronauts spot what looks like an alien spacecraft hovering above them. When the satellite launches as scheduled, it slams right into the UFO, sending the alien craft crashing to Earth and killing one of the astronauts.

From there, the film branches off into three overlapping story lines.

The first follows the team of NASA scientists assigned to study the UFO, which the government has secreted away at the titular Hangar 18. The second involves the politicians trying to keep the UFO crash secret until after the presidential election. And the third follows the two surviving shuttle astronauts trying to prove they saw what they saw and clear their names after they're blamed for their fellow astronaut's death.

If "Hangar 18" were a modern TV show, that would be enough plot for a season-long story arc, but as it is, "Hangar 18" breezes along and clocks in at a bit more than 90 minutes.

"Hangar 18" seems a bit low-rent for a theatrical release, but it would have made for a pretty impressive TV movie of the week. Director James L. Conway ("The Boogens"), who would go on to direct episodes of the various "Star Trek" spin-offs, makes the most of what he has, which includes a solid cast of television veterans, led by Darren McGavin ("Kolchak: The Night Stalker") as the NASA director tasked with leading the investigation.

McGavin's Harry Forbes is a lot like his Carl Kolchak, only Forbes gets to investigate the paranormal with the assistance of the best minds NASA has to offer, while Kolchak has only his trusty tape recorder. Forbes is the most entertaining part of the movie.

Heading up all the president's men are Robert Vaughn ("The Man from UNCLE") as Chief of Staff Gordon Cain and ubiquitous character actor Joseph Campanella as Cain's right-hand man.

The last of the heavy lifting falls to the two astronauts, played by wisecracking James Hampton ("Sling Blade") opposite wooden straight man and future "Hour Magazine" host Gary Collins.

Other recognizable faces include Pamela Bellwood ("Dynasty"), Stuart Pankin ("Not Necessarily the News") and William Schallert ("The Patty Duke Show").

Everything about the movie seems perfunctory. "Hangar 18" covers a lot of ground, so everything is plot, plot, plot with little time for anything else.

As for the plot, it's a crash course in UFO lore, drawing on ideas that became popular in the '70s: alien abductions, government cover-ups and the idea popularized in Erich Von Daniken's book "Chariots of the Gods?" that extraterrestrials visited Earth long ago and influenced humanity's development. There are even "men in black," long before MIBs became a big deal.

"Hangar 18" is entertaining enough in a disposable, Saturday matinee way, but it's truly fascinating as an artifact of UFO mania. This is where all the pieces first came together.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Culture Shock 09.19.13: 'Dirk Gently' brings Douglas Adams' holistic detective to life

Darren Boyd, left, Stephen Mangan, and Helen Baxendale.
In screenwriting, you have what are called the "A story" and the "B story."

The A story is the main narrative. The B story is secondary, often dealing with supporting characters. While the two parallel stories may be linked thematically, they otherwise don't usually have a lot to do with one another.

For instance, an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" might focus on Capt. Picard averting a diplomatic crisis between water-breathing fish people and a race of sentient sea sponges. Meanwhile, the B plot involves Data humorously failing to stop his cat Spot from marking territory in the transporter room.

Yet, in other instances, the A and B stories collide. There is that occasional "CSI" episode in which the primary case and the secondary case intersect, and the lead CSIs have that eureka moment where they realize they're working the same case.

Enter Dirk Gently. Dirk is a holistic detective. For him, every case is the same case because everything — and he means everything — is fundamentally connected. That's why he has no problem billing a client for a new refrigerator; everything is relevant to the case, so everything is a business expense. Also, Dirk is a bit of a jerk.

"Dirk Gently" is one of those shows that was just too good for television. It was too good even for British television. So, it ran only for four brilliant episodes, but now all four are on DVD.

The show is loosely based on two novels by "Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy" author Douglas Adams, "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" and "The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul." It doesn't adapt either of them so much as mine them for ideas.

Dirk (Stephen Mangan of Showtime's "Episodes") is slovenly, insolvent and abrasive. He refuses to pay his secretary on the theory that if he does, she'll stop showing up for work in hopes of getting paid.

He also is locked in a battle of wills with his cleaning lady.

While working on a case involving an old lady's lost cat, Dirk chances upon university acquaintance Richard MacDuff (Darren Boyd of "Spy"). Except Dirk doesn't believe in chance because everything is interconnected, just as the beating wings of a butterfly in the Amazon can influence the path of a hurricane in the Atlantic. Convinced it could be the key to the missing cat, Dirk takes on the case of MacDuff's girlfriend (Lisa Jackson), who may or may not be having an affair.

Needless to say, the cases are related, in improbable if not impossible ways, and by the first episode's conclusion, MacDuff has signed on as Dirk's partner/assistant/human ATM.

With cases that involve time travel, conspiracies, robots and computers with artificial intelligence, "Dirk Gently" treads ground between sci-fi and detective series, and it plays cleverly with the cliches and conventions of both. Series creator Howard Overman ("Misfits") does an excellent job of turning Adams' novels into a TV show that stands on its own.

Mangan brings manic intensity to the role of Dirk, who is at his most likable when he's being his most horrid. Conning people comes second nature to him, but as MacDuff grudgingly admits, Dirk is a brilliant detective.

Boyd's MacDuff is the perfect straight man for Dirk. Exasperated, resigned and abused, MacDuff sticks with Dirk only because he thinks, somehow, in ways that aren't entirely obvious, that he and Dirk are doing good.

Yet ironically, because everything is connected, the cases Dirk solves are usually his fault somehow in the first place. That's the show's ultimate commentary on the detective genre: Cases exist solely for detectives to solve. That's Dirk's greatest con of all, and it's on us, but it's fun to watch.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Culture Shock 09.12.13: In America it's 'In no one we trust'

For more reasons than you may suspect, 1776 was a momentous year.

The United States declared independence from Great Britain. Several signers of the Declaration of Independence, including Benjamin Franklin and John Hancock, were Freemasons. In Scotland, Adam Smith published "The Wealth of Nations," which posited an economy guided as if by "an invisible hand." And in Bavaria, Adam Weishaupt formed a secret society called the Illuminati, which, by some accounts, sought to promote reason over superstition and liberty over despotism.

All of that is true, as far as it goes.

By other accounts, the Illuminati sought to rule the world and, although outlawed and supposedly disbanded, were responsible for the French Revolution and the Terror that followed. Some say the Illuminati infiltrated Masonic societies, like the ones to which many Founding Fathers belonged, and now the Illuminati's symbol, the All-Seeing Eye, is hiding in plain sight, on the dollar bill. On the dollar's other side is a picture of George Washington, or maybe an impostor, Adam Weishaupt, who some say looked a lot like Washington and took his place.

It's a conspiracy theory rooted in the nation's founding, with branches that spread, according to some, from the New York offices of the Council on Foreign Relations to California's Bohemian Grove.

America has no shortage of conspiracy theories. Whenever some pundit tells you the Arab world is rife with conspiratorial thinking, the proper response is, "Yes, well so is America," and it has been since Colonial days.

That's one point of Jesse Walker's — dare I say it? — illuminating and entertaining new book, "The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory." Another point is conspiracy theories are not the province just of the lunatic fringe: Birthers and Birchers and Truthers, oh my! Some conspiracy theories are so widely believed as to qualify as conventional wisdom.

The public, talk shows, network news programs and law enforcement across the country fell for the 1980s Satanic cult conspiracy, which speculated that a network of devil worshipers was active nationwide, abusing children and performing ritual sacrifices. There was nothing to it.

Conspiracy theories are built on paranoia, but as They say, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean They aren't out to get you. (They got JFK, didn't They? Or did They?)

Some conspiracy theories are undeniably true, such as the conspiracy to kill Abraham Lincoln. Every day, a new story details more incidents of National Security Agency snooping. Worrying about the NSA got you branded as a kook as recently as last month. But now if you're not worried about the NSA, you're either dangerously naïve or an apologist for the system. Or maybe on the NSA's payroll.

While the truth or falsehood of conspiracy theories is of interest to journalists and historians, Walker approaches the subject as an anthropologist: What do conspiracy theories say about American culture at different times in history?

Sometimes the fear is the Enemy Without: communists, fascists or, as in the nation's earliest days, Indians. Sometimes it's the Enemy Within, such as your neighbors who are secret satanists. Sometimes it's the Enemy Below, as when Southerners worried about slave rebellions. Usually, however, it's the Enemy Above, the cabal of bankers and politicians who meet in secret to rule the world. And the paranoia runs both ways. If militia groups can be paranoid about the government, the government can be equally paranoid about militias, Walker shows. No one is immune.

And sometimes it's all just a put on, as Walker details in a fascinating chapter about ironic conspiracy theorists such as "Illuminatus!" co-author Robert Anton Wilson.

"Trust no one" was the motto of "The X-Files." America's could be "In no one we trust."

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Culture Shock 09.05.13: 'On the Road' is jazz without soul

"Dean Moriarty. Dean Moriarty. Dean Moriarty."

The name repeats, hypnotic like a blues lyric, before be-bopping off on some extended jazz improvisation, à la Charlie Parker. It's the rat, tat, tat of the beat, of the Beat generation, of Jack Kerouac and of his novel "On the Road."

In "On the Road," Kerouac captured a moment in time, both describing the post-World War II counterculture and helping create it. It was the Beats, and it created the Beats. It gave birth to those hangers on who called themselves "beatniks," a term and movement, if it could be called that, that the politically conservative Kerouac couldn't stand. For Kerouac, Beat meant blessed. Beatnik was something else, a corruption.

Postwar writers of a rightward bent, from Robert Heinlein to Ayn Rand, had a habit of unwittingly spawning counterculture movements they didn't like, and sometimes didn't even grok.

Add another to the list of things Kerouac inspired but would probably denounce.

Director Walter Salles is no stranger to "road" pictures, having previously made "The Motorcycle Diaries," a sanitized account of the young Che Guevara's bohemian travels, from the days before Guevara became just another revolutionary butcher with his face emblazoned on T-shirts.

Now Salles gives us "On the Road" (Blu-ray, DVD), a too-literal adaptation of Kerouac's novel that plays all the notes but loses the beat.

Sam Riley stars as Sal Paradise, Kerouac's stand-in and our window into his semi-autobiographical adventures.

After his father's death, Sal decides to hit the road, hoping to find himself, and inspiration to cure his stalled literary career. What he needs is experience, and he soon finds it when he is introduced to Dean Moriarty, ex-con, womanizer and all-around bad example, based on one of Kerouac's Beat associates, Neal Cassady.

Garrett Hedlund ("Tron: Legacy") makes a convincing Moriarty, an infuriating and lovable rogue who is a ladies' man and, in more ways than one, a man's man. Sexuality among the Beats was more fluid than polar.

When Sal and Dean meet, Dean is freshly married to his 15-year-old child bride Marylou (Kristen Stewart). It's not long before Dean and Marylou divorce, but she's still around and still his girl, even after he marries Camille (Kirsten Dunst), a level-headed, no-nonsense woman who leaves you wondering why she ever thought marrying Dean was a good idea. It's all part of Moriarty's mysterious charm, which keeps everyone coming back until they're burned out by the experience.

Sal travels the country, but his travels always circle back to Dean. Either they're on the road together or one is traveling to meet the other.

The tale has resonances with one set in an earlier jazz age, "The Great Gatsby." Think of Dean as a ne'er-do-well Jay Gatsby and Sal as a more likable Nick Carraway. Sal and Nick are drawn to Moriarty and Gatsby, both of whom prove, ultimately, to be hollow figures.

And "On the Road" proves to be a hollow movie. Sam Riley is likable as Sal, but the character is never more than a cipher, and Stewart delivers yet another listless performance, although at least this time her character has a pulse. Only Dunst really makes an impression, briefly, but her character is little more than one of Dean's many castoffs.

Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera give us an "On the Road" that lacks the poetry of Kerouac's prose. It's a dull, repetitive, forgettable travelogue that fails even as a travelogue.

After watching "On the Road," the only trip you'll be inspired to make is back to the rental kiosk.