Friday, October 30, 2009

TZ Promo: "Walking Distance" (10/30/1959)

Tonight marks the 50th anniversary of the fifth Twilight Zone episode ever aired, "Walking Distance." A moving study of one man's desperate longing for his childhood, the episode is frequently counted among the series' finest offerings (in fact, a poll over at the Twilight Zone Cafe web forum found the episode ranked at #1). Infused with biographical details from writer Rod Serling's own life, this take on the recurring Zone theme of notalgia is handled much more gently than its thematic cousins ("The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine," "A Stop at Willoughby," "The Trouble with Templeton," "The Incredible World of Horace Ford," etc). The lush, strings-only musical score by Bernard Herrmann solidifies this gentle approach. The finished episode is pure beauty, tinged with melancholy, and it maintains its brilliance half a century after it was made.

Gig Young plays Martin Sloan, a New York advertising executive (he'd fit right in on Mad Men) who's fed up with the rat race. He gets in his car and flees the city ("I just had to get out of New York," he tells a gas station attendant), ending up a mile or so outside the city limits of his childhood hometown. His car needs servicing, so he's got some time to kill. He walks into town (it is, after all, within walking distance) and, while I won't disclose what he finds there, you can be assured that his life will never be quite the same again.

Sloan's fictional hometown is called Homewood, but it mirrors Serling's own hometown of Binghamton, New York, in many ways, most notably the carousel that features prominently in the episode's climax (Binghamton's carousel is graced with a plaque commemorating Serling). The town celebrated the show's recent 50th anniversary in style: among other Serling-specific activities, they screened "Walking Distance" on outdoor monitors all day long in Recreation Park (the location of the carousel) on 10/03/09. See here and here for more info.

The carousel today.

While I don't count "Walking Distance" among my absolute favorite episodes, I do have an enormous amount of respect for it. And who knows? Maybe tonight's 50th anniversary viewing will serve to push it up higher on my list. Watching the series, particularly the nostalgic episodes, with older eyes will likely be a new experience for me....

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Afterthoughts ("The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine")

If I had to guess, I'd say I haven't watched "The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine" in at least 10 years, probably closer to 15. However, I watched the entire series several times over throughout my teenage years, so my memories of most of the episodes are still pretty strong.* My 50th anniversary viewing hasn't changed my opinion of it: it's a damned good episode, perhaps falling just short of actual greatness (the kind of greatness I would attribute to episodes such as "Long Live Walter Jameson" or "Death Ship").

It should be noted that writer (and series creator) Rod Serling didn't care much for the finished episode. In fact, in a letter to Raymond Frye (whoever that is/was) a few weeks after the episode's premiere, Serling stated that he "disliked" the episode "intensely." I'm gonna have to disagree with the master on this one.

The parallels to Sunset Boulevard are a bit obvious but never distracting. The performances are top notch (I'm a fan of both the leads, Ida Lupino and Martin Balsam), and the script has that Serling bite that we all know and love. The cinematography is excellent (the projection room scenes, with the cigarette smoke mingling with the flickering glow of the projector, are pure noir beauty). The ending is happy, but with that Zone twist.

Final score: 8.5 out of 10. I don't know why Serling hated it so much.

* There are always exceptions, of course. Case in point: "Ring-A-Ding Girl," from the series' fifth season. I know I've seen it, but I have no memory of it except for a couple of fleeting images. It'll have to wait a few more years: I won't be watching it till 12/27/2013.

Friday, October 23, 2009

TZ Promo: "The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine" (10/23/1959)

"Picture of a woman looking at a picture..."

Tonight marks the 50th anniversary of the 4th Twilight Zone episode ever broadcast: "The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine," starring Ida Lupino and Martin Balsam. Written by Rod Serling and directed by Mitchell Leisen, the episode evokes the William Holden/Gloria Swanson classic Sunset Boulevard in its themes and sentiments (coincidentally or not, Franz Waxman composed the music for both). The episode examines the dangers of over-romanticizing the past at the expense of the present, a theme that Serling would return to repeatedly in future Zone scripts (most notable "Walking Distance," which is coming up next week).

Interesting historical notes regarding Ms. Lupino: She has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (one for TV, one for film). And, aside from her impressive acting career (which included several key noir films in the 40's and 50's), she was also an accomplished director. In fact, she directed a fifth season TZ episode entitled "The Masks," which we won't get to until... March 2014!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

TZ Spotlight --- The Twilight Zone: A Sound Adventure in Space (Marty Manning and his Orchestra)

This spotlight represents a bit of a departure for me, namely because I don’t actually own the item I’m spotlighting. Ladies and gentlemen, your attention is directed to one of the strangest items to ever bear the Twilight Zone name….

Columbia Records released this album in 1961 in both mono (CL 1586) and stereo (CS 8386) versions, with the clear intent of capitalizing on the show’s growing fame. The casual observer, browsing the record store bins, might have assumed that the LP contained actual music from the show. Well, it didn’t. Not even close. In fact, only the title track is even remotely connected to the show, and even then it’s a barely-recognizable rendition of Marius Constant’s theme for seasons 2-5 (Bernard Herrmann’s superior season 1 theme is thankfully spared). Otherwise, the album contains short musical interpretations of film scores, classical pieces, and easy listening songs, arranged by Marty Manning and Ernie Altschuler, and performed by Mr. Manning and his Orchestra. Here’s the track listing:

01. The Twilight Zone

02. Forbidden Planet

03. The Lost Weekend theme

04. Invitation

05. You Stepped Out of a Dream

06. The Unknown
07. Far Away Places

08. Spellbound Concerto

09. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

10. The Moon is Low

11. Night on Bald Mountain

12. Shangri-La

The album has been out of print for years, and has never been reissued on CD or digitally via iTunes. It’s a highly-desired collectible, no doubt about it (I’ve seen copies sell on eBay for between $50-$100 over the last several years). Since I don’t own a copy of the album, I don’t have access to the liner notes. I did find the following excerpt online, however:

"To pluck such sounds out of The Twilight Zone and give them expression, an astounding group of musical instruments was brought together. The familar tones of woodwinds, trumpet, piano and guitar were expanded and given shapes through electronic sorcery. And to them were added exotic instruments that seem to have been invented for, and even in, The Twilight Zone; the Martinot, the Ondioline, the bongos and the whole spectrum of percussion instruments. A vast library of sound effects added further intriguing notes. All of these were employed by arranger Manning to produce sounds that are musical, witty and beyond question other worldly."

Um… okay, sounds interesting enough. However, if you aren’t into space-age lounge music, you will not, I repeat, NOT enjoy this record. How do I know, you ask? I, um, acquired it in digital form using, er, questionable tactics (okay, tough guy, since you’re pressing me, I downloaded it from one of those disreputable torrent sites. Sue me!). So I do have the complete album, albeit in mp3 form. And I’ve been listening to it pretty much nonstop all day. First, it appears that these mp3 tracks came from the stereo version of the album, as there are some really nice directional effects here and there. The sound is pretty clean, too, without any perceptible skips or vinyl noise (the person or persons behind these mp3s clearly had access to a nice clean specimen). So yeah, the quality is good. It’s definitely cool getting my hands (well, ears) on it.

But…. do I like it? Well, I dunno. I do appreciate exotic lounge music in general (for example, I’m a big fan of Capitol’s Ultra-Lounge compilations, particularly the Mondo Exotica, Rhapsodesia and Bossa Novaville volumes). I like unusual instrumentation and mysterious sounds, but I generally prefer the music itself to be low key, mellow… you know, atmospheric. And the fact is, the space-age variety of lounge music sometimes gets a bit bouncy and frenetic, kinda like a small child with ADHD, and employs some pretty obnoxious electronic sounds in the process. In short, it can get pretty wacky, and therefore I tend toward caution when it comes to this type of music.

Manning’s Twilight Zone LP definitely has its moments, I’ll give it that. Both the title track and “The Unknown” are highlights, both employing wordless female vocalizing (a la Alexander Courage’s Star Trek theme) and establishing an appropriately mysterious mood. “Invitation” and “You Stepped Out of a Dream” effectively maintain the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the album also contains tracks that utterly shatter the mood. “Faraway Places” starts out like a xylophone factory on crack, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is relentlessly cutesy (and almost certainly not at all what Dukas intended), and “Night on Bald Mountain” is just plain repellent (who’s idea was it to sprinkle human screams throughout?). However, the album closer, “Shangri-La,” is moody, vaguely tropical, and utterly sublime. The album is schizophrenic in its arrangement, and ultimately an exercise in frustration. Fortunately, the digital age permits us to customize what we listen to with great precision, so roughly half of this album is going to be deleted from my iPod.

Bottom line? In the realm of Twilight Zone collecting, this album is a curiosity piece at best. If I ever find it cheap, I’ll probably snatch it up. Otherwise…. nah.

An interesting side note: while this album clearly isn’t an actual Twilight Zone soundtrack, it sure as hell looks like one, especially when compared to the five Varese Sarabande LPs released in the 80’s:

I will note that I'm a HUGE fan of Twilight Zone music, so this is a topic that will most definitely be explored in future entries. Consider these (gorgeous) LP covers a small taste of what's to come.

And hey, if you’re interested in outer space exotica, here’s a great online overview of this unique musical subgenre. Talk about gorgeous album covers!

Friday, October 16, 2009

TZ Promo: "Mr. Denton on Doomsday" (10/16/1959)

Tonight: "Mr. Denton on Doomsday," the third episode of The Twilight Zone, celebrates its 50th anniversary. The first of many westerns presented on the series, this one features a noteworthy performance by noir tough guy Dan Duryea as a soft-spoken town drunk who gets a shot --- literally --- at redemption. Oscar winner* Martin Landau is also effective as a sadistic town bully. Written by Rod Serling, directed by Allen Reisner. Screening at 10:00 p.m. in the usual place (my mini-home-theater-slash-home-office-slash-my-little-corner-of-the-universe).

* Best supporting actor, Ed Wood, 1994.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Time Warp of Sorts...

If you need pumpkins (or gourds, or decorative corn stalks, or pretty much anything else autumn/harvest/Halloween-related) in Tualatin, Oregon, you go to Lee Farms. They've got fresh hot apple cider. They've got a corn maze and a petting zoo for the kiddies. And on a more mysterious, possibly even sinister note, they've got what appears to be some sort of temporal anomaly on the premises. Witness if you will two different photographs of yours truly, taken five years apart (2004 and 2009):

Doo doo doo doo, doo doo doo doo...

Friday, October 9, 2009

TZ Promo: "One For The Angels" (10/09/59)

As I’ve stated in previous entries, I’m watching one Twilight Zone episode per week, on the 50th anniversary of its first broadcast. It started last Friday with my viewing of the premiere episode (“Where Is Everybody?”), and it continues tonight with “One for the Angels,” which first aired on this date in 1959. It’s the charming tale of an elderly pitchman who gets an unexpected visit from the one guy NOBODY wants a visit from. Rod Serling wrote it, Ed Wynn stars in it, and it starts promptly at 7:00 pm in my micro-home theater (also known as my office).

7:00? The show actually aired at 10:00 pm when it was originally on (both east and west), but I tend to doze off fairly early these days (I’m not exactly a spring chicken, y’now), so I decided I’d watch ‘em at 7:00 pm instead. Hey, it’s 10:00 on the east coast, so it’s close enough.

Since the show ran for five seasons (1959-1964), I’ll be doing this faithfully for the next five years. Yeah, it’s a big commitment, but I fully intend to see this thing through to the end. I’ve actually avoided watching the show for the past couple of years in anticipation of this endeavor (and the waiting’s been tough, let me tell ya; there were several times when I had to force myself to leave the DVDs on the shelf and find something else to watch). But now the time has finally arrived, and I can savor the series the same way America first savored it: once a week, no more, no less.

I first discovered the show in syndication (it was on six days a week!), and subsequently enjoyed it for many years at my leisure on home video, so rigidly following the original broadcast schedule promises to be a markedly different experience. I’m hoping to gain an even deeper appreciation for the series (if that’s possible). And I must say, I’ve been eagerly looking forward to tonight all week long, as I’m sure original fans of the show did fifty years ago. I feel an emerging new level of connection to the series as I set out to trace its history, as if I’m somehow touching the past.

My good friend Bill Huelbig (who watched the series when it originally aired, the lucky bastard) sent me the following email last Friday, on the 50th anniversary of the premiere episode:

"Enjoy your trip into the Zone at 10 PM tonight. And if you do find yourself actually transported back into 1959 while watching the show, I hope you can easily find your way back, and not by going through Willoughby either."

He knows me too well. I had this crazy idea that if I watched the episode at exactly the right time, and wished hard enough, and if the moon and the stars were precisely aligned, that I’d magically find myself in 1959. I’d find Rod Serling and shake his hand. There are many other hands I’d shake, too… Charles Beaumont, Bernard Herrmann, Jack Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, John Coltrane, Alfred Hitchcock, James Dean… and countless others. God, imagine it. What an exhilarating fantasy.

This is my life in the shadow of The Twilight Zone. Sometimes it’s dark and foreboding, other times it’s bright and hopeful. Tonight’s episode is, appropriately enough, in that second category.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

TZ Spotlight: 2009 Hallmark Keepsake Ornament

I don't usually collect holiday ornaments, though I do own a select few (my "Naughty or Nice?" Jessica Rabbit ornament from Disneyland hangs year 'round in my home office, plus I have a couple of hilarious ornaments from A Christmas Story). Otherwise, holiday ornaments just aren't my thing. But wait, what's that? Hallmark has released a Twilight Zone ornament to commemorate the show's 50th anniversary? Well, of course I'll buy it. In fact, I'll take two. They were just released this week, and I picked mine up today (I'd preordered them from Penny's, a Hallmark store near where I work in Oregon City).

I already knew it lit up. I already knew it played the theme music. I already knew that it played bursts of faux static, simulating an old TV. I knew all of this because Hallmark posted a really cool video of the ornament in action a few months ago on their website (click here, then click on the "video" button to see it for yourself). In short, I knew it was gonna be cool. But as I opened one up, put in the batteries, and experienced it live for the first time... well, "cool" doesn't quite cover it.

Folks, this thing ROCKS. The TV cabinet looks (and kinda feels) like real wood (and just look at the texture on that speaker!). The screen is sharply detailed and easy to see even when it's not lit up. The little knobs and dials are just awesome. The theme music is nice and clear. If I could change one thing, I'd add Serling's narration to the music.

Here's the text from the back of the box...

So yeah, I bought two. One will go on the Christmas tree this year (and the next year, and the year after that, and the year after that... *), and the other will be permanently displayed in my office. Here's hoping this thing sells like hotcakes, and Hallmark graces us with further TZ ornaments in the future. One of Rod Serling himself would be most welcome (with a sound chip of his voice, naturally, and maybe even a cigarette with a red glowing tip). Or hey, how about a set of mini-ornaments from the season 4/5 opening sequence (door, eyeball, clock, mannequin, etc)? And hell, who wouldn't want a Kanamit hanging from their Christmas tree? I know I would.

Recommending this ornament is easy, both as a functioning tree ornament and as a display piece. If you're at all a Twilight Zone fan (and if you aren't, why the hell are you reading this blog?), you NEED this. Go. Run. Seriously, stop reading and head straight to your nearest Hallmark store. At $16.50, it's a steal. I'm thinking I might need to pick up a third one, just to have a spare. You never know.

(* Name the episode, if you can.)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Dark. Shallow.

Christ, why do I continue bidding on large lots of Twilight Zone Magazines on eBay? It always ends in disaster. Case in point: today's auction, detailed (rather enthusiastically) in my previous entry. Yes, I've been victimized once again in the final seconds of yet another auction. This is the third time in as many weeks. I spent my day glowing with the prospect of completing my collection, and now I'm spending my evening glowing with several consolatory shots of Bushmills Irish Whiskey. Each swallow burns a little less than the last, and each swallow blurs the edges just a bit more.

I'm not even angry, as I was after the previous eBay defeats. I'm just.... I don't even know if sad is the right word. I'm filled with weary resignation. The OCD Monkey in my head has spun himself into such a frenzy that he's rendered himself unconscious, and I'm left to my own pathetic devices. And so I drink.

I know how I sound. People are suffering --- actually suffering --- all around the world. Someone in my own town is starving right now. Someone else, weeping over some incalculable loss. Someone else, breathing their last breath. Me? I lost a fucking auction for some magazines. How small a person I must be to dwell on matters of such little import, to feel sorry for myself over this.

And yet, I do. I want every issue of this god-damned magazine, and I can't be at peace until I have them. I have a problem. You don't have to tell me. I'm well aware.

Funny. I talk of the "joy of acquisition," and how much fun I'm having collecting these magazines, and it's true --- it really is, despite my current depression. Another six issues arrived in today's mail, and I was ecstatic as I opened the box... but then my attention returned to the auction, and those six beautiful, near-mint-condition issues sat across the room, nearly forgotten. What's wrong with this picture? I need to train myself to make the joy last beyond the acquisition. The acquisition should be a means to an end, nothing more. The ownership should be the source of the joy. I should be delighting in the fact that I've collected 35 issues in just under three weeks. Hell, I should be reading the damn things!

So great, I've got it all figured out. But how the hell do I rewire my brain to incorporate this new understanding? How do I tame my OCD Monkey?

Medication? Acupuncture?


The Joys of Acquisition

As previously reported, I've acquired 35 (out of 60) issues of The Twilight Zone Magazine over the past few weeks. Many of these were either won in eBay auctions or purchased from online retailers. Well, they've started arriving (finally!), and it's like freakin' Christmas for me. Seven issues arrived yesterday, all in pristine condition, including the coveted February 1984 issue (attentive readers will recall that this was the very first issue I ever laid eyes on, way back in the 8th grade, so it has special significance for me). Aside from two devastating eBay defeats (see previous entries), I've been having a blast re-collecting these magazines.

Cue the OCD Monkey, who is quick to remind me that there are still 25 issues left to acquire. I was planning on taking a break from this endeavor, but that damned monkey just won't allow it. I direct your attention to the following eBay auction:

All 61 Twilight Zone Magazines plus...

Holy guacamole! The entire collection in one convenient auction, including a special annual issue from 1983 (an anthology issue containing previously-published stories and articles), which I wasn't planning on getting. But hey, if it's included in the set... well, what the hell, right?

The big bonus in this auction is a complete DVD set of the entire TV series. From the picture, it appears that they're the original DVDs from the late 90's-early 2000's, quite inferior to the newer Definitive Edition season sets. Still, their inclusion in this auction as a bonus is quite impressive.

Am I bidding? Hell yes, I'm bidding. 7 hours, 51 minutes to go. Yes, I know. I've already acquired 35 issues, well over half of the total collection. And I certainly don't need the DVDs. So why the hell am I bidding on this? Well kids, I can easily sell the 35 duplicate issues I'll end up with, and I can also sell the bonus DVDs. In fact, it's entirely possible that I'll break even when all is said and done or, better yet, I might actually MAKE money on the whole affair. Plus, my magazine collection will be complete! See? Sometimes the OCD Monkey looks at the bigger picture, and directs me accordingly.

Now all I need to do is actually win the damned auction. My bid is high, but is it high enough? My heart is already racing. I'm fidgeting in my chair. This is gonna be a LONG afternoon....

Sunday, October 4, 2009

50 ("Where Is Everybody?")

So the fiftieth anniversary of The Twilight Zone's premiere has come and gone. I watched the pilot episode ("Where Is Everybody?") at exactly 7:00 p.m. last night as planned. I watched the American Masters documentary on Rod Serling. I watched the alternate version of the pilot episode. I listened to the DVD commentary tracks by Earl Holliman and William Self. I read both Serling's teleplay and short story adaptation. Oh, and I greatly enjoyed the musical score by Bernard Herrmann, my favorite film music composer of all time (might be a good time to mention that Herrmann composed the TZ theme for the first season of the series).

And I got drunk. Oh, and in true Rod Serling style, I smoked almost an entire pack of cigarettes. So yeah, I definitely celebrated.

So what's my problem? Why do I feel... I don't know....left behind, as if I've missed something?

Perhaps it's because I celebrated alone. Perhaps I needed to be in the company of other Zone-obsessed fans. Perhaps I needed to feel like part of a group, an extended family, a collective. Christ, maybe I needed to live in New York or Ithaca. That's where all the action was yesterday. Here in the Pacific Northwest, there was a whole lot of NOTHING going on.

*No, before you ask, I don't normally smoke.

Friday, October 2, 2009

TZ Promo: "Where Is Everybody?" (10/02/59)

"Hey! Where is everybody???"

Here's where it all started. The very first Twilight Zone episode, first broadcast exactly 50 years ago today.

TV guide listing, 10/02/1959 (thanks to Bill Huelbig for the scan).

Actor Earl Holliman, Producer William Self, Writer/Creator Rod Serling.

I had the flu when I was about 12 (or thereabouts). I had a tiny little black and white TV in my room, positioned near the head of my bed. As it happened, local channel KPTV-12 ran "Where Is Everybody?" that night, and of course I watched it. For the rest of the night, I faded in and out of consciousness in a kind of delusional fever dream, in which I wandered around in a town without people. It was surreal, let me tell ya. I've only been sick enough to cause hallucinations two other times in my life, and both of them happened in the last five years.... stories for another time.

Tonight at 7:00. I can't wait.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Profile in Newsprint

So tomorrow is the big day: The Twilight Zone turns 50. I was thrilled to see that my local paper, The Oregonian, ran a story on the event, complete with a really cool background swirl design:

Sadly, the idiot at The Associated Press who wrote the article didn't do his homework. He (or she) lists the final episode as "The Passersby." Everybody (okay, maybe not everybody) knows that "The Passersby" was a third season episode which aired in 1961, not 1964 as the article claims. The final episode to air was "The Bewitchin' Pool" in 1964.

Aside from that glaring error, it's not a bad little piece, if a bit cursory and, well, fluffy. But hey, when was the last time a picture of Rod Serling showed up in the local paper? Anything to draw attention to The Twilight Zone, anniversary or otherwise, is okay by me.

A far superior (and factually correct) article, which also sprung from the eager loins of The Associated Press, can be found here.