Friday, March 14, 2008

Twilight Zone -- the Movie

I recently purchased the complete Twilight Zone on DVD and discovered that one season featured hour-long episodes. They were uniformly bad, and I began to feel that Rod Serling’s story-telling style required a half-hour format. I didn’t see those sixty minute stories as a kid, because they went on too long and aired too late at night. I could barely keep my eyes open for the half hour episodes, with my mother’s bland but merciless “Of course you can watch it, if you can stay up that late” ringing in my ears like a call to battle. Far too often I didn’t make it, so it felt good to catch up on the shows I missed.

But I’ve come to realize that there are a number of superb Twilight Zone episodes in the form of full length films. Foreign movies like The Seventh Seal, old Hollywood science fiction like The Time Machine, The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Incredible Shrinking Man; recent films like Gattaca, The Sixth Sense and The Truman Show also fit the mold. Time shifters like Sliding Doors and Peggy Sue Got Married would make good episodes. But I have a private list of the top five potential two-hour Twilight Zones. They have to be a little corny, they have to have some kind of twist or trick; there has to be a moral or some heartwarming lesson at the heart of the story.

Most of all, you have to be able to imagine Rod Serling doing the intro.

In reverse order:

#5: Big
The best of all the little kid in a grownup body movies, complete with creepy amusement park vending machine genie and the realization that childhood is too precious to waste on being a successful 30-year old ad man. Who can forget Elizabeth Perkins’ classic “He’s a grown up!”

#4: Terminator
The first one, not any of the others, which were either too slick, too complex or too stupid to make the grade. The first movie has everything a good Twilight Zone needs: scary stuff – being chased by a machine from the future with nuclear apocalypse looming (There was lots of nuclear apocalypse in the Twilight Zone); and a time bending love story where the soldier sent back in time to save the mother of humanity’s last hope in the war with the machines winds up making love with her and becoming the father himself. You can almost hear Rod doing the intro: “Scientists tell us that time travel is impossible. The events you go back in time to stop happen anyway. In fact, it’s your actions that set everything in motion. Case in point: one Sarah Connor, an ordinary waitress in the city of Los Angeles, about to receive some unexpected visitors … from the Twilight Zone.”

#3: It’s a Wonderful Life
A classic Serling fantasy, the perfect Christmas episode, especially the dark section where George Bailey gets to see how badly the world would have turned out if he had never been born. Serling always had a soft spot for this kind of sentimental fantasy. “To my brother George – the richest man in town!”

#2: Planet of the Apes
The cheesy twist ending for the ages: the planet of the apes is really Earth! We destroyed our civilization and now apes rule the world. You can hear the eerie dee-de, dee-de music swelling as Charlton Heston pounds the sand in front of the ruined Statue of Liberty at the low-tide line. How the Statue of Liberty survived a nuclear holocaust, or wound up on what looks suspiciously like Zuma beach, are questions for a more mature audience. Those discerning souls might also wonder how the apes speak perfect English. But none of that matters. The final jolting image, with its freight of moral censure, is all a classic Twilight Zone ever needed.

#1: Field of Dreams
This may be the greatest Twilight Zone episode ever filmed. It’s got everything – the supernatural element of ghostly baseball players emerging from the green stalks, the reunion with the estranged dead father, (“If you build it, he will come") the American iconography (A baseball diamond in a corn field), family values, cynics converted to belief and innocence, and most of all, Moonlight Graham, played by Burt Lancaster, getting his dream to pitch in the big leagues and giving it up to do his duty as a doctor. Who can forget Graham’s lovely speech about playing a single inning as the whole of his career. “It was like coming this close to your dreams, and having them brush past you, like a stranger in a crowd.”

And I hear Rod’s voice, resonant and wise: “Submitted for your approval: one Ray Kinsella, Kansas farmer and family man, about to risk everything for a few innings of baseball …in the Twilight Zone.”

That one would have been worth staying up for.


Fittingly enough, I come back to the blog again, it's still the same day and I have to revise it over and over, until I get it right.

I'll let Mr. Serling do the talking for me, standing in his dark suit and thin black tie, heavy eyebrows bunched together, hands clasped in front of his crotch, as always:

"It's February 2nd in Puxatawney, Pennsylvania, and weatherman Phil Connors is walking through another soft news feed, waiting for a groundhog to predict the end of winter and hoping to beat the next blizzard home. He's bored and he's cranky and he's going through the motions one more time. Or so he thinks. In fact, Phil Connors strayed off course today, far off course. He doesn't know it yet, but Phil is going to be broadacsting this particular Groundhog Day report ... from the Twilight Zone."

Groundhog Day -- that was an inexcusable omission. It bumps Big off the top five (to fill out the top ten with The Dead Zone, Miracle on 34th Street, E.T. and The Birds) and jumps to the #2 spot. It's a great movie, actually it's a better movie than Field of Dreams, but as an episode it loses by a nose.

You just can't beat Burt Lancaster saying --"You know, we just don't recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they're happening. Back then I thought, 'well, there'll be other days. I didn't realize, that was the only day."

--no matter how many times you repeat it.

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