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Book Talk - twilight Zone and Ishiro Honda

Cinema Book Reviews
by Stuart Galbraith IV

The Twilight Zone – Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic
by Martin Grams, Jr., Foreword by George Clayton Johnson (OTR Publishing, 2008)

An eccentric, exhaustive, frustrating, and ultimately utterly indispensable 800-page reference to Rod Serling’s classic 1959-1964 anthology series, this is the kind of monumental work readers tend to love or hate. Immaculately researched, it goes into incredible detail about the writing, pre-production, production, and postproduction and marketing details that go into the making of a half-hour anthology show, culled from the kind of archival material that often no longer exists for shows of this era: call sheets, accounting records, syndication records, ancillary agreements, personal and legal correspondence, music cue sheets, along with original interviews conducted by the author. No bit of minutiae is left unreported: a cigarette burn on a car seat used in filming one show is repaired out of the production budget, an actress’s personal pair of nylon stockings, torn during filming, is replaced.

It’s easy to say Grams goes ridiculously overboard with this stuff, but I suspect his ultimate aim was for a cumulative effect, that once combined, these details would paint a vivid and heretofore undocumented portrait of the birth, life, and slow death of an exceptional series, a work that captures not just the highlights but the very sights, sounds – even the smells of the MGM stages and backlot where Twilight Zone was filmed. In this respect the book is a resounding success. Where Marc Scott Zicree’s seminal, breezy, but thin Twilight Zone Companion offered a mixture of opinion and behind-the-scenes anecdotes, Grams’ brick of a book answers one long-standing question after another with hard, densely-packed data, while his research also uncovers much new and surprising information.

It comes at a price, though. At times the book reads like a first-draft of carefully organized notes, and is as cold as a crime scene investigation report. As someone who actually enjoys reading cinema/TV reference books, this wasn’t really a problem, though readers looking for a more conventionally written, readable history-of-a-TV-show may be disappointed. For me, Grams’ just-the-facts style really only suffers for its almost complete lack of analysis of any kind. He presents a treasure trove of raw data that all but begs him to connect the dots, but Grams chooses to let readers draw their own conclusions.

Among the conclusions one reaches is that writer Rod Serling’s micromanagement style at the beginning and absent parent approach near the end, and his alternating defensiveness and self-deprecating attitude hastened the series’ decline and, ultimately, Serling’s own death. Besides agreeing to a killer schedule of writing the vast majority of shows, which all by itself would have sucked the lifeblood out of stronger men, Serling was constantly corresponding with fans, church groups, educators, and others about trivial matters any other writer-producer would have left to an assistant secretary. Some would ask for a copy of a particular episode or its script, or would complain about its message while, simultaneously, amateur and professional writers alike falsely accused him of plagiarism, often threatening lawsuits, with almost every episode. Some Joe Podunk of Nowheresville, Iowa, writes an unpublished story read by three people in 1956 and accuses Serling of stealing his idea. Funny thing is, Serling keeps writing back to these people, explaining the script acquisition process while obviously needing to express his hurt feelings.

He respected and loyally defended the show’s other writers (Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, etc.) yet bitterly and constantly complained about the production end of things, though often indirectly, especially after original producer Buck Houghton left the series and those that followed in his footsteps failed to get a grip on the show. (Grams details the struggles between Serling and these later producers and the network extremely well, but frustratingly, again, doesn’t much analyze the rich material he presents.) Serling tried to maintain his integrity but also whored out his talents and celebrity status for unworthy projects; Grams even documents Serling’s sycophantic letters to the show’s sponsors – sponsors sending him the cartons of free smokes that eventually help kill him. Grams does an especially good job at documenting Serling’s unsold pilots channeled through Twilight Zone, notably “Mr. Bevis” and “Cavender is Coming,” the latter a horribly unfunny comedy that gets my vote as worst-ever Twilight Zone.

The first 160 pages or so record the history of the series, again with lots of detail but little analysis of the details. The bulk of the work is kind of an episode guide, especially notable for its listings of production costs, shooting days, breakdowns of music cues, story origins, etc. One major complaint is that Grams chose to list each cast alphabetically so that, for instance, bit player Lela Bliss is billed first on “Time Enough to Last” instead of star Burgess Meredith, whose name is buried.

However, despite these complaints the book is indispensable for the sheer volume of enlightening data, and for fans of the series, nearly every page offers something new and intriguing: the convoluted journey of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” from French short subject to budget-saving “Twilight Zone” episode; Serling’s uneasy relationship with writer Ray Bradbury; cost overruns and reshoots on various episodes, and not necessarily the good ones. For instance, Paul Douglas’s death soon after filming “The Mighty Casey” led to Serling’s insistence the show be reshot; the story of this troubled episode’s history makes for fascinating reading. (A DVD Talk Collector Series title.)

Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men – The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda
by Peter H. Brothers (AuthorHouse, 2009)

honda.jpg

For decades now western world cinema scholars have grappled with the strange paradox of Ishiro Honda (1911-1993), contemporary and collaborator of the great Akira Kurosawa, who for his old friend was an invaluable “Associate Director” on Kurosawa’s Ran and other late-career masterpieces. The same Ishiro Honda who also directed movies like Attack of the Mushroom People and Yog – Monster from Space. Brothers’ work has been described as a biography but it really isn’t that at all: it’s a film-by-film guide to Honda’s 25 fantasy features, preceded by an approximately 60-page overview of Honda’s life and career.

Had Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men been published in 1994 instead of 2009 its impact would have been fairly profound. It’s a perfectly fine book for what it is, offering lightweight analysis and overdue appreciation for the underrated, thoughtful filmmaker, and it pulls together a lot of useful information and interview quotes from a variety of sources.

However, the work suffers for its lack of original research and fresh insight. Relying heavily on material culled from earlier books, magazine and fanzine articles, there’s precious little here that hasn’t already been reported elsewhere ages ago. The book includes a decent bibliography but, frustratingly, no index.

For a work being promoted as a biography, Brothers skims or skips entirely over certain facets of Honda’s life and career begging analysis. Honda’s non-fantasy features are difficult but not impossible to see yet barely mentioned, and there’s almost nothing about Honda’s collaborations with Akira Kurosawa, or Honda’s re-editing of his classic ‘60s films for their “Champion Matsuri” reissues in the 1970s. Brothers also might have put Honda’s career into better perspective by comparing his career with other Toho contract directors. As it is, the book largely places it in a kind of genre vacuum.

The film-by-film approach is problematic. Almost mechanically, Brothers clicks off salient points, giving thumbs up or down to each film’s score, cinematography, cast, etc., but doesn’t seem to really understand Honda’s function as director. Frequently he’ll devote more space to each film’s special effects or score than on Honda’s contributions. The nuts and bolts of Honda’s collaboration with Special Effects Director Eiji Tsuburaya is lacking, and those films co-written by Honda get no more attention than those written entirely by others.

In Brothers’ defense, Honda was a loyal company man cranking out what were essentially made-to-order program pictures. The difference between Honda and American counterparts like Gordon Douglas or Byron Haskin is that Japanese genre directors frequently rose above the material, putting their personal stamps on generally impersonal program films. In Brothers’ tome, what Honda’s personal style was and how he achieved it is discussed only in the broadest of terms.

Both Grams’ Twilight Zone book and this are essentially self-published works, generally not a good practice. Grams’ work only suffers in the sense that a good editor might have lobbied successfully for more analysis and restructuring of what is a gold mine of material. In Brothers’ case, the outcome is more typical. The book has a lot of typographical and other errors a professional editor would likely have caught. There are curious little mistakes throughout. For instance, yours truly is quoted (from my book Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo!) on the very first page supposedly talking with Mr. Honda in 1998, five years after his death.

Brothers’ book is an okay read, something to turn to for general information about its subject, or to pull off the shelf after watching one of Honda’s films. Its lack of originality is disappointing, but overall what’s there isn’t bad either. (Recommended)

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