Tuesday, February 8, 2011

More "Fun and Games"


How “Fun and Games” is a Microcosm of
Everything That Has Ever Happened, is Happening,
or Ever Will Happen, on Planet Earth

by Matthew J. Dewan

Treacherous enemies.  The forces for good unite to battle evil-doers.  The fate of our world hangs in the balance.  It’s a familiar story motif throughout the centuries: the Crusades, and the battle for control of the Holy Land; the fight against Nazi Fascism and Japanese Imperialism in WWII; the Cold War against Communism; and in our time, the War on Terror, against the ruthless, treacherous threat of Radical Islam.  The aforementioned themes also propel the story in “Fun and Games,” my favorite Outer Limits episode.  Why is it my favorite Outer Limits episode?  For the following three reasons: 1) unforgettable moments; 2) wonderfully realized, fully fleshed-out characters, and; 3) it’s the “funnest” and “gamiest” show of the entire series.

To me, the movies, or episodes of a TV show, are about moments.  A story sticks with me if it has a moment, or better yet, a few moments, which blow my socks off.  The rest of the story can be pedestrian, but if there’s one nugget in there which grabs me by the love-handles and touches me to my inner core, then that story finds a special place in my heart — never to be dislodged.  I’ll start with a few movie examples, which hold a magic sway over me: The ending of Red River when the John Wayne character tells the Monty Clift character they’re going back to Texas, and Clift will make a new brand for their cattle ranch.  “Because,” Wayne says in an almost whisper, “you’ve earned it.”

I can’t relate how powerful that ending line is to me.  Perhaps it’s because the movie covers about every lesson you’re ever taught from an early age: work hard, overcome every obstacle, persevere, and you’ll achieve your goal.  Whatever the reason, by the end of the movie, we’ve walked a mile — make that ridden 1500 miles, in the Monty Clift character’s boots, and we’ve earned it, too.

A few other quick examples would be the last lines in the 1944 Preston Sturges comedy, Hail the Conquering Hero (personally, my favorite movie of all time).  The Eddie Bracken character says, “I knew the Marines could do almost anything, but I never knew they could do anything like this.”  The Freddie Steel character replies, as he and his Marine companions depart on a train, “You got no idea.”  Wow.  Powerful stuff.  At least for me, anyway.  I know it’s a sappy 1940’s comedy, but after what these characters have gone through during the course of the story, especially the Eddie Bracken character, and to have it all turn out the way it does; with a re-affirmation in the belief in the American way — it grabs me like no other movie does.

A more recent example would be the Tom Hanks written-produced-directed movie, That Thing You Do.  In this one, a one-hit wonder band hears its song on the radio for the first time, and the kids in the band assemble, one by one, in the department store owned by the drummer’s father.  The raucous, emotional scene where they celebrate their triumph is special for me in particular, because I played in a goth-punk band in the 1980’s, and I remember to this day the first time I heard our music on the local radio station.  Of course, in my case, it wasn’t a wonderfully-realized cinematic moment captured on film, where I got to hug and kiss Liv Tyler.  I was driving in my 1972 Chevy Impala down the Lodge Freeway in Detroit, Michigan at midnight — all alone.  Just my luck.

How does all of this relate to “Fun and Games,” you might ask?  Here’s how: “Fun and Games” possesses not one, but two, of these magical moments.  One is pure horror, the other, pure cynical, dark fun.  Let’s start with the horror: to me, effective horror is not chainsaws, or torture, or blood splattering everywhere.  It’s an unsettling feeling, one which gnaws at your psyche — burrows in like an earwig and doesn’t let go.  It’s encountering something so unfathomable, or someone so inhuman, that you feel soiled having been in their presence.  And when you take into account what they’ve done, you feel forever stained or blemished by the encounter.

The moment in “Fun and Games” when the Mike Benson and Laura Hanley characters, (Nick Adams and Nancy Malone, respectively), and us, realize that the male alien from the Calco Galaxy has killed the female, is to me, one of the most chilling moments of the entire series, or of any film or TV show.  It’s not that this moment is particularly frightening or appalling as it’s presented during the episode.  It’s more of what it represents — the inhumanity, the brutality, the sheer instinct to survive, no matter who pays the cost.  Even if it means killing your partner, your teammate, your planet-mate, as it were.  In the Calco Galaxy, it seems this kind of behavior is acceptable, as long as it leads to your survival.  In fact, one could speculate that, had the Calco alien prevailed, his treachery would have been hailed by his fellow Calco-ites.  Of course, we wouldn’t have been around to see it, or to have been horrified by it.

I guess what really unsettles me the most about that moment in the show is that, as much as we would like to think that the pure evil and heinous behavior perpetrated by the Calco male is limited to an arena planet supposedly billions of miles from Earth, it is all too familiar to us here at home.  Such evil exists on a daily basis; from mothers drowning their children, to suicide bombers, to deranged gunmen opening fire on innocent crowds of people.  Part of the reason I watch shows like The Outer Limits is to be whisked away to another galaxy, another time, or another dimension.  I want to observe the near-destruction of our Earth, or the near-takeover of our planet by some alien invaders, all in the comfort of the “He-Man Woman-Haters Club” — in other words, my man-cave in the basement.  I want to totally escape the confines of this crappy world in which we live, but “Fun and Games” won’t let me.  It reminds me of, as Luther Heggs says in “The Ghost & Mr. Chicken,” “The horribleness and the awfulness” of this place we call home.  But I still can’t stop watching it.  As Colonel Grover says in “O.B.I.T.”:  “I can’t not look.”

Conversely, as much as the moment of sheer alien brutality appalls me in “Fun and Games,” the Senator rescues me, like a welcome outstretched helping hand when you’re trapped up to your neck in quicksand.  His pithy wit and sardonic cynicism are a source of never-ending delight, but it’s that laugh which gets me every time.  I didn’t realize how much until this Christmas-time, when my 7 year old son and 12 year old niece begged me to play a monster and chase them around the house.  I realized, after a few minutes, that the throaty, bellowing laugh I was employing to portray my “monster,” was from none other than THE SENATOR!  Subconsciously, when called upon to transform myself into the creature which evokes the most sheer terror and horror in these children, I didn’t pick Freddie Krueger.  I didn’t pick one of those effete “vampires” from “Twilight.”  I channeled the Senator!  When he ruefully intones, “Well, what’s the difference who saves the human race?  The dull fact is, it’s been saved,” it may be the most drolly-delivered line of dialogue in all of cinema, and an incredible moment.

 To me, the Senator rules — EVERYTHING.  He is the coolest, hippest, most together creature from another cosmos ever created.  Most people, when asked who they would most like to have a beer with, reply: Jesus Christ, Gandhi, Elvis Presley, etc.  Not me.  I’d dig having a frothy ale, or a Saurian brandy, with none other than the Senator.  Case closed.

Then, there are Mike and Laura.  These two characters embody the writing of Joe Stefano at his best; no-frills, bare-bones — where you the viewer get to add all the baubles and trimmings.  We’ve all known the wrong-side-of-the-tracks kind of guys, not afraid to get in there and do the dirty work.  But, we don’t usually know why they are the way they are, or what made them that way.  Joe Stefano gives us an insight into their world, through the eyes of Mike Benson.

Anybody who’s ever been trapped in a discouraging, damaging, or demeaning situation, be it an abusive relationship, a distressing economical predicament, or a depressing physical state, can empathize with Mike’s plight when he was a kid at the zoo.  Being trapped in the cage is the metaphor for all of the bad situations mentioned above.  And, at one time or another, we’ve all been a prisoner in a cage, figuratively or literally.  We can empathize with Mike’s claustrophobia.  And that’s the beauty of Mike’s character, and the writing of Stefano.  Mike is the blank canvas, and we are the artists, filling in the images with paints from our own memories.

Laura Hanley, on the other three-fingered hand, is the cheerleader, as Mike so astutely observes.  The person on the sidelines of life, shrieking their approval, or more often than not, their disapproval, at the drama unfolding on the field — but too afraid to join the fray.  I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, an excerpt from a speech given by Teddy Roosevelt in 1910; “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or how the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood —.”  Man, if that doesn’t draw the contrast between Mike and Laura dead-nuts, I don’t know what does.

But, in the greater scheme of things, doesn’t that sum up — don’t Mike and Laura sum up — the types of people you run across every day?  There are the doers, those out there making it happen, or at least trying to make it happen.  They at least know, to paraphrase a later portion of the Teddy Roosevelt speech, the triumph of high achievement.  Or if they fail, at least they laced up the gloves, gave it their best shot, and went down swinging in a blaze of glory.  People’s Exhibit #1: Mike Benson.  Then there are the rest, (actually about 98%, in my humble opinion); the timid, oblivious, milquetoast types.  Do I even need to say it?  Alright, I will: Laura Hanley.

David Letterman has broken the world down into two types: those who love the Three Stooges, and those who hate them.  I like Joe Stefano’s version better: there are those out there getting it done, and those too afraid to give it a shot.  And as his vehicles to flesh out and personify those attributes, Stefano chose Mike Benson and Laura Hanley.  And in so doing, Stefano created, in my opinion, two of the sleekest, most efficient, and complete conduits to communicate his views of the world to his viewers.  To me, they’re two of the most memorable characters of the entire series, because of their delicious duality: simultaneously simplistic and complex.

Then why, with the fate of our entire planet hanging in the balance of what happens on this arena planet, is “Fun and Games” such a gas?  I guess because “Fun and Games” is the total package.  It covers the entire spectrum of the human experience.  The highs, the lows, the horrific, the absurd, the ironic, the cruel.  You name it, it’s got it.  We are shown that no matter how low we sink as humankind, we’ll never reach the depths of those darned Calco-ans, or whatever they’re called.  No matter how rotten Earth can be, it’s a whole lot better place than where they come from.  After all, we’ve got Goodfellas, Kid Rock, and the World Series — who could top that?  Gilligan’s Island, Van Gogh, and Lobster Bisque — I could go on, but you get the picture.  I have a hard time imagining they have any comedy in the Calco Galaxy.  Imagine a stand-up comic in a smoky night-club there: “I just flew in from Andera — boy, are my arms tired.  Hello? (taps the mic)  Is this thing on?  Try the veal.”

Absurd questions to which there can be no logical explanation abound in “Fun and Games”: from the highest space under any apartment door ever seen; to, “What the hell is a nice girl like Laura Haley doing in such a flea-bag dump to begin with?”; to the absurd inefficiency of the jagged boomerang thing that the Calco-ans throw, which you can hear coming a mile away; to the ridiculous bridge that Mike and Laura, for some mind-numbing reason, feel they must cross, and which leaves them totally vulnerable, with their dicks figuratively swinging in the wind; to the mouth-twitching thug at the card game, who anybody who’s played cards for five minutes could spot as giving signals … the list goes on and on, and who gives a damn if it does.  It just adds to the charm.

“Fun and Games” is one of those happy quirks of fate — something which could have gone completely wrong, a potentially laughable mish-mash of absurd ideas and characters, but instead, jelled into a delightful Stefano casserole, for the world to enjoy.  To me, it works as nothing else does — and always leaves me hungering for more.  Vive le “Fun and Games”! 



In the Gargoyle Sox photo, that's Matt on the left.

Matthew J. Dewan, the world’s biggest fan of “Fun and Games,” started out as a screenwriter and actor.  He was also one-half of the immortal Detroit “doom & gloom” rock-duo GARGOYLE SOX, opening for the likes of Iggy Pop, Peter Murphy, and Sisters of Mercy.  (They used the Sir Graves Ghastly Gates in their stage show, and J.K. Potter art on their Headless Horseman album cover!)  He is currently an attorney in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.












7 comments:

  1. Nicely done, and I'll back you up all the way!

    Except the Tom Hanks thing. That scared me.

    Cheers!

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  2. Great read! "Fun and Games" really does have a lot going for it. And you've certainly made me hungry for a Stefano casserole...

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  3. It's a difficult thing to explain, when something means this much to you, as Fun And Games does for you. The "moments" you refer to are so true. Often my favourite scenes in OL are not the most dramatic or action filled, but touch something special inside you. I hadn't heard of Gargoyle Sox, but am enjoying the songs here. Thanks, Matthew.

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  4. The notion that TOL is more powerful when viewed as a giant compendium of images & sounds & archetypes (like Mike & Laura) that anchor themselves into the subconscious -- rather than 48 individual stories -- is an interesting take that helps explain this offbeat show's perpetual attraction.

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  5. Well written! Your enthusiasm is contagious--it was almost as much fun reading this as watching the episode!

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  6. Bet you never thought your piece on this episode would still be getting read three years later, but here I am. I admire the effort you put into spotlighting a show that is clearly not in the usual OL Top-10 pantheon. This show had to gradually earn my respect over many viewings; at first to me the Senator was the only bright spot.

    But what's with everyone and the high door crack? I've seen this in a lot of old hotels.

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  7. A really good episode, and some interesting thoughts about it. The casting of bad boy actor Nick Adams and (the for the most part) good girl actress Nancy Malone, was inspired. They interacted well and showed the makings of a potential couple till, well, they were transported back to earth.

    The viewer is left hoping for them, both of them, at the end. A whole lot going on in this one, with the Freud laid on very thick, typical of the series as a whole; yet also, as it closes, there's a wistfulness to it as well. In a way there's some reworking of the themes explored in a more Gothic format in The Guests, but with fewer people, the issues cut down to the essentials, and no room for sentimentality.

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