The Twilight Zone

Bernadette Adams Davis

The most recent tales from the Zone suggest it can again become a venue for investigating contemporary cultural and moral dilemmas.

The Twilight Zone

Airtime: Wednesdays, 9pm ET
Cast: Forest Whitaker
Display Artist: Pen Densham, Mark Stern, John Watson
Network: UPN
Creator: John Watson

It's baaack. The Twilight Zone, originated and written by Rod Serling 40-plus years ago, is back, again. Not reruns, but original episodes, with a new host, Forest Whitaker (Panic Room, Bird). The Zone, he tells us, is "a wonderful land whose boundaries are only that of the imagination." It features guest stars and two stories each week. The show has perennially asked viewers to understand that things are not always as they seem. The most recent tales from the Zone suggest it can again become a venue for investigating contemporary cultural and moral dilemmas.

The second episode of the series begins with "Shades of Guilt," a portrait of a man who "looks in the mirror and sees a decent, upstanding citizen." In it, Matthew (Vincent Vintresca), is driving home one dark, rainy night and a frantic black man appears at his car window. The man (Hill Harper) is begging for help, but Matthew drives away and leaves him standing there. When Matthew gets home, he tells his wife, "You should have seen the look on his face. I mean, I'm telling you, this guy, he looked, deranged."

The next morning Matt notices his skin darkening and in the morning paper, he finds a picture of his "deranged" man. The headline: "College Professor Found Beaten to Death: Third Hate Crime This Month." Matt shows the article to a friend and descends into a pit of regret. "I left the guy there... I could have done something," he whines. His friend says it's no big deal: what's a guy to do, let a strange, black man into his car at night? Matt persists. "Do you know that he was a college professor, and he had three books published?" Matt's buddy asks, "If you had known that this guy was a college professor, would you have helped him out?" "What kind of question is that? Of course I would have," Matt says. What kind of question, indeed. If only the professor, John, had thought to whip out his faculty identification. Class trumps race in Matt's world. As he puts it, "I'm not a racist."

At the same time that he's trying so hard to define himself as a "good" man, Matt is becoming a black man (eventually, he's played by Harper). He goes home, where neither his wife nor his dog recognizes him; she and a neighbor come at him with a gun. The scene conjures up Amadou Diallo as Matt/John reaches in his pocket for identification and his neighbor shoots at him. (New York City police officers fired 41 bullets at Diallo in 1999. He was reaching for his wallet when they came to question him.)

Black Matt/John makes it out of suburbia alive, but runs into trouble trying to get a hotel room, then a cab. Then he gets the bright idea to go to the dead professor's house to ask forgiveness from his widow, who has one question for him: "If my husband had been a white man, would you have helped him?" Matt has no answer. Troubled and still black, Matt/John goes back to wandering the streets and is beaten by white thugs. A white guy comes along (Vintresca again) and, after hesitating, offers Matt/John a ride. He gets in and the two drive off. Matt/John: "What made you change your mind?" White guy: "All I could think was, what if it had been me?"

A man gets to redeem himself and save a life. Terrific. But the big questions are still out there. The story turns not on one man's life or death, but on what kind of life it is. The emphasis on John's profession implies that if he'd been a sanitation worker, Matt wouldn't have been so eaten up with regret. Has his perspective changed at all or only broadened to include "safe" black people, the ones just like him? On the flipside, if we're honest with ourselves, it's pretty frightening to let any stranger in your car. The writers leave Matt with only one option, when more are available. For instance, he's on his cell phone when John approaches the car -- while it may be unreasonable for him to put himself at risk, a call to the police might have saved the professor.

The second vignette, "Dream Lover," is more challenging. We're introduced to Andrew Lomax (Adrian Pasar), a graphic novelist facing writer's block. He dreams of Sondra (Shannon Elizabeth), who seems to be perpetually getting out of the shower, approaching him wearing only in a towel. Sondra, quite obviously, is his muse, even if he can't take her out on display. "She may not be real, but she's all mine," he says.

Turns out, he's wrong on both counts. Other people can see Sondra, and Andrew grows jealous when the cable guy starts hanging around her. He comes home one evening to find Sondra at his desk. She's drawing. Andrew thinks it's kind of cute, but makes it clear that "doing my artwork is not in your job description." Take that, dream lover. Then, the truth: she's the graphic novelist who created him. "I guess I made you so real, I even convinced you," she says. As Andrew begs for his imaginary life, Sondra, in a whiff of eraser dust, dispenses with him.

This segment, ending with a woman at work, is a surprise, as a good Twilight Zone tale ought to be. Here the writers encourage us to coast on our assumptions. Graphic novels, sexual fantasies, possessiveness: guy stuff. This presentation of a woman as author of her life and fantasies is rudimentary feminism. Sondra controls his existence; that's the big payoff for his assumption of power and reality.

"Dream Lover"'s interrogations are more challenging than those in "Shades of Guilt," because while we still avoid meaningful discussions of race, we do see daily examples of racism. It's no big surprise that a black man can't get a cab or would be chased out of a suburban enclave. However, examples of women's agency, particularly sexual agency, are rarely made visible. Yes, there's lots of sex and sexual fantasy on the tube, mostly from the male perspective, for the masculine gaze. Here the fantasy and sexual authority are all hers.

With these two segments, the series delves into difficult social dilemmas. Perhaps UPN is reaching beyond its Monday night black lineup, in an effort to "diversify," in various ways. (The choice of Whitaker as host is a good start toward integrating broadcast television.) The key for the show's success will, as always, lie in the writing. If the vignettes can leave us questioning our assumptions, about race, class, gender, responsibility, or any number of big-question topics, it will be worth visiting The Twilight Zone.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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