Friday, July 21, 2006

Nightmares & Dreamscapes, Episodes 3 and 4

The second week of TNT's Stephen King anthology series, like the first week, gave us one hit and one miss.

The hit was "The End of the Whole Mess," one of King's few outright science-fiction stories, about two brothers, one a genius and the other merely talented and successful, who together bring peace to the world -- at a terrible price. King's story is an interesting recent contribution to the long tradition of sf stories about the nature of genius, for example C.M. Kornbluth's "Gomez," and it consciously echoes the most famous one, Daniel Keyes' "Flowers for Algernon," by having the narrator's writing style deteriorate along with his mental state.

The tight teleplay, by savvy genre veteran Lawrence D. "Larry" Cohen, turns the narrator from a writer into a documentarian, so that he tells his story via a documentary rather than a manuscript. This necessarily costs us the "Algernon" element, but otherwise framing the whole episode as an impromptu documentary works really well; I'm particularly impressed with the blinking "low battery" image at the end. Director Mikael Salomon keeps everything visually interesting via Forrest Gump-style collage effects, incorporating still photos, news footage, home movies, etc. Together, Cohen and Salomon sail us over the episode's more preposterous elements, and keep our focus squarely where it should be, on the relationship between the brothers. As the genius, Henry Thomas is fine, but Ron Livingston is excellent in the more difficult role of the narrator.

William H. Macy is good, too, in "Umney's Last Case," as both a 1930s-era Los Angeles private eye and the 21st-century schlub of a fiction writer who created him, but otherwise I lost all patience with this increasingly mean-spirited tale. If the writer just wants to flee reality by trading places with his creation, why kill off all the detective's friends first, in various unpleasant ways? Just to show who's boss? And when the detective arrives in our reality, he proves himself just as self-absorbed and cruel as the writer was, ditching the grieving wife almost immediately to frolic with the hottie who cleans the pool. The wife -- Jacqueline McKenzie, good in a thankless role -- is thus twice-abandoned, and what's the point? That men, whether real or fictional, are pigs?

A final out-on-a-limb thought on "The End of the Whole Mess": Like so much science fiction, this could be read as a reactionary screed against attempts at human betterment (what Mencken sarcastically called "the uplift"), against science, against experts in general. The message seems to be, "Try to bring about world peace, boyo, and look what you get!" Sadly fitting, perhaps, that it aired the day President Bush ignored the scientific experts and vetoed stem-cell research. The old slogan of science fiction fandom -- "Saving humanity through science and sanity" -- is a largely rejected notion in the U.S. this days; by over-emphasizing the Frankenstein theme, science fiction may share much of the responsibility for this. Further reading: Thomas M. Disch's The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World.

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