California Literary Review

The Weekly Listicle: Comes From a Different Timeline

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September 2nd, 2011 at 2:28 pm

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The Cover To Philip K. Dick's The Man In The High Castle

The Cover To Philip K. Dick’s Hugo Award-winning The Man In The High Castle

History doesn’t always turn out the way we expect. Some missteps by Patton or Eisenhower, an intercepted communication, the Nazis developing the Bomb first, or a Captain with the hots for some hippie liberal and the Axis could have won World War II. Or the Russians could have won the Cold War. Or the British could have won the American Revolution.

Sometimes history follows its “accepted” path, but the truth behind it is drastically different from what we’ve been spoon-fed from THE MAN. The moon race could have been an excuse to rescue Sentinel Prime. Two high school girls could have brought down Richard Nixon.

Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis in Bubba Ho-Tep

Elvis lives, JFK’s black

In one timeline, Jackie Kennedy could have died along with her husband. In another, a scientist/Starship Captain could have entered Lee Harvey Oswald’s body, and then a secret service agent’s body, to save her life. I don’t know how Jackie O living really improved society, but, then again, I don’t know the damage her death did to America.

Are there such things as fixed points in time? Could history have changed relatively recently without us ever knowing? How much can we really trust official “histories” of anything, especially those written centuries, if not millennia ago? Is your hometown just one cosmic screw-up away from being a den of sin and inequity where a sports gambler reigns as king and women work at libraries?

In honor of Apollo 18, the true story of the Blair Witch Moon Landing, this week’s Listicle, honors pieces of Alternative History.

The Black Adder (dir. Martin Shardlow, 1982)

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In the late 15th century…

As the opening narration to the first series of Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis’ classic British sitcom explains, what is presumed to have occurred at the end of the War of the Roses is a classic example of “history is written by the winners.” Although Henry Tudor/Henry VII eventually became King of England, he was not the immediate successor to Richard III of “my horse, my horse, my kingdom for a horse” fame. In fact, Richard III wasn’t the monster he is commonly portrayed as, but a relatively pleasant fellow and a beloved leader. Although he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field, ’twas not Henry VII who struck the fatal blow. The actual person who committed the regicide was Edmund, Duke of Edinburgh (Rowan Atkinson), also known as The Black Adder, who accidentally slew the leader because he overslept on the night of battle and thought the king was stealing his horse.

Edmund, the son of the newly crowned Richard IV, immediately recognizes the potential to rise to the throne and sets up schemes along with lackies Baldrick (Tony Robinson) and Lord Percy Percy (Tim McInnerny). Throughout the six-episode series, Edmund’s plans never work for the most part, but he eventually does achieve his goal, if only for a few seconds. Presumably it was after his death that Henry VII took over the kingdom and wrote the history that turned Richard III into a tyrant.

The Cast of Black Adder Goes Fourth

The Cast of the WWI-set Black Adder Goes Fourth, featuring one of the most strangely affecting series finales ever.

The The Black Adder “franchise” consists of three other series, several Christmas and Comic Relief specials, and the movie Blackadder: Back & Forth. All these incarnations feature different Blackadders from various points in time (the reign of Elizabeth I, circa the period of the English Regency with some temporal liberties, World War I, etc.), but it’s the first series that plays up the concept of Alternative History the most and, perhaps, requires the most foreknowledge from viewers, especially American viewers. It really helps to have some idea of Shakespeare’s Richard III (or the “real” history of English ascendancy) before checking out this series.

Starship Troopers (dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1997)

The Poster for Starship Troopers

In the 1940s…– Cut To THE FUTURE

Although never explicitly stated in the film, it is implied and has been explained by director Paul Verhoeven that his film exists in a universe where the Nazis won the war. This does explain the very, very white people calling Buenos Aires their home.

Paul Verhoeven is an interesting and somewhat misunderstood director, and Starship Troopers ranks among his best work. Movies like Robocop and this one show that he’s actually a talented satirist and social commentator who “goes native” with such zeal and relish that it’s easy to see why people mistake his aim. The videos and newsreels within Starship Troopers are actual propaganda for The Great Bug War, filmed and edited without winking to the audience.

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Starship Troopers itself is also a decent B-movie that understands the tropes of old school Sci-Fi and War pictures without looking down on them. The characters (Johnny Rico (Caspar van Dien), Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), scientist Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris), and Zim (the always welcome Clancy Brown)) are all caricatures, but they are supposed to be. Their over-the-top and bombastic style matches those of actors in the films of the 1940s and 1950s, but with the additional advantage of being a Nazi-bred super race. Also, the effects still hold up.

For a more serious Paul Verhoeven take on World War II, check out 2006′s Black Book. It’s a Dutch film that really shows the Total Recall director as a genuine and thoughtful filmmaker.

Futurama: Roswell That Ends Well (dir. Rich Moore, 2001)

Futurama - Roswell that Ends Will

Better than slingshotting around the sun

In 1947…

In 3001, the staff of a delivery company watches a supernova explode as a delivery boy makes popcorn in the microwave. Blue meets red and the crew is sent back in time to 1947, Roswell, New Mexico, in this Emmy-award winning episode of Futurama.

Arriving in mid-20th century Earth with a crash, the crew becomes the legendary “weather balloon” that has fascinated the public for over six decades. The U.S. military captures Bender’s broken body, as well as staff physician Dr. Zoidberg, and the Planet Express Ship needs a microwave (not readily available in the 1940s) in order to bring its crew back to their own time. Fry sneaks onto the military base where they actually do possess a microwave dish. However, despite Professor Farnsworth’s warnings to be as covert as possible, he meets, and accidentally kills, his own grandfather, has sex with his own grandmother, and, presumably, produces his own father. Meanwhile, the government reconstructs Bender’s body into a UFO form and experiments on Dr. Zoidberg, who is just happy to have people paying attention to him.

Dr. Zoidberg gets live autopsied as President Truman watches on Futurama

President Harry S. Truman watches Dr. Z’s vivisection

With the timeilne mucked up enough, Farnsworth declares “screw history” and sends Planet Express Ship on a quest to steal the microwave dish from the base and reclaim their two comrades. They obliterate the base with bombs, fire on it with laser cannons, throw Decapod innards at President Truman, and prove invulnerable to the pathetic weapons of that time. Choke on that causality.

In this season’s All The Presidents’ Heads the gang screws around with the past again, going back in time to the Revolutionary War where Farnsworth tries to bring honor to his family’s name.

The Futurama Gang; Comedy Central Era

Maybe it’s just me, but Comedy Central Futurama seems to be making a greater use of the ensemble element of the show.

I couldn’t find the end-of-episode Bender flag

Watchmen (dir. Zack Snyder, 2009)

Watchmen Film Poster

In 1985…

An understandably divisive film, I personally consider Watchmen on the upper tier of comic book films along with Nolan’s Batman movies and this year’s also alternate history superhero movie X-Men: First Class. Snyder turned Alan Moore’s epic tale into a genuine cinematic epic with a scope and weight unlike any other film in the genre. (Surprisingly, destroying Manhattan does have more impact than pushing a rock into space.) Despite the complaints of slow-then-fast action sequences, I thought the fight scenes were well-done with a genuine flow, as opposed to the quick cuts that plague so many films. It had a good cast (even Malin Akerman as the second Silk Spectre has grown on me upon subsequent viewings) with Jeffrey Dean Morgan playing Eddie Blake, The Comedian as my particular standout. The terrific opening sequence gives us glimpses of how the world and culture might be affected if real superheroes did exist.

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Set in an alternate 1985 where Richard Nixon is in the midst of his fifth term (government operative Blake knows how to handle problems like JFK and two journalists from the Post),
Watchmen presents a world where masked adventurers patrolled the streets since 1938. The first group of heroes, The Minutemen, started in the 1940s, and the second, unnamed group fought crime in the 1960s/1970 before being forced into retirement by federal law and public outrage. Further changing the modern world, a lab accident turned physicist Dr. Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup) into Dr. Manhattan, a being of God-like power and the only true super powered creature on Earth, albeit one four minutes away from completely losing his humanity. His existence disturbs the balance of the Cold War, bring a close to the Vietnam War at the behest of President Nixon, and changes conception of humanity itself.

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What makes Snyder’s Watchmen remarkable is that it captured a lot of what makes the tome so important. (NOTE: I didn’t say he captured everything.) He doesn’t make any of the heroes happy or even likeable, they’re all greatly flawed and disturbed and their lives are depressing and empty.

Additionally, the landscape still looks like 1985. Maybe a bit off-kilter, but technology is 1985 technology. Style is 1985 style. (Similarly, the scenes from the 1940s onward also capture the feel of those eras, and it should have received nominations for set design and, especially, costume design.) Snyder created a true alternate universe in Watchmen; time will tell if he can pull it off in his Superman movie or if we’ll have to contend with another Sucker Punch.

DAN’S PICKS:

Inglourious Basterds (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2009)

Inglourious Basterds (2009) Brad Pitt's Epilogue

Sorry you skipped out on Nuremberg now?

Had Quentin Tarantino sworn that the plot of Inglourious Basterds had substantial basis in fact – beyond the undeniable occurrence of the Second World War – I would have been willing to believe him. At any rate, who could have proven him wrong? In any war, it is safe to assume that all manner of crackpot rogue missions play out “off the record.” However, true to form, he was not content simply to play around under the vague shadow of historical debate. He had to take one revisionist leap beyond, and it worked out even better than usual. For all the fuss over everything he has ever made to date, Inglourious Basterds may yet go down in history as his best work.
 
To begin with, the writer/director so celebrated for super-stylized postmodern banter, so famous for movies so clever and self-referential they don’t really need to be about anything… tries his hand at a whole new level of storytelling. There are isolated moments of his rapid-fire sense of humor, but these punctuate long stretches of weighty drama and taut suspense. As the freewheeling Nazi hunt led by Brad Pitt merges with a larger mass assassination plot in occupied France, the film gathers depth as well as true dramatic momentum with every minute of screen time.

Inglourious Basterds (2009) Brad Pitt's Epilogue

Tarantino’s final solution… is a cinemassacre!

To begin with, the writer/director so celebrated for super-stylized postmodern banter, so famous for movies so clever and self-referential they don’t really need to be about anything… tries his hand at a whole new level of storytelling. There are isolated moments of his rapid-fire sense of humor, but these punctuate long stretches of weighty drama and taut suspense. As the freewheeling Nazi hunt led by Brad Pitt merges with a larger mass assassination plot in occupied France, the film gathers depth as well as true dramatic momentum with every minute of screen time.
 
Of course, this is not true revisionist history. It is a grand scale, hyperviolent, smartass historical fiction. It is a “wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if” strain of alternate history the likes of which has seldom been put to film. Science fiction books are full of it, and Tarantino manages it without time travel or lizard invasions. To be fair, alternate history purists may object that it did not sufficiently change the course of the history by, say, letting the bad guys win or something. Philip K. Dick wrote a book called The Man In The High Castle that really hit that particular nail on the head.
 
To be sure, Tarantino makes the concept his own, and in a devilishly clever move he turns one of the Third Reich’s most prominent weapons against it. I speak, of course, of the propaganda film. Say what you will, Nazis were better at making those than anyone. A young Frenchwoman who has suffered greatly under Hitler’s genocide (the stunning and nails-tough Mélanie Laurent) hides in plain sight among the troops occupying Paris, all the while planning some serious vengeance behind the walls of the neighborhood picture show. You must see it to believe it.

Inglourious Basterds (2009) Adolf Hitler

In Basterds, nobody gets to take the easy way out.

** Warning! Plot details… The greatest strength of Tarantino’s story is its sheer audacity. I am not referring so much to the core premise of vigilante Nazi hunting. That is merely par for the course from a director who pays such constant homage to one form of exploitation cinema or another.  What I really admire is the payoff. Unlike a film like Valkyrie, which depicted a real-life attack on the Nazi high command which we knew would fail, the climax of Valkyrie revolves around a completely fabricated incident that actually succeeds in wasting the Third Reich as we know it. Hitler especially. Enough said.
 
Since Nazis are the world’s number one favorite group to watch suffer, Tarantino must have known the more extreme he made their fate, in absolute defiance of history, the more fans he would have cheering by the end of the film. Hitler’s ranks have not taken this kind of gleeful beating since Indiana Jones found the Holy Grail, and Tarantino takes it… oh, so much further.
 

Young Einstein (dir. Yahoo Serious, 1988)

Young Einstein (1988) Splitting Beer Atoms

Yahoo! Seriously.

 
Forget everything you think you know about Albert Einstein… except that whole theory of relativity thing, and the part about harnessing atomic energy for the good of mankind. For no particular reason whatsoever, Australian comedian Yahoo Serious chose to rewrite the life of history’s most celebrated scientist as a fictional farce about a Tasmanian farm boy who changed the world with a formula for brewing better beer.
 
We begin on the Einstein apple plantation, where the eccentric young Albert finds it hard to accept his destiny as an apple farmer, and dreams of studying the laws of the universe. Unsure of what to do with him, his father sets him to work on a secret family project… putting bubbles into flat beer, which Einsteins have been studying for generations but have yet to perfect. After poring over the problem, he determines that if he can split beer at the atomic level (with a chisel, no less), the resulting fission will produce the elusive head he seeks. The success of his experiment means big bucks for the family, and Albert wastes no time in packing his energy formula off to mainland. However, the trusting Tasmanian makes his big mistake in sharing his secret with the unscrupulous head of the patent office, who does not understand it but plans to steal it anyway.

Meanwhile, Einstein himself takes a job as a patent clerk himself (a nod to authentic history), and begins a romantic relationship with French physicist Marie Curie (no proven parallel). With his energy formula lost in the bureaucratic shuffle, he sets out inventing something he believes will impress the more cosmopolitan Australians. Through a series of disjointed cogitations, he cobbles together an electric violin (later a guitar), as well as the concept of “roll and rock” music. It is instantly a success with the neighborhood children, but the scientific community remains unmoved. Only when Albert discovers he has been swindled out of his formula by the beer industry, and is packed off to an asylum to keep him quiet, does he find the right allies to fight back. In the mad scientist ward, he shares his theory and convinces his fellow lunatics of the danger it presents to an unsuspecting public.
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Young Einstein (1988) The Formula

Clever nods to the “real” Einstein keep things on track.

For the rest, just see it! Yahoo Serious puts himself through endless slapstick abuse when not playing the romantic dreamer. It is a very sweet movie, and quite family safe (Einstein even rescues a basket of kittens baked into a pie). It is not as aggressive or sharp as many comparable Hollywood comedies, but its good-natured tone, broad jokes, and animated Aussie New Wave soundtrack still hold up. Your children may like it better than you do, but the more mature humor is sufficiently sly and campy to entertain all ages. When a crate of apples falls on his head, Albert immediately expounds on Newtonian theory, then remarks with wonder, “I’ve just formulated a complete scientific principle!” When he hands around his formula to other “mad” scientists, they nod in quick assent, then instantly blanch in horror at the staggering implications.

This film, dedicated to the real Albert Einstein pays satirical tribute to his lifelong pacifism, and his ultimate regret over the use of nuclear power for war. The climax of the film, in which Albert must save the top scientists of the world from nuclear holocaust with rock and roll… well, that speaks for itself. Equal parts goofy and clever, Young Einstein is one you should save for a family night in.
 

Nineteen Eighty-Four (dir. Michael Radford, 1984)

 
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) Big Brother

“I know what you’re thinking… no, seriously. I do.”

Poor old John Hurt. If you were to measure the collective misfortune of his characters, it would surely eclipse any of the other top names in cinema. His two most notorious roles are as John Merrick (a.k.a. David Lynch’s Elephant Man) and as Kane, the ill-fated flight officer sacrificed to the horrific biological demands of Ridley Scott’s Alien. Since seeing those two films, I have not once attended a sideshow or agreed to have dinner on a spaceship. This year, you can see Hurt getting soundly slashed in the trailer for Rowan Joffe’s Brighton Rock, just for starters. The gaunt, craggy, yet curiously refined actor has never flinched from having brutality and unhappiness wrought upon his characters. So it happens once again to Winston Smith, the luckless protagonist of Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the definitive adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece. In Orwell’s vision of the world, the 1980s find the world subjugated in a monstrous totalitarian grip. In the superstate of Oceania, in the part formerly called Britain, people live under the constant surveillance and threat of “Big Brother.” The government monitors not only action but thought, intending to control both with the end of maintaining absolute conformity. Privacy has been abolished, and the very thought of resistance subjects the thinker to torture and execution at the hands of – guess who? – the Thought Police.

As in most stories of this kind, Smith finds himself drawn by healthy human urges into treachery. He keeps a private journal of his thoughts, and even sparks a relationship with a fellow citizen named Julia (Suzanna Hamilton). What a bad, bad man! In due course, Big Brother’s minions are on his trail and ready top put him through the works for his unthinkable outrages. He comes face to face with O’Brien (Richard Burton), who warns him against the path of individual liberty. Or else. However, Smith comes to realize that he crossed a point of no return long ago. Once the wheels begin turning, Big Brother is going to get him. That is simply how things are. Along the way, he encounters various citizens at various stages of the hideous “due process” of which he himself is destined to be a victim. The really scary part is that he may not be able to do a thing about it.
 
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) Winston and Julia

Big Brother sees both London and France.

 
Nineteen Eighty-Four is not as much of a cult favorite as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), which explores very similar themes with an equally dark but much more humorous tone. Gilliam’s film focuses as much on bureaucratic absurdities, and the all-but-explicit notion that nobody is actually in charge, as it does on the conspiratorial horror of Orwell’s government. However, two important things make Radford’s film the more appropriate for this list. First, Gilliam’s film is more nominally fictional. The story does not explicitly take place at any particular place or time. It might have something to do with the movie’s title, and then again it may not. Nineteen Eighty-Four exists firmly in the eponymous year, and in a version of the Old World which has gone far more dreadfully wrong than we could have imagined. Kudos, also, to the director for the self-referential touch of actually releasing the movie in 1984. In addition, Orwell’s protagonist works for an important branch of the government called the Ministry Of Truth, whose function is the literal revision of written history.

The idea that public record may be rewritten, and masses of entire lives actually erased, is the real punchline of Orwell’s grim joke. Not only can the government force everyone else into submission, but it can tailor historical fact (and ultimately the national memory) to suit itself, and so perpetuate its unchallenged dominion for good. The power of propaganda, not only on the present but only on the past, is a timeless cautionary theme. I still prefer Brazil in a fair fight, but Nineteen Eighty-Four remains a worthy excursion down the same dark hole.

JULIA’S PICKS:

Julia has had a week packed completely with things that aren’t blogging, which means unfortunately my section is going to be short (but sweet, hopefully).

Red Dawn (dir. John Milius, 1984)

Red Dawn 1984 still

The Reds need Big Macs too.

I watched Red Dawn in my Propaganda Studies class in college (along with Triumph of the Will, Starship Troopers, and many others – it was a good class). John Milius’s 1984 action flick has stood the test of time, and as a study of movies that virtually scream “Amurrica, f*%$ yeah!” it’s brilliant. It imagines an alternate 1984, one in which the Soviet Union chooses to invade the United States as World War 3 rages overseas.

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“Not bad for a bunch’a kids, huh?”

When Russian paratroopers land in the sleepy little town of Calumet, Colorado, its high school football players head for the hills – and use guerilla tactics to fight the insurgence as the Wolverines, their school’s mascot. These kids are squirrelly, smart, and patriotic. In short: don’t mess with American teenagers, man. (As an added bonus, Red Dawn is packed full of our 80s favorites: pre-Dirty Dancing Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, a young (pre-crazy?) Charlie Sheen, 80s idol C. Thomas Howell, and minor Brat Pack member Lea Thompson.)

C.S.A.: Confederate States of America (dir. Kevin Wilmott, 2004)

CSA poster

THEY WON. It sounds so ominous…because it is.

IFC’s mockumentary C.S.A. purports to be a British documentary about U.S. history. Particularly, an alternate version of U.S. history in which the South won the Civil War. It’s detailed, hilarious, and so terribly wrong. C.S.A. reimagines D.W. Griffith’s horrifically racist 1915 film Birth of a Nation as The Hunt for Dishonest Abe, and features Harriet Tubman disguising President Lincoln in blackface to ensure his safety.

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Skip to :56…seriously. This insurance commercial is really something.

As a Yankee who transplanted two years ago to Virginia – which is the South (capital S), I can say this movie is worth watching, especially when you know folks in their 40s who were taught not about the Civil War but the War of Northern Aggression.

Captain America: The First Avenger (dir. Joe Johnston, 2011)

Captain America Evans still

Patriotism at its most honest and good.

Our very own Dan Fields reviewed Captain America when it released, saying it packed very little punch. I actually enjoyed it a lot – but Chris Evans and his lovably goofy smile probably contributed to that. There’s a disclaimer here: I have not read the comics.

In late 1930s America, Steve Rogers (Evans, digitally modified), a miniscule man with asthma, flat feet, and myriad other physical issues, can’t get the army to take him. He catches the eye of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who decides (after a battery of mental tests) to inject Steve with an experimental drug to make him magnificently muscular and give him a superhero’s powers.

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Steve starts out as the Army’s plaything – donning a blue jumpsuit and dancing around onstage for the troops overseas. But when combat begins in earnest, Steve can’t stand idly by. Meanwhile Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), who was dosed with the same drug, figures to overthrow Hitler and take over the world. It’s a straight-up superhero tale, but it offers a brilliantly illustrated reimagining of World War II.

  • sonia

    I loved 1984. An amazing book!

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