Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Dr. Benway and the Twentieth Century stake-out

One of the problems with my TV-weaned brain is that it recalls each television and film actor as the characters they played. Not a sum of individual performances, but as if it were all one continuous performance -- and all one part. The actors exist, one presumes, as actual human beings -- many, one suspects, as the sorts of shady almost-criminals Raymond Chandler saw in pre-WWII Hollywood. But their actual mundane existence is irrelevant (except insofar as it fuels the tabloid culture meta-narrative). What matters is the flickering blue screen shadow world of our consciousness, where narrative threads unintended by the chorus of creators unfold, each actor's electronic ghost imprinted on his or her own individual neuron, all of the lines and scenes and subtle glances aggregated into über-characters.

The death of Roy Scheider earlier this week is what got me thinking about this phenomenon. One of those second- or third-tier actors who manifested a certain potent ubiquity from the years of Nixon through the grey twilight of Bush the Elder. An imaginary man of action serving as a guide to the secret conflicts going on just offstage of our reality, from the 70s New York detective of The French Connection and The Seven-Ups to the Cold Warrior of Marathon Man and The Russia House to the existential distillation of it all in Friedkin's underrated Sorcerer. Always a master of dirty tricks. A cathode ray Charon, adapted for television by Mickey Spillane. An indelible part of the undocumented pantheon, at least for those of a certain age. Which is why, for Cronenberg, he was the perfect choice for Dr. Benway in Naked Lunch.

There was a time when this half-baked theory was of such prominence in my mind, I even tried to give it narrative articulation in a bit of channel-surfing Lovecraftian pastiche. Ah, youth:

I first noticed the absence of true characters during a night of delirious television viewing. It was a Thursday, I think, and I was in that cranial limbo where one is unable to sleep but too numb to think. So, like so many other nights, I lurched toward dawn cruising the channels on the fourteen-hundred dollar Blaupunkt “Weltmeister” I had rented to own.

The remote control for the thing is so huge you can barely use it with one hand. By 10 p.m. I was too lazy to reach over and pick it up, and I ended up watching the same channel for several hours. It was Channel 74.

The 10:30 movie on Channel 74 was "Saturn Sign," a weirdly impressionistic science fiction B from the early 1950s. Dick Bonham plays an architect who learns that the eccentric scientist for whom he is engineering an uncomfortably modern house outside Central City is sending and receiving strange radio messages to and from the ringed planet in preparation for an invasion. Janet Sargent plays the woman caught in the middle. Perhaps because of the brainy appearance his high forehead creates, Michael Reynold was selected to play the scientist. A satisfying picture, albeit with a rather strange ending in which the scientist villain fades into obscurity rather than being defeated in a dramatic and sudden fashion.

Following the film at 12:30 a.m. was a selection of syndicated situation comedies. The second was "Buster's Way," a forgotten single season program from 1963 concerning an aloof bachelor father raising three school-age boys. The father, oddly enough, was played by "Saturn"'s scientist Michael Reynold.

That evening's episode concerned the efforts of "Buster," the youngest and most mischievous of the boys, to procure a monkey as a pet. Early in the program, Buster visits his father in the elder's study. Michael Reynold as Mr. Johnson sits sternly behind his desk, smoking his pipe as he listens to Buster's plea for permission. The actor Reynold forces a smile, but an absence of pity or affection for the boy is apparent.

As the brief scene was about to end, I noticed some odd details in the scene. Mr. Johnson's book-lined study contained some unlikely arcana, particularly for a suburban father of the early '60s. An elaborate radio set sat prominently in the middle of the bookshelf, with numerous dials and exposed tubes but no apparent station indicator dial. Rather than a conventional globe, Mr. Johnson had a sphere featuring the cosmos in their relation to Earth. Similar star charts adorned the walls, along with a series of photographs of alien-looking cave paintings from Northern Africa. Cryptic plans full of arching, intersecting lines drawn in pencil were arrayed on the desk in front of Mr. Johnson. A quick look revealed the books on the shelves were mostly foreign titles, including a set of old, thick tomes in German near the radio -- Energiekraft, Atomartigewissenschaft und Verbindung Zwischenraum des Interwelters by von Kesseldorf.

It was as if the character of Mr. Johnson and the scientist of "Saturn Sign" were the same. My suspicion was furthered by a later scene, near the conclusion, where Buster finds his father in the basement working on electronic gear. To enable closer study of the phenomena, I taped the program the next night.

There could be no doubt, I concluded after scrutinizing Friday's episode. Thirteen minutes and twenty-three seconds into the program, Buster and his pal Whitey, who have snuck out after midnight on an evening when Whitey is sleeping over, tumble through the unlatched skylight into Mr. Johnson's attic study. As the scene cuts from the roof, with the boys trying to sneak back in, to the interior, with the boys crashing to the floor in a pile of dust, we glimpse 2.32 seconds of Mr. Johnson at work. It is very unsettling.

The frame-by-frame function on my video cassette recorder allowed me to review the brief images in meticulous detail, though the lighting is dim in the scene. Mr. Johnson sits before an elaborate radio transmitter, with a series of antenna lines hooked to the wall. Before him is a broadcast microphone, into which he is speaking. It is unclear precisely what he is saying -- except that it is clearly not a fragment of conversation in any known European language. Nor does it sound like an Asian tongue. Indeed, it barely sounds human, except perhaps to the extent it sounds like a human being speaking backwards.

This disturbing revelation brought me to watch more. Each evening on "Buster's Way," Michael Reynold as Mr. Johnson becomes increasingly aloof toward his children. It is obvious to any careful viewer that he finds the boys a distraction from his work; it is notable that he never actually leaves the house to go to a "job." With each episode, we see less and less of him, and when we do, he is emerging from or entering his study, often disheveled and unshaven. His inattention has a degenerative effect on the boys. They get into trouble more often, and the oldest, Robert, takes up drinking and consorting with the wrong crowd at school. By the final episode, Mr. Johnson has disappeared completely and Buster has lost his magical smile.

Ok, so maybe not.

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