Tuesday, May 30, 2017

“This May Very Well Be the Beginning of
the End for Earth as We Know It”

(Editor’s note: This review is submitted in association with Todd Mason’s Tuesday series of blog posts about “overlooked films and/or other A/V.” You’ll find more of this week’s picks here.)

A brief, weird trailer for “L.A. 2017.”

Pretty much everyone nowadays is quite familiar with movie director-producer Steven Spielberg. But when he initially embarked on a Hollywood career during Richard Nixon’s scandalized presidency—years before he made Jaws (1975) or Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) or Schindler’s List (1993)—the Ohio-born Spielberg worked in television, a talented individual with scant name familiarity. He directed episodes of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, Marcus Welby, M.D., The Psychiatrist, Columbo, and Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law, in addition to a 1971 ABC-TV thriller film, Duel, that found McCloud’s Dennis Weaver being menaced by an aged oil tanker truck on a desolate stretch of California highway.

Duel, however, was Spielberg’s second feature-length small-screen production. The first was a 90-minute episode of The Name of the Game, a 1968-1971 NBC mystery/adventure “wheel series” that focused on reporters and others employed by a Los Angeles-based magazine enterprise called Howard Publications, the urbane head of which was Glenn Howard, played by Gene Barry. The third-season installment of that series entrusted to Spielberg’s direction was titled “L.A. 2017.” It was a cautionary environmental-disaster tale, set in the not-too-distant future—2017, in fact, our present time—and scripted by Philip Wylie (1902-1971), a rather controversial author of science-fiction and mystery stories, who may be best remembered today for his novels When Worlds Collide (1933) and The Disappearance (1951). While The Name of the Game was famous for being “the most expensive television program in history” (up to that point), with a per-episode budget of $400,000, Spielberg is said to have shot “L.A. 2017” for a comparatively economical $375,000.

“L.A. 2017” (which you can watch here in its entirety) was originally broadcast on January 15, 1971. It begins on a sunny California afternoon, with publisher Howard driving back to the City of Angels from the Sierra Pines Conference on Ecology, while at the same time dictating a memo about that gathering into a cassette tape recorder, the transcription of which is to be delivered to the president of the United States. Howard contends in the course of his spoken observations that the world’s natural resources are at a decisive tipping point, and that unless concerted political and economic leadership on environmental protections is exercised soon, “this may very well be the beginning of the end for Earth as we know it.” It may also mark the end of Howard, for as he wheels his sedan down a twisting mountain road, he grows sleepy and eventually loses consciousness, his car careening off the pavement.

When Howard next awakens, it’s to the sight of a pair of men in air masks knocking on his window. Outside, things appear gloomy and unwelcoming, and his two rescuers immediately fit him with an oxygen unit of his own. He’s carried to an emergency van and taken into a complex of industrial tunnels that turn out to be at the edge of what remains of Los Angeles. Doctors there determine that his health is fine. Yet he has somehow been transported (via a time warp, perhaps?) 46 years into the future! “Impossible!” Howard scoffs, as he learns more about the realm in which he’s risen—a place bedeviled by a toxic atmosphere, where what remains of the population has retreated into subterranean bunkers (L.A. has been underground ever since 1989). In this deranged new world, psychiatrists serve as the police, milk is a rare and prized libation, piped-in sounds are used to control human moods and behavior, wildlife has virtually vanished, telephones never work properly, prostitution has become a quotidian service, and for unexplained reasons, math jokes are a popular form of entertainment. Oh, and Big Business has finally succeeded in taking over the United States: it’s now “a shareholder’s democracy,” with its capital in a well-buried Detroit, Michigan.

The folks who found Howard initially suspect he’s some sort of spy, who’s infiltrated Los Angeles under the bizarre pretext of being a man from the past. Once finally convinced of his identity, however, they apprise Howard of what has befallen the globe since his car crash in 1971. According to Dane Bigelow, the U.S. vice president in charge of Los Angeles, the troubles began with enormous growths of yellow-gray algae in the Indian Ocean, “and when the stuff died, the wind carried the stench to the land. The stench, of course, was poisonous.” That algae eventually proliferated worldwide, and so did the toxins. Expensive efforts to curb this pending disaster only added “more deadly compounds to the biosphere,” slowly depleting the planet’s oxygen supply. Famines and disease epidemics struck, and the weather turned lethal, killing millions of residents before they could adapt to a belowground existence. But, Bigelow says of this new subterranean life, “Some people think it’s even better than the old one.”

Managers of this new “USA Inc.” also have big plans in mind for Glenn Howard. They want him to revive Howard Publications and put it to work molding public values, convincing the country’s perhaps one million surviving citizens to accept their privations and the order imposed upon them by the hyper-controlling state.

(Above, left) The 1971 Popular Library edition of Philip Wylie’s Los Angeles: A.D. 2017. (Right) Open Road Media’s e-book version of that same environmental-disaster novel.

“L.A. 2017” is rife with familiar faces from 1960s and ’70s TV programs. For instance, Barry Sullivan (who guest-starred in such shows as The Man from U.N.C.L.E., It Takes a Thief, Mannix, Cool Million, Harry O, McMillan & Wife, The Streets of San Francisco, etc.; and who’d previously appeared in two other Name of the Game installments) portrays VP Bigelow, while Severn Darden (Honey West, P.J., Banyon, Barbary Coast, Starsky and Hutch) shows up here as a particularly oleaginous psychiatrist-cop named Cameron. The then 30-year-old Sharon Farrell, who’d appeared with James Garner in the 1969 gumshoe flick Marlowe, and would later also turn heads in Peter Graves’ 1974 TV pilot, The Underground Man, features here as Sandrelle, Bigelow’s secretary and a potential love interest for the time-displaced Glenn Howard.

Despite Bigelow’s assertion that the bunker-dwelling world of 2017 is a great place to live, it doesn’t take the inquisitive Howard long—thanks to assistance from the alluring but unblinkered Sandrelle—to discover the nightmare side of things. Births are tightly controlled to avoid “defective” babies, and sterilizations are common. Privacy is unknown, with video surveillance monitors ubiquitous. Assigned housing is overcrowded and mostly atrocious, with “seepage from above.” And residents who aren’t fully pulling their weight, or who are unwanted for other reasons, face the possibility of being dispatched to dangerous construction sites aboveground, or being otherwise exterminated. It’s no surprise in such a society that an underground movement (“underground” being used here in the sense of “subversive”) has burgeoned in L.A., or that the principled Mr. Howard hopes to make contact with it. As things develop, however, our hero puts those dissidents at risk by trying to join their cause.

In his own examination of this 1971 episode, North Carolina film authority John Kenneth Muir proclaims that its “finest and most telling moment arises in the last act.
Glenn visits Vice President Bigelow and upbraids him for maintaining and nourishing a “totalitarian state.”

At first, Bigelow responds that “survival justifies anything” in 2017, but then he changes his tack.

He turns Glenn’s self-righteousness around on the man from the 20th century. If Glenn hates this “future” so much, why didn’t he do something about the environment when he had money, fame and power, back in 1971?
Who is he to judge the future if he didn’t take responsibility for building it in the first place?

This is a really clever narrative angle, because it asks the audience, rather bluntly, to take just such responsibility for our shared tomorrows. Why aren’t we complaining more loudly that some people—
in the thrall of Big Business—want to gut rules and regulations that keep our water clean, our food safe, and our air breathable?
Spielberg made this dystopian drama at a time when dangers facing America’s natural resources were very much on the minds of its citizens. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had just been established in 1970 to help clean up the nation’s increasingly polluted air, ground, and water, and it wasn’t unknown for TV programs—not just The Name of the Game, but also such fare as the Emmy-nominated 1970 pilot film for The Senator, Hal Holbrook’s short-lived segment of The Bold Ones—to address or at least allude to the ecological damage wrought by industrial production.

Having his thought-provoking and not incidentally frightening yarn adapted as an episode of NBC’s high-profile Name of the Game might have pleased its author, Philip Wylie. But according to Lyman Tower Sargent’s 1979 reference work, British and American Utopian Literature, 1516-1975, that wasn’t the case. “Despite Wylie’s protests,” Sargent explains, “his script was drastically revised, with many of his important ideas excised and some of the scenes cut as too ‘raw’ and shocking for audiences in their living rooms. Wylie was furious: he had hoped to warn millions of viewers of the horrible consequences of pollution of the ecosphere, but the director had produced merely a cheap thriller.” The author’s response was to use “the television play as the basis for a paperback novel.” Sargent recounts that in October 1970, Wylie “turned out a ninety-thousand word novel that, except for the general outline of the plot, bears little resemblance to the televised version.”

That book, slightly retitled Los Angeles: A.D. 2017, is now easily available in an electronic version from Open Road Media, but can also still be acquired (more expensively and difficultly) in its original 1971 Popular Library paperback edition. As the late Randy Johnson observed in a review a couple of years back, Wylie’s novel begins with several chapters devoted to the ecology conference Glenn Howard was just leaving when he had his roadway accident (though in the book, he simply falls asleep at a shaded rest area). “Ostensibly a meeting to discuss the effects of pollution and global warming on the environment, Howard had come to realize it was really just industry’s attempt to soft-peddle the scientists and plan their opposition to the environmental movement,” Johnson relates. There’s no Dane Bigelow to be found anywhere in this yarn, and no seductive Sandrelle, either, though in the latter’s place is inserted Leandra Smith, a lithe blonde secretary in the employ of L.A. Mayor Robert Baker, who initially greets Howard in “an almost see-through costume” and goes on to become his “erotic companion.” What the novel does contain, however, is explicit torture and an emphasis on the evils of corporate America, plus more than a modicum of sex. As Johnson explained, “sex is wide open [in 2017 L.A.], with anybody and everybody from kindergarten age. It’s actually taught and encouraged. This would be [one] of those themes departing from the television episode ... [It] definitely wouldn’t have been allowed on 1971 television.”

There’s much about Wylie’s novel that remains interesting, particularly his reflections on the consequences of breaking down sexual mores. But he goes on and on about that subject, to a tedious length, as he sends Howard into bedroom romps guaranteed to leave any man insensate to restrictions on his other liberties. Also fascinating is the author’s portrayal of a troubled utopia, where it’s not always easy to judge whether the costs of change are greater than its benefits. And while Los Angeles: A.D. 2017 seems dated and preachy in some respects, its theme of impending ecological disaster is as current in the willfully ignorant age of Trump as it was 46 years ago.

I can certainly sympathize with Philip Wylie’s complaint that Steven Spielberg had turned his complex, message-driven tale into a “cheap thriller.” Yet after watching the artfully shot “L.A. 2017” and then reading Los Angeles: A.D. 2017, I submit that simplifying the plot and emphasizing its dramatic aspects, as The Name of the Game did, resulted in Wylie’s subject matter being far more approachable. Spielberg has said that making “L.A. 2017” “opened a lot of doors for me.” My guess is it also helped open a lot of people’s eyes, in the early 1970s, to the escalating risks facing the world’s fragile environment. Perhaps we need similar calls to action from the entertainment industry in this real 2017 to make Americans understand the enormity of the threat now posed by climate change.

Are you listening, Mr. Spielberg?


Jerry House said...

i saw it when It first aired. The one glaring thing I remember was the oldsters grooving to 60s music -- they were too stereotyped then and would be laughable now.

Unknown said...

This is the kind of insightful article that keeps me tuning in to THE RAP SHEET. Thanks.

Unknown said...

I should add that Wylie was also the author of many other worthwhile items, the Crunch and Des stories are interesting if dated for the existentialists who own and operate a boat, rather like Hemingway's TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (more the movie than the book). Or rather like John MacDonald's series.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Thank you for your kind words about the blog, Penelope.