Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Ten Percent – Beasts, Beauty, and Wonder

This post originally appeared on


“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Happy 2017 and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column – well, last year it was more of a semi-regular column, but we’re resolved to change that, now that one gigantic project is wrapping up. Ahem. Let’s start again . . .

. . . “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week we’ll take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. So many films premiere each year, but only a very few are remembered and revered years later. That’s not a matter of genre – the Ten Percent is a big tent, with plenty of room for comedy, drama, horror, animation, musical, science fiction and many more. But admission into the tent is not easy to come by. Films in this category last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.

Equally at home writing poetry and novels, painting, sculpting and making films, Jean Cocteau (1889 – 1963) was one of France’s leading intellectual lights, particularly in the time between the two World Wars. His version of Beauty and the Beast (1946) is an absolute must-see for the film buff.


While certain elements (a heroine named “Belle,” some very strange wall sconces in the Beast’s castle, and several aspects of the design of the Beast) are echoed in the 1991 Disney version, Cocteau’s version is dreamy, surreal, and altogether unique. Here, Belle is a daughter in a family of four children. She is dedicated to tending to her father and is modest and self-sacrificing while her brother is a wastrel lay-about and her sisters are vain and superficial. When someone has to go be the sacrifice to the Beast, it is Belle who sneaks into the stable to ride the Beast’s magical horse back to the castle.

The Beast is – well, beastly. He hunts and rips his prey to bits. He drinks from a forest pool by lapping at the water like a cat. And yet, his first words to Belle are, “You are in no danger.”



What truly sets Cocteau’s film apart is the fact that it is a true fairy tale in that it is suitable for children to watch, yet is not intended for them. Fairy tales are cautionary tales with life lessons embedded in the narrative. From Little Red Riding Hood, we learn the perils of leaving the path. From Rumpelstiltskin, we learn the power of names. And from Beauty and the Beast, we learn what can turn a man into a beast and what can turn him back.

Cocteau claimed that one lesson of his film was that anyone who had an unhappy childhood could become a beast – truly a horrifying lesson in post-WW2 Europe, which was overrun with children whose childhoods had been snatched away from them. But the hope lies in the fact that spells can be cast, yes, but they can also be broken and that true love is a mighty tonic indeed.

The film is astonishingly gorgeous. Remembering that this is decades before CGI, Cocteau’s accomplishments become even more noteworthy. He felt he lacked the technical expertise to carry off the trick photography he wanted to use in order to create the rich fantasy world of the Beast’s castle, so he brought aboard acclaimed director Rene Clement as his technical adviser, along with cameraman Henri Alekan to bring the trick shots to fruition. The elaborate Gustave Dore-inspired costumes were created by theatrical designer Christian Berard and were intended to be “as much as the actors could stand up in.”


All of this comes together so beautifully. Just watch as the Beast gently carries Belle into the castle and her clothes transform in the space of a doorway from the sturdy working clothes of a peasant girl to the bejeweled confections of a queen. The world of the Beast is a dream world and is a world where true love actually can grow, develop, and change the hearts of the lovers.

When the real world of Beauty’s family collides with the dream world, we see the terrible results. Yet, as in all the very best of fairy tales, virtue is rewarded and Beauty finds happiness with her prince in the end.

beauty-3Beauty and the Beast is worth seeing for the sheer gorgeousness of the film. Cocteau was an artist and his source material was rich for overlaying with Freudian symbolism and off-putting magic. His actors – notably Josette Day as Belle and Cocteau’s lover Jean Marais in the triple role of Avenant/Beast/Prince Ardent – play the roles absolutely straight, which brings a heightened sense of magic to the film. The smallest details – glitter in the horse’s mane, magic mirrors, the shadows cast by the magic glove the Beast gives to Beauty – are crafted with care.

I have seen a number of extraordinary films and I have seen a number of beautiful films, but seldom are the two matched to such perfection as they are in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. Truly, this vision is part of the Ten Percent.


Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Badand of the (finally!) forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe. You can find Dale online at her blog and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.

Filed under: Film, K. Dale Koontz, The Ten Percent Tagged: Beauty and the Beast, christian berard, disney, fairy tale, henri alekan, jean cocteau, jean marais, josette day, rene clement, The Ten Percent, theodore sturgeon


Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Ten Percent: MST3K

This post originally appeared on


“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello, and welcome back for another installment of “The Ten Percent,” the bi-weekly column here at where K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law (quoted above) and examine the cultural productions that fall in that elusive 10% of things that are not crud. The Ten Percent is the place where all of the films, TV shows, comics, novels, visual arts, etc. that stand the test of time live. These are the things that are not forgotten, and continue to inspire us generation after generation and decade after decade.

Yet the 90% is comprised of a hell of a lot of (generally forgettable) stuff, and in the modern era, more and more of it has been and is being preserved for some theoretical posterity. In a way, the crud becomes grist for the larger cultural mill, and that means that – in theory at least – it should be possible to take some of the 90% and transform it into a part of the Ten Percent. This is exactly what Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) did from 1988 – 1999, and threatens to do once again when it returns in 2017 with a new season and a cast featuring geek royalty Patton Oswalt and Felicia Day.

The show premiered on KTMA in Minneapolis back in the days when local stations actually had a slate of their own programming. The idea behind MST3K was simple: as an affiliate TV station, KTMA had access to a catalogue of public domain (or cheaply licensed) movies, the best of which were B-movies, while more than a few hovered around the X, Y, or Z level. Creator Joel Hodgson and his friends and co-writers Trace Beaulieu and Josh Weinstein decided to make use of all of these old films as fodder for a show that was all about riffing on bad movies. Constructing a paper-thin plot wherein Joel was sent into orbit by a pair of mad scientists (Beaulieu and Weinstein) as part of an experiment where he was subjected to really terrible movies while the “Mads” monitored his reactions – the goal being to see how long it took Joel to break. To help him survive this cruelty, Joel created several robot friends, including Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot, and Gypsy. As for the show itself, it consisted of one of the bad movies shown in its entirety, while Joel and the ‘bots were seen in as silhouettes in a row of theater seats at the bottom of the screen, wisecracking about the movie.

The series became a cult classic, and began to spread nationwide largely due to VCRs and video tapes becoming affordable and widespread. Fans in the KTMA broadcast area would record the shows and send tapes to others outside of the stations radius. A year after its debut, MST3K became one of the first two shows picked up by the new Comedy Central cable network, and its fame grew rapidly. Running for a total of 11 seasons (1 on KTMA [1988-89], 7 on Comedy Central [1989 – 1996], and 3 on the Sci-Fi Channel [1997 – 1999]) plus one feature film release, and despite (or perhaps because of) a changing cast, the series garnered an intensely loyal fan-base. After the series was cancelled in 1999, MST3K entered a second-life of thriving DVD sales in which relatively inexpensive box sets of episodes from various seasons attracted new fans. As of this writing, 38 four-disc DVD sets have been released since 2002, with number 39 scheduled for 2017.

While often described as quirky, and always self-deprecatingly silly, MST3K’s humor was also quick-witted, sometimes obscure, and often incisively intelligent. Indeed, this is a very smart show with references pulled from an astonishing range of pop-culture, literature, film, music, and – of course – Minnesotan sources. It is also an incredible resource for learning about filmmaking, as many of the movies MST3K mocks are using special effects, lighting, and camerawork that are integral to movie production – they’re just doing it really, really badly. After all, what’s a 1950’s giant, radioactive creature-feature without the use of forced-perspective? Or stop-motion photography? The MST3K Gang, in all its iterations, knew the medium backwards and forwards, and kept a skeptical and rather walleyed view on the politics and culture of the world around them, while rooting their riffs firmly in material that withstands the passage of time, and ages very well.

Part satire, part stand up, part scripted comedy, Mystery Science Theater 3000 remains astonishingly fresh, and even relevant today, and is still some of the sharpest comedy to ever grace the small screen, giving it a firm place in The Ten Percent.


Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Universe of Babylon 5 (fall 2017). You can find Dale online at her blog and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.



Filed under: comedy, Ensley F. Guffey, television, The Ten Percent Tagged: comedy central, felicia day, joel hodgson, josh weinstein, k. dale koontz, mst3k, mystery science theater 3000, patton oswalt, Syfy, The Ten Percent, theodore sturgeon, trace beaulieu


Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Ten Percent: Wonder Woman, 1941 – 2016

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Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Ten Percent: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)


Poster for <i>Once Upon a Time in the West</i>.

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello and welcome back to “The Ten Percent,” a regular column here on Biff Bam Pop! where every other week K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the ten percent of everything which is not crud. Sometimes it can be hard to remember that for each film or television show that gets people talking years after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that barely cleared the horizon before being (thankfully) shot down. The works that soar above the rest – well, those are the works that stand the test of time.

The American West has been a place of myth, violence, and wonder ever since the first Europeans looked up from their toehold on the east coast and gazed towards the distant Appalachian Mountains. As the young United States once again expanded in the aftermath of the Civil War, coming into direct contact and conflict with the great horse peoples of the plains, and with the often brutal realities of life in often marginal environments between the Mississippi and the Rockies, the Western myth only grew. William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his Wild West Show began framing the mythic space into the shape we know today, and The Great Train Robbery (1903), one of the first American movies ever made, opened the door to an era of cinematic American mythopoeia that continues to this day.

The myth is epic. Vast open spaces, scrub desert, and red dust against the primordial background of John Ford’s greatest discovery: Monument Valley. It is a space of violence and bravery, endurance and reduction, with heroes and villains who rival the legends of Arthur or the pen of Shakespeare. It is an immigrant story, and of the men who stood above them for good or ill by virtue of their guns and their deadly willingness to use them. It is a racist myth, where white skin is ascendant while red and brown are in degraded decline. It is difficult to overestimate how much of American mythic culture is bound up in the Western, yet it is somehow appropriate that the director to take the genre, and the myth of the West, to its highest cinematic summits, was an Italian: Sergio Leone.


Publicity photo. Left to right: Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, Sergio Leone, Charles Bronson, and Jason Robards.

Perhaps best known for his “Dollars Trilogy” starring Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name, Leone was the great director of the “spaghetti western.” These films were made relatively cheap and fast, using a mix of American and European actors, used Cinecitta sets, and Italian and Spanish exteriors to create a (for the time) hyper-violent, heavily symbolic version of an already legendary West. The films found international success, even in America, and helped to launch Eastwood’s career as a star and a director. With scores by the ever-brilliant Ennio Morricone, Leone’s westerns reinterpreted the genre for audiences of the mid- and late-1960s as Europe and the US convulsed in unprecedented peacetime social and political upheavals. Despite a desire to move away from Westerns, his Dollar Trilogy was so popular in the States that Leone found that before he would be able to direct something new, he would have to create one last western – only this time, he would be able to film in Monument Valley.

The result is Once Upon a Time in the West, one of the greatest westerns of all time, and truly the apotheosis of the mythic West in film. At the height of his powers, Leone’s mise-en-scene is almost obsessive. There are no accidents in composition here, and every scene, every sequence partakes of a detail and a slow devotion to telling the story that creates frame-by-frame works of art. Leone’s use of both ambient sound and Morricone’s score is brilliant, and his trademark close-ups show every dusty crease and pore, and allow every pair of eyes its own revelations, right from the opening sequence of the film.

Once Upon a Time in the West is operatic in scope and scale, and cries out to be seen on the largest possible screen. The tale centers on a former prostitute, Jill, played by the staggeringly gorgeous Claudia Cardinale. She has travelled into the West to join her husband, only to arrive hours after the massacre of him and his children by a group of ruthless, duster wearing outlaws led by Frank, played with true malevolence and dark joy by Henry Fonda.

This may be the most brilliant stroke of the film. At the time, and even today, Fonda is known for playing good guys, and his entrance, every bit as dramatic as Charles Bronson’s still chills. Indeed, this intertextual effect was exactly what Leone wanted to achieve. When Fonda arrived on set with brown contacts and a moustache he’d grown for the role, Leone ordered that both be removed – he wanted to shock of an immediately recognizable Fonda in the role, and he wanted those sharp blue eyes. Frank and his employer, railroad magnate Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) want the widowed Jill’s land, but the Man with the Harmonica (Bronson want’s Frank, as does the  infamous outlaw Cheyenne, who’s given a perfect comic edge by a scruffy Jason Robards. The two combine forces to protect Jill and, through her to get to Frank and Morton. Interwoven with the drama are the themes of technological and social change, of the coming of civil order into formerly untamed spaces, and destruction of a world.

It’s a pretty standard plot, but the meat lies in the telling of the tale, and Leone and his cast elevate the story into something so tightly choreographed that the grime, murder, greed, heat, lust, and hatred come together to transcend the usual limits of the genre, and catapult the story into the realm of pure myth, where something like demi-gods, or Jungian archetypes stride across the screen, their every twitch a symbol – of power, of inevitable change, of resistance and revenge.

There really is nothing quite like Once Upon a Time in the West. The film mesmerizes, and takes over the space in which it is viewed. Taken out of Leone’s hands for editing for US release, the movie failed at the box office, but the uncut, international release gained widespread acclaim and is now the standard version for DVD and Blu-Ray. Leone’s film is superb, but there is more to it than mere mastery of craft, artistic talent, and decades of experience. One Upon a Time in the West is myth making, a tale passed down around fires lit against the darkness in which failed and fallible gods walk and limp and dance and kill. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, part of the Ten Percent.


Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Badand of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016)You can find Dale online at her blog and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.


Filed under: General Tagged: ensley f. guffey, k. dale koontz, Once Upon A Time In The West, sergio leone, The Ten Percent

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Ten Percent: Farscape (1999-2003)


“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello, and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week we’ll take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Remember, for each film or television show that gets people talking years or even decades after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that peeked out just once and then (thankfully) disappeared. Those are the 90%, but the remaining Ten Percent are the works that stand the test of time.

What do you get when you produce a television show across three continents, combining financing and “notes” from three very different networks in three very different time zones? What if this show was also an intricately plotted space opera — with puppets? Well, if you’re Rockne S. O’Bannon and Brian Henson, you get Farscape. In the US the series ran from 1999 – 2003 on the Sci-Fi channel, with a follow-up mini-series, Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars airing in 2004. Starring Ben Browder (John Crichton) and Claudia Black (Aeryn Sun), Farscape traces the (mis)adventures of American astronaut Crichton, who is inadvertently catapulted into the distant reaches of the galaxy while test-piloting his experimental space engine. Crichton finds himself a true stranger in a strange land, surrounded by species that are technologically far in advance of Earth, and generally much, much older than humanity.


Ben Browder & Claudia Black as John Crichton and Aeryn Sun

So far, so not-so-unusual. Yet Farscape quickly becomes something more than a standard, episodic, good-guys v. bad-guys space show. It turns out that real life, even in the vastness of space, isn’t nearly that clear cut, and shades of grey predominate. Despite undeniable technological advances, and supposed socio-cultural ones, the strange alien polities Crichton finds himself in the middle of have the same old problems: arms races, cold wars, greed, corruption, and special interests abound, and in-between are billions of people on thousands of small worlds who become conquests or colonies of hungry empires, or proxies in their conflict, or are simply ground underfoot, unnoticed as titans clash.

Crichton and his new pals are definitely in this latter category. A group of escaped supposed criminals aboard a living ship which was itself enslaved as a prison barge, they are the definition of flotsam and jetsam in this wider universe, people with little or no value to the galactic superpowers, but priceless to themselves and each other. Much like Firefly (about which much more later!), Farscape is about chosen family, and about the capacity for change inherent in even the most twisted of souls. The main cast (for seasons 1 – 3) is rounded out by Anthony Simcoe as Ka D’Ago, a Luxan warrior prone to hyper-rage; Gigi Edgley as the sensuous and dangerous grey-skinned Chiana; and Virginia Hey as Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan, a blue-fleshed priestess, but not always a gentle one.

Then there are the puppets, brought to brilliant life by the puppeteers at the Jim Henson Company. Several generations removed from Jim Henson’s original felt-covered creations, the Farscape puppets are incredibly intricate, often enormous constructs requiring multiple puppeteers to operate. The most central of such are Pilot, the, well, pilot of the living ship Moya, multi-limbed, with a massive head and carapace, Pilot is literally gown into the ship. Voiced by Lani John Tupu, Pilot is the crew’s direct line of communication to Moya, and the heart of the fragile family. At times teacher, confidant, confessor, or scold, Pilot is the moral center of the series, dedicated to the protection of Moya, and therefore the only character whose core motivation is the preservation of another’s life. Perhaps Pilot’s polar opposite is Dominar Rygel XVI a stubby, rotund ex-monarch and kleptomaniac. Given a royally entitled voice and personality by Jonathan Hardy, Rygel looks out for himself before all others, and often to the exclusion of everyone else.


Pilot and Rygel XVI

Some of the crew will leave, and other will arrive, but all share the same fate of being lost, of looking for home, or for something like it. Each eventually will find that place aboard Moya, at least for a time, and discover that chosen family can be much stronger than one cast together by the randomness of DNA. The crew moves through dangerous spaces in dangerous times, and slowly becomes the obsessive interest of great powers for knowledge they are believed to possess, knowledge that can supposedly bring final victory and dominance for whichever power controls it.  Such knowledge is worth having at any cost, particularly when it comes to the lives of Crichton and the crew, and their desires are inconsequential, particularly when it comes to a preference not to be dominated by anyone.

Farscape is the Cold War writ large, where something called “Mutually Assured Destruction” seems to be a viable and desirable policy, even if it means the destruction of entire planets. It is also a look at how the machinations of the powerful can all too often become divorced from the goals of civilization, and how the really important things: love, family, a productive life lived in peace can wind up being considered not just tertiary concerns, but irrelevant in the face of “larger issues.” Ultimately, however, Farscape is also about the power that the really important things actually have, and how dangerous the ignored can be when they are forced to fight for them. Farscape tells these tales with true style, incredible performances, effects, and writing, and uses the genre of science fiction to ask some really big questions and postulate some answers along the way. It is intricate, beautiful, gripping, sexy, and intensely moving, and that is why it is part of The Ten Percent.


Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Badand of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016)You can find Dale online at her blog and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.


Filed under: Ensley F. Guffey, science fiction, television, The Ten Percent Tagged: anthony simcoe, ben browder, brian henson, claudia black, cold war, Farscape, Firefly, gigi edgley, Jim Henson, jonathan hardy, lani john tupu, puppets, Rockne S. O'Bannon, sci-fi, The Ten Percent, virginia hey

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Friday, October 9, 2015

The Martian (2015): Now With 75% Less Science!

Matt Damon in The Martian.

Or something like that. I expect a film based upon a book that relies heavily on things like math, biology, and orbital mechanics for its plot to get dumbed down for the big screen, but with The Martian, screenwriter Drew Goddard, and director Ridley "Go Home, You've Been Drunk for Thirty Years" Scott managed to gut the driving force of the plot, and turn a gripping story of human ingenuity, perseverance, and bravery into just another basic survival movie where even the science they leave in is at best half-assed, and at worst just plain wrong. Matt Damon does a solid job, but lacks the power to captivate for long periods alone on screen (see Tom hanks in Castaway for an actor who actually can), but the cut-aways to an Earth full of big movie stars in supporting roles manage to support Damon's performance handsomely. All in all, the movie is fine, but if you really want a gripping, edge-of-your seat space thriller, read the book.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Housebound (2014): A Dark and Funny Kiwi Fruit

Left to right: Rima Te Wiata, Ross Harper, Morgana O'Reilly, and Ryan Lampp in  Housebound..

To make up for the trauma of Fantastic Four (2015), tonight we watched Housebound, a quirky, laugh-out-loud-funny, and really creepy horror film from New Zealand, directed by Gerard Johnstone. This was a delightful film with wonderfully developed characters and very human relationships that were well and quickly drawn. Great camerawork, tremendous use of lighting (or the lack of it) with more than a few twists in the very original story. It's streaming on Netflix right now. You should go watch it.