Sporting Wood

Actors, Alfred Hitchcock once famously observed, should be treated like cattle, and while it's admittedly rather chilling to think of Cary Grant and Doris Day being branded, kept in pens and eventually led to slaughter, it's only slightly less gristly than the fate that befell the stars of English auteur Gerry Anderson's productions. When they weren't needed on the set, Anderson kept his actors locked away in closets and crates for hours at a time; he employed no stuntmen, and he expected his actors to perform under extremely hazardous conditions, subjected to fire, falling objects and worse, and if the rigors of Anderson's filming methods left a performer frayed beyond repair, he would just toss them out and replace them without a second thought. Worst of all, if you worked for Anderson, you spent most of your day suspended on wires through hooks imbedded in your body or with somebody's hand buried deep up your butt.

Still, Anderson's stars must not have minded all of this too much; after all, none of them ever complained or even asked to get paid. All of which makes a lot more sense when you know that Anderson made his name creating ass-kickingly fun and completely deranged TV series starring actors who were carved out of wood. Little wooden people who had adventures on land and under the sea and far off in the distant reaches of space, wooden people who drove around in flashy cars and spaceships and submarines that seemed to explode an awful lot, wooden people who looked just human enough to be utterly horrifying, rather like taxidermied human corpses brought back to some pitiful, wobbling semblance of life through some unspeakable, Frankenstein-ian means. Puppetry would not be this peculiar again until Being John Malkovich.

This week, the American Cinematheque gives you a chance to explore Anderson's singular mindscape, as they host a two-day tribute to this talent, screen a diverse collection of episodes from his various TV series and even present discussions with the ol' limey himself. While the tribute unfortunately passes over such early Anderson gems as Torchy the Battery Boy and The Adventures of Twizzle (with titles like those, you just know they were great), by the end, you'll have had your fill of thrilling puppet adventure for the foreseeable future.

The fun kicks off Friday evening with Supercars and Space: 1999!—A Tribute to Gerry Anderson, Part I, starting with an episode of Supercar, a comparatively Earthbound, early '60s Anderson series starring a square-jawed block of oak called Mike Mercury, who battles evil in the titular all-terrain vehicle. Then things get nicely wacky with an episode of the beloved 1962 head trip that was Fireball XL5, featuring Steve Zodiac and his World Space Patrol battling to save Sector 25 from yet another invasion by cheesy-looking aliens. Then we're treated to a good helping of yesterday's tomorrow with Space: 1999, an Anderson sci-fi thriller starring actual flesh-and-blood human types, including Martin Landau in that long twilight zone between Mission Impossible and Crimes and Misdemeanors. While Landau brings a certain zip to the proceedings, Space: 1999 showed all too clearly that Anderson's destiny lay with actors made of wood. (And, just so our legal department can get some sleep tonight, we should probably note that Landau and the rest of the cast of Space: 1999 presumably received more humane treatment than the casts of Anderson's other sci-fi series.)

You should probably just bring a pillow and spend the night on the sidewalk outside the theater because the next day, the show continues with Thunderbirds Are Go!—A Tribute to Gerry Anderson, Part II. First off, Troy Tempest and the members of WASP (World Aquanaut Security Patrol) take to the seas in a supersubmarine in an episode of Stingray, followed by an installment of a show that has maybe the best title ever, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, in which the good cap'n and his color-coded cohorts (including Captains Ochre and Magenta) go up against the dreaded Mysterons, alien fiends bent on taking over the world by replacing our puppet population with puppet clones! And last by certainly not least (hell, no, it ain't least), you have a full 52 minutes of Anderson's most famous show, Thunderbirds. Jeffy Tracy (a block of wood), Lady Penelope (a garishly made-up block of wood) and the rest of the International Rescue gang (a small forest) respond to one apocalyptic calamity after another by hopping in their souped-up little toy cars and rockets and going all Pinocchio on evil's ass. Anderson will take part in a discussion following both shows, so be sure to raise a hand and thank him for all those hours of tweaked puppetry goodness.

Supercars and Space: 1999!–A Tribute to Gerry Anderson, Part I and Thunderbirds Are Go!–A Tribute to Gerry Anderson, Part II are presented at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 466-FILM. Supercars and Space: 1999!, Fri., 7 p.m.; Thunderbirds Are Go!, Sat., 4 p.m. $8 each.

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