Friday, September 12, 2008

reflections upon the first 3 episodes of Airwolf, Part 1

(This is an abstract for a paper currently under revision for publication in the Spring 2010 number of the North American Journal of Airwolf Studies.)

The 1984-1987 American television show Airwolf is in many ways simply awful. The writing is horrible. The acting is almost uniformly shambolic. The special effects are often laughable model shots that look all the worse for their marriage to the much more big-budget helicopter action sequences. Stock footage is utilized relentlessly, in a way that you simply can't get away with on television any more. And yet, all of these failings combine to create something, that when it is examined from the right perspective, is far greater than the sum of its parts.

The acting and writing, as bad as they are succeed in creating a sense of an unseen mythology behind the surface of the action. Stringfellow Hawke, woodenly portrayed by Jan Michael Vincent (henceforth JMV) seems to have depths unrevealed by the scripted show. Stringfellow can fly the heck out of a helicopter. If he meets any random veteran, odds are that String probably airlifted them out of "Indian Country" back in 'Nam. Oh yeah, and Airwolf.

He performs cello recitals of Prokofiev for a bald eagle (represented by the same few seconds of stock footage again and again, occasionally flipped for the sake of variety) that fishes in the lake where Hawkes' cabin lies. (represented by the same few seconds of stock footage again and again, occasionally flipped for the sake of variety) whilst sitting in a camp chair on his dock/launch pad. His bucolic cabin on a soundstage (which is disjunctive, considering that the dock is a location shot) is filled with a collection of priceless old masters and early modern paintings. Gabrielle, his love interest from the pilot episode (they all die) exclaims at the quality of his reproduction of Van Gogh's "Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear." Hawke informs her that it is not a copy. She exclaims that she saw the original at the "Impressionists Museum" (presumably the Musée d'Orsee, one supposes--Donald Belasario apparently lacked an encyclopedia) never mind that this painting has been in London's Courtauld Institute Galleries since 1948) His wine cellar is exquisitely stocked. Gabrielle tries to impress him by identifying the wine they are drinking as a '79 Montrachet (never mind that the bottle is resting on the bar two feet from her head). A few lines later he cuttingly identifies it as a '78. Hawke is kind a total jerk if he likes you, because if he likes you, you'll probably die. Like his parents. His first girlfriend. His brother Saint John (annoyingly referred to as "Sin Jin") has been MIA in Vietnam for years. His girlfriends die with alarming regularity. This makes him understandably taciturn and brooding, communicated by JMV as a sort of sullen grumpiness. All of these ludicrous details paint a colossal figure, a dark hero who thinks nothing of using a supersonic attack helicopter as a one-on-one antipersonnel weapon. The script and JMV fail to communicate this. But the slapdash fragments of their failures somehow do.

Another aspect of Airwolf which works when it really shouldn't is the disjucntive textures of the various modes of film making used in each episode. Location shots are deliriously interspersed with soundstage sets, stock footage of various ages and qualities weaves drunkenly from exploding model shots to footage recycled from previous episodes. The end result is a celebration of the idiosyncracies of each, and their staggering incompatibility brings a fascinating off-kilter rhythm to the proceedings: we are remorselessly asked to suspend disbelief again and again, finally settling into a shell-shocked haze at the magnificent stupidity of it all. A further notable aspect of this is the recycling of various shots from the pilot episode--the iconic slow spin up of the juxtaposed rotors, shots of Airwolf at rest in her mountain fastness, the deployment of the weapons system, or of JMV's steely, determined glare through the glass of the cockpit. The reuse of these images results in sort of ritual space in the narrative. As Sylvester LeVay's iconic synthesizer theme begins, and we see the images of Airwolf becoming prepared for her next adventure, we are in the presence of a great warrior girding her loins for battle, and these images are the traditional benediction or supplications performed as part of that rite.

An aside concerning the music: Sylvester LeVay was really good. The Airwolf theme is instantly recognizable, of course. But the incidental music and synthesized sound design are totally bitchin'. There is some wicked cool fm synth programming going down here.

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