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Sunday, November 23, 2014

These Are the Damned (1963)


Screenplay by Evan Jones, based on the novel The Children of Light by H. L. Lawrence
Directed by Joseph Losey

Macdonald Carey:  Simon Wells

Oliver Reed:  King
Shirley Ann Field:  Joan
Viveca Lindfors:  Freya Neilson

Time for another "end of the Cold War" movie review, in concert with El Santo of 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting. He thought it would be a good idea to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall, which was 25 years ago this November. I heartily concur. For the second film in the series, I thought I'd check out something made in England, since I'd expect a slightly different perspective from a country allied with one of the two superpowers rather than a film made by either the USSR or here in United Statesland.

That perspective would be an interesting one--this movie was released in the UK in May of 1963, seven months after the Cuban Missile Crisis came horrifyingly close to touching off a nuclear war between America and the Soviet Union. Anyone living in the allied countries to those two superpowers had it arguably worse than citizens of those two nations during the confrontation; it's one thing to be living in a society that might choose to touch off the funeral pyre for the entire world, but to be living somewhere that was just on one side or the other without any direct choice in the matter?

That would likely make a thinking person feel like a Lovecraft protagonist--knowing that forces utterly indifferent to your life could snuff your whole society out in a millisecond, and that you would be powerless to affect that decision in any way? I'd be agreeing with Joey Ramone re: the necessity of powerful barbituates on a regular basis, myself. And I'm not sure that it would be any better or any worse to know that the entire human race was going to end because of the actions of your friends rather than those of your enemies. People interested in pursuing this line of reasoning further would do well to check out Charles Stross' "Laundry" series of horror / espionage novels as well as his forewards and afterwords to each book.

I've taken to reading the title sequences of these movies as plot specific tea leaves (think of the human sacrifice woodcuts at the start of The Cabin in the Woods--it's a clue as to what the movie's actually about that people may or may not be paying any attention to). In this case, the viewer gets to see waves eternally washing against a cliffside beach as the camera pans past a series of rough, unfinished stone statues (with the artworks looking more and more finished as they're shown from left to right). Before the sculptor can be revealed there's a jump cut to a large seaside town, a local-landmark clock tower with sculptures all down its sides and a middle-aged tourist getting sassed by a young woman with a switchblade in the waistband of her trousers. After she walks off the camera tracks by a group of young louts on motorcycles and the soundtrack attempts to work up some excitement with a track called "Black Leather Rock". I'm a big fan of early 60s British pop music, and I am not a fan of this song. Sorry, James Bernard. I still quite like your scores, for what that is worth.

The woman from the beginning of this sequence does some telepathic eye contact and nodding to converse with the apparent lead of the motorcycle gang (a very young Oliver Reed, wearing a houndstooth sport coat instead of the Brando Collection ensemble the rest of the gang is showing off). The woman takes the middle-aged gent's arm and goes walking with him and the biker gang literally falls into formation and marches off after the pair. They also whistle the song that was just on the soundtrack, and it's much better as an instrumental. They efficiently deliver a full-service beatdown to the chump that Joanie--as one of the bikers calls her--lured past the alley where they were waiting. They take his wallet but leave the passport, so there's a certain sense of fair play and Britishness to them, even as thieving hooligans.

At a cafe in the same town, a stuffy older scientist type (he's wearing the suitcoat-and-sweater-vest ensemble that scientists always have in Hammer movies) gets surprised by his mistress Freya, who joins him at a window seat table for tea and conversation. She drops off a really neat looking carrion-bird stone sculpture for her paramour and opines that she does her best work at Shropshire-By-The-Sea, or wherever it is that the town happens to be (I assume if I were English I would have recognized it on sight). While this pair smooches tepidly at their table, the beating victim is helped into the restaurant by a pair of concerned bystanders and we learn that his name is Mr. Wells. And one of the bystanders calls the scientist "Sir" as they drop off the beating victim. The scientist introduces the bystanders as a captain and a major--in the British army, I'm assuming, though they're in civilian suits at the moment. Bernard, the guy in the sweater-vest, seems to be very high ranked indeed (he makes a failed attempt at wit by claiming to have a pet colonel at home as well).

Wells declines a doctor but accepts the offer of a restorative drink (and England appears to be rubbing off on him; he's polite enough that he apologizes for the way he looks after having been beaten unconscious by ruffians). Wells mentions to Bernard and Freya that he was expecting some of the things he's seen so far in England (I'm assuming red phone boxes, stuffy scientists and Daleks) but that he was pretty sure the biker gangs would be left back on the other side of the Atlantic. Bernard says that "the age of senseless violence has caught up with us too". Incidentally, everyone keeps calling the gangs "Teddy boys", but they're rockers. Come on, English screenwriters, it's your youth subcultures, you should be able to identify them properly.

Teddy boys.

Rockers.

When Wells excuses himself to wash the blood off his face and make himself more presentable, Freya asks Bernard about the secret project he's working on and how things are going with it. He answers with the most general of generalities. Which is undoubtedly the right way to go if it's a top secret military project. Bernard says that if he actually tells Freya what he's working on, it might be a death sentence for her--and that previous crack about keeping a pet colonel shows that he's absolutely not joking. Then he asks if Freya's feeling like Italian for dinner, which is a great deal more relaxing as conversational topics go.

Meanwhile, at a boardwalk amusement arcade, the lead rocker (not a Teddy boy, really) hassles his sister Joan; he says it's the two of them against the world and always has been. She thinks that Wells was actually a pretty nice guy from what she could see out of the fifty seconds she knew him, and appears to be reconsidering her career path as tourist bait for a gang of criminals. Her brother also seems to be pretty wasteful with someone else's money, betting one of his under-louts five pounds over a shooting gallery score.

Joan starts a race back to the unicorn statue that the gang tends to colonize and literally lay about; she drives her cycle past a boat that Wells is on, stretching out the kinks and aches after his ass-whipping earlier in the day. Wells recognizes her, as could be expected, and throws a little bit of shade back at her before trying to spark a conversation that only a confused middle-aged white guy would try to have with a young criminal ("Why do you do it, huh? Is it for kicks?"). Joan points out that Wells never asked her name while picking her up and instead of replying that he'd been beaten unconscious before they were properly introduced Wells takes the 60s masculine privilege road instead and says with a figure like hers, she doesn't need a name. That does not even make sense.

Wells and Joan introduce themselves to each other and Joan hops on the boat to continue the conversation and the viewers learn that Wells' first name is Simon. While the pair starts to make small talk the gang spots them and then shows up to menace Wells (who seems to take the gang's arrival as another time that Joan's baited him into their presence). King, the lead biker, demands that Joan leave the boat and come back with them; Simon tells her to stay on board and the rockers do a quick Synchronized Knife-Pulling display that works wonders on getting Wells to back off and Joan to disembark. The gang persuades Simon to park his watercraft somewhere else and Wells gets Joan to jump on board as he pulls away. King, for his part, mutters that he's going to kill Wells when he returns to shore. Which he'll have to do relatively soon, since the boat's not equipped for an oceanic voyage.

On the boat (check out the wildly flailing rear-projection during this scene), Joan starts to consider what her getaway is going to do to her brother's mental state; apparently the last time she wanted to go out on a date he locked her in a cupboard for a week. It's also telling that the rockers call her Joanie rather than Joan; Wells might be a sleazy midlife-crisis suffering jerk, but he's not completely infantilizing Joan at least. Joan, for her part, doesn't care for Wells or the insinuations he's making about King or her, and likes it even less when he tries to kiss the hell out of her. At this point, I'm starting to see where King and the boys were coming from when dealing with Wells.

Simon says that he's got enough fuel on the boat to go anywhere on the southern coast of England, or across the Channel for an impromptu French vacation if that's what Joan would rather do. She's undoubtedly thinking that Wells won't keep it in his pants if she agrees to go anywhere with him, and says that she knows a place or two where she can hide until King isn't furious at her any more. He relents and takes Joan back to shore, under the watchful eye of one of the bikers (using a pair of binoculars taken from an American birdwatcher on vacation, no doubt).

The other plot thread makes its presence known after Wells motors back to shore; on a tiny desolate house at the top of a cliff, Bernard enters a room where two military officers and four civilians are already there, discussing whatever project it is they're working on. They're also arguing with each other whether or not any kind of civilized values will be worth anything in the context of whatever it is they're working on; the civilians, oddly enough, seem to think that gentility will be a futile waste of time if whatever it is they're working on comes to fruition.

And whatever the project is, it's incredibly weird. Nine children are sitting at their desks in a school room. They're all wearing boarding school uniforms but their teacher, who turns out to be Bernard, appears to them only on a viewing screen at the front of the room. One of the girls says the kids want to see him in person, but Bernard tells them that cannot happen but that they aren't mature enough at this point to explain why. He also says that it's their day to ask questions of him, and they do (ranging from what's going to happen to the nine of them when they grow up and get married amongst themselves, which will leave one of them without a partner, to what exactly Bernard means by "when the time comes" in his frequent talks to the children. He refuses to explain that to them and breaks off questioning for lunch. Whatever it is the kids are being prepared for, everyone in the command room--Bernard, the military men and the civilian ones--seems to think it's utterly inevitable. Which, in 1963, has to mean a nuclear war.

Meanwhile, Wells and Joan have anchored their boat near the strange high house on the hill; Joan is plugged into the town gossip circuit and knows that some bigwig lives there, and occasionally a woman comes to town to stay there with him. Joan also knows that the "Bird house" is locked, but can pick the window open with her own knife. She and Wells sneak in and admire some of the sculptures that Freya's left in the interior and Wells tries to put the moves on Joan again. This time she doesn't shove him away, but does tell him to go back to his boat and leave her alone. Which is probably a good idea, because King and his goons know where the pair are now. When the pair of fugitives hear a motor, they assume it's the biker gang (and the noise happens right after Wells proposes marriage to Joan, which is a weirder and creepier plot development than the kids in a bunker). The noise turns out to be Freya pulling up in her car, but Wells and Joan don't know that and abscond out the back window. It turns out to be a pretty good idea that they left because King walks in through the front door just as Freya is tsking over the untidiness of her vacation home. He asks her where his quarry have gone and she blithely informs him that she's got no idea who he's looking for, where they came from and where they're going. He responds by hacking up one of her sculptures with a hatchet after disparaging her morals and his gang members, posted outside as scouts, signal each other that they've spotted Joan and Wells as they try to flee.

When the protagonists try to avoid getting beaten or killed by the gang they run into the perimeter fence of the secret compound and wind up alerting the guards, who find one of the gang members while Joan and Wells jump into the ocean from a cliffside (and King climbs laboriously down after them in a shot that shows Oliver Reed is a hell of a trouper). The children from the sealed-off classroom fish the pair out of the ocean and bring them through a cave that they say isn't monitored by security cameras. Joan notices that the girl who takes her hand has very low body temperature, and freaks out a little bit over this. Things get even odder when the children argue--in a very low-key, upper-class British way--that they want to touch the adults who have just shown up because they have never touched a warm person before; one of the children complains that Richard saw a bird once but he's never seen anything out of the ordinary before. King flops down into the water a few moments later and one of the boys hauls him onto the beach. He's cheerful towards King, stating that he learned how to save lives in gym class and seems happy to have made a practical application of his studies. The boy also knows how to unlock the electronic-eye security doors (which King can't figure out), and it turns out that they only open from the outside. The children are chipper and answer King's questions (as well as Simon and Joan's) as best they can but don't have any context to relate to anything dealing with the outside world. A few more crumbs of exposition get dropped:  All the children are eleven years old; they were born the same week; none of them have parents and they apparently thought that Simon and Joan were their mother and father when they showed up.

When King shows up, his hostility towards Simon and Joan vanishes as he discovers just how odd the children are; Simon promises to stay with the mystery kids until he can figure out how to help them escape from their captivity. Around the same time that the trio comes to their accord, the rocker who got picked up by base security is let go after pointing out he didn't mean to trespass on the grounds and had no idea what was up there (as snottily as possible, of course). Down in the caves, Simon and Joan argue with King about how they're going to try and escape and Simon says he's planning to stay at least the night, because he promised those weird, sad children that they wouldn't leave.

Elsewhere, a POV camera semi-competently synched to footsteps makes its way into the children's classroom / living room / cafeteria / dormitory arrangement, and apparently the person whose point of view the audience is experiencing is wearing head-to-toe protective gear. It's one of the soldiers from the mysterious project, and startles the heck out of the poor boy that's awake to see him arrive. The next morning, Freya and Bernard are talking about the people who showed up yesterday at her temporary abode while chatting over coffee. Bernard still doesn't tell his lover what he's up to all day, but he drops a hell of a hint on the audience (since we know a great deal about the project that Freya doesn't). He says there's a power unleashed in the world that can melt the stones of her sculptures, and "we must be ready when the time comes". Whatever he's doing, it's apparently got a nine-person crew on the Ark so that when nuclear war breaks out, some small vestige of English civilization will survive to the extent that such a thing is possible.

Back at the office, Bernard chides the major in charge of security, saying that the children's mental health is more important than the major monitoring them for every second of every day; it turns out that the kids are sneaking off to a hidey-hole. Bernard thinks they should be allowed to have some small measure of autonomy and privacy while the major thinks security and control are much more important. For the time being, Bernard is winning that argument (though, ironically, if the major got his wish then the project heads would have found the three intruders they're looking for). The kids serve something they call "lunch" to the interlopers; it's a round biscuit-like chunk of nutriment that they construct themselves in the chemistry lab. And it's apparently one of the few flavors they've ever encountered over the course of their lives. None of the trio from the outside world seem particularly impressed by it. After lunch two of the kids explain that they had a rabbit come inside, and they played with it, but its hair fell out and it fell asleep forever. Then (intercut with sequences in the command center atop the hill) they work out a plan to try and get the intruders to the outside world, where Simon, King and Joan will call attention to the inhuman treatment of the children and get them released.

William, one of the kids, knows where all the blind spots are in the camera coverage and tries to sneak Simon out one of the facility doors. He's a smart child, but doesn't account for the fact that Simon's three feet taller than he is and the gambit gets noticed pretty much immediately. Bernard is worried for the children now that he knows the adults are there, but for a truly upsetting reason--he says that he doesn't want the children to watch the adults die. While pretty much everyone in the compound starts figuring out how to get the grownups away from the children, one of the soldiers goes back to the Freya's studio and makes polite conversation with her. As soon as the soldier takes off one of the rockers drops by the bird house in order to ask Freya if she knows where King has gone. They walk off to the quarry where Freya gets her raw materials and chitchat.

While that's going on, Bernard tries to get the children to tell him where the "big people" are; the kids rebel by telling him nothing and blinding the cameras because they're utterly fed up with the treatment they've had at his (remote) hands. When soldiers in radiation gear show up looking for the intruders it turns out to be King that's best-prepared to take them down, though both he and Wells look incredibly sick by this point. When Wells subdues the major, everyone--characters and audience--gets another big clue as to what the heck is going on. The major gets his helmet knocked off in the fracas and is terrified of the security-door key that he was carrying. Something else on his equipment belt? A Geiger counter, which goes berserk when the key is waved next to it. It gets just as loud when Wells carries it over to the children, still promising to get them out of the complex. Wells tells them to undress before leaving, thinking that it's the clothes that are radioactive. But the counter gets even more demonstrative when the kids are in their undershirts; the major tells Wells that the children themselves are lethally radioactive and cannot be brought out of the compound.

But the major doesn't have his gun any more, so he can just shut the hell up. Wells, Joan and King take the kids out into the real world and the children feel the sun and wind on their faces for the first time in their lives. One of them is terrified, but the others are all thrilled. And their moment of freedom is cut short by soldiers in radiation suits who carry them bodily off into the compound again. Bernard is on the scene to supervise and Wells angrily demands answers from him, wanting to know just what the hell he's up to with radioactive children in an underground bunker.

Bernard tells him he's free to leave, but doesn't cough up an explanation to them. It turns out that Freya's the one he wants to confess to. The children's mothers were all exposed to radiation in some kind of unspecified accident while pregnant. The children were all born immune to radiation poisoning thanks to the mishap. And Bernard, like many other people in positions of political influence, thought that nuclear war was inevitable, he decided to use the accident that gave the children their immunity to radiation as a way to keep some tiny vestige of humanity alive after a nuclear war. He also tells Freya that Simon and Joan have been exposed to the children too long, and that they'll be dead in a matter of hours. That's why he let them go. It's a simple matter to scuttle their boat once they're dead and let the secret wind up with their bodies in the ocean. One assumes something similar will happen to King before he gets back to down as well, if the soldiers don't just give him a .45 caliber traffic citation.

But King drives on, with Henry (the child who wanted to see the world), knowing that he's dying from his proximity to the boy. He's a fascinating contradiction of a character--a brutish thug with a sick fixation on his sister's sexual life, and simultaneously a flinching virgin terrified of connection with another human being (although he'd probably say his concerns were actually about ethics in gaming journalism). Oliver Reed makes him impossible to look away from when he's on the screen, and the villain of the movie is much more interesting than the rather bland hero that Simon Wells essays. But the other characters are much more compelling than either of those--the freaks trapped in the system, who now see themselves as prisoners rather than students, and the monster keeping them there. The final images of the film--Freya's martyrdom and the children begging for anyone to help them as the screen shows the nearby seaside resort town--are going to stick with me for a long, long time.

During my youth and adolescence, it seemed to lots of people (who were presented as knowing what they were talking about) that nuclear war was going to happen within my lifetime. Either one country's leadership would be insane or stupid enough to trigger the war, or an accident would spark one, or a terrorist with a suitcase nuke would walk into downtown Baghdad and set off the whole shooting match. The most horrifying thing about These are the Damned isn't the children who are horribly lethal to anything alive--they're pitiable more than anything. Bernard and the situation he's overseeing is certainly awful and inhuman, but I can't quite say it's horrifying either, truthfully. The real horror of the film is that I actually agree with what Bernard was doing. Given the existence of children that cannot spend time anywhere near normal human beings, their immunity to radiation and the inevitability of nuclear war, it's really the only thing anyone could do if they wanted humanity to retake the scorched, maimed, blistered wastelands that were once a green and pleasant land.


Sunday, November 16, 2014

Red Planet Mars (1952)


Written by John L. Balderston and Anthony Veiller; from a play by John L. Balderston and John Hoare
Directed by Harry Horner

Peter Graves:  Chris Cronyn
Andrea King:  Linda Cronyn
Herbert Berghof:  Franz Calder
And Morris Ankrum as Secretary of Defense Sparks (wearing a suit, not a dress uniform!)

El Santo of 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting got in touch with me in the wake of HubrisWeen, asking if I was interested in tag-teaming the fall of Communism with him. I leapt at the chance, because his reviews are what my film criticism wants to be when it grows up. Of course I was willing to look over some science fiction of the Red Menace years; I'm also hoping to take a close look at a movie that's known by everyone in Germany as a blockbuster success that speaks to both halves of the reunited nation, but is an obscure arthouse comedy here in Americaland.

As of this writing, the Berlin Wall has been down for 25 years. The maps in Europe have been rewritten a time or two and the Soviet Union has been consigned to the ash heap of history. So for the remainder of November I'll be taking a look at Cold War-specific films, which was the original mission statement of this review blog.

Like lots of science fiction of the 1950s, this film starts with a voiceover narration. Unlike most of them that I can recall, Red Planet Mars begins with the narrator saying these are events that haven't happened yet, but soon will. Usually one gets a monologue about radar stations or space stuff instead of a Criswellian prediction. But instead of telling us that future events like these will affect everyone in the future, it's a pretty sedate introduction to the film.

The film then drops the viewer off in the middle of hot science action; Chris Cronyn and his wife Linda are at an observatory being polite to a pair of staggeringly polite astronomers. They discuss the security measures in place at the observatory and one of the scientists gently ribs Chris for thinking he's made radio contact with Mars. The astronomers show a pair of photos taken one week apart to the Cronyns, and even the most cursory analysis of the pictures shows staggering differences between the two exposures. The mountainous ice caps in the older photo are gone in the most recent one, and the canals on Mars are shown full of water (which reflects light in a way that the soil on the planet's surface wouldn't. Needless to say, the amount of energy required to do something like this would be staggering, and it appears that Martian civilization is hugely advanced beyond anything any Earth civilizations could even begin to plan trying to do.

The Cronyns return to their home (where Chris has some kind of electronics lab) and check in on their kids; Linda asks her husband not to send a signal to Mars that night. She's been thinking about the vast destructive energies shown in those photographs of the Martian surface. Her monologue (it's pretty apparent that this was based on a play) references her children and her hope that they won't have to fight another war in the wake of World War Two--nobody tell her about Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Iraq again, okay?--or the even ghastlier possibility that the entire planet will be the final battlefield if the nukes get dropped.

Chris reassures his wife that talking to Mars won't change anything on Earth, at least not right now, and goes off blithely to his lab. Linda tells him that every scientific discovery winds up getting used as a weapon, sooner or later. And mostly "sooner", at least based on her list. Chris tells her not to worry; the risks involved in true communication with Mars are outweighed by the potential benefits--a race capable of melting their ice caps in a week is orders of magnitude smarter than Earthlings (it took us several decades and the Koch brothers paying thousands of people to work as hard as they could, after all, and there's still some ice left as of this writing). Linda still can't think of anything other than the destructive possibilties suggested by the Martian landscape getting altered so suddenly.

They decide to press ahead and communicate with Mars again, and there's a dissolve from the Cronyn's radio antenna in California to another one in snowy mountains; Franz Calder, the man goofing with what I'm pretty sure is supposed to be a radar screen in this shack is extremely unhappy to see three men in suits and overcoats walk in on him and he tries to throw them out. One of the first things he says to them is "How did you track me down?", which suggests lots of different reasons that he'd be in hiding but none of them are good. Even more ominous are the Russian accents on the three men intruding in the lab, and more ominous still is when they tell him that they wanted him to contact Mars, which he apparently has not yet managed to do.

The chief Russian tells Calder that he owes them; they broke him out of an American jail and smuggled him to the Andes to continue his experiments. He's got all the radio equipment he could ever need or want in his cabin, and at least for the moment he doesn't have anyone from the Politburo breathing down his neck about how long it's taking him to produce some kind of results. But that neck-breath is coming, of course. I'm pretty sure the chief Russian agent doesn't appreciate the irony, but one of his threats to Calder is to mention that his Communist masters are not in the habit of making investments that don't produce returns.

Calder is bitter over having to hide in a tiny cabin in the middle of nowhere, and gets a pretty good "I'm done skulking like a rat and want to impose my will on the Earth" speech. He tells his interrogator that he's officially failed to get in touch with Mars, but that the Americans who stole his work have succeeded (his surmise is that this information will prevent his masters from killing him because they're CCCPissed off at his failure). There's some weirdly funny moments in this sequence between Calder and his handler; when the scientist starts working his way up to ranting about the seven years he spent in jail that let the Americans pull ahead of him, the spymaster grimaces and tells him not to start about that again. I didn't expect the Soviet and (presumably) Nazi antagonists in a Cold War science fiction movie to be griping at each other like an old married couple.

It turns out that Calder's radio shack is one of two places on the planet using a "hydrogen valve" in its radio; using his rig, he can monitor the American signals (I freely admit that this sounds like a pile of crap to me, but my education in radio consists of picking the TV production class instead of the radio one when I was at EMU so I don't actually have any way of knowing if it's possible or not--I assume the Andes are in the wrong hemisphere to monitor signals in California, but the hydrogen valve might compensate for that). Calder's superior, once he realizes that the exiled scientist is able to spy on the American communications with impunity, is all smiles and offers to ship in a better grade of canned borscht for Calder while he intercepts the Mars-American radio messages.

Back at the Cronyn household, some domestic bliss is interrupted by the arrival of Admiral Bill Carey, a cryptographer who's famous enough for breaking a Japanese military cipher that young Stuart Cronyn has heard of him (and the officer is actually pretty self-effacing, telling the starry-eyed kid that it wasn't a very good code). Carey is there to determine what's happening with the Cronyn's efforts to communicate with Mars. As things stand, they're only getting their own signals back from the red planet but the time lag between sending a signal to Mars and that signal's return works out properly (and in 1952, at least, there weren't any round beeping things orbiting the Earth to reflect radio signals back to the planet). What the engineers don't know yet is the exact cause of the signal bounce. One possibility is that it's just a literal bounceback; in that case, they're just learning about transmitting electromagnetic waves through a vacuum, which is important. But it might also be an intelligent response, and that would be the greatest scientific advancement since the discovery of fire. And when Chris Cornyn explains that there's always a slight but measurable delay between the signal reaching Mars and coming back to his observatory, it looks like Option Two is the one that's actually happening.

Team Cronyn--with an assist from Stuart--decides to take a great leap forward with their attempts to communicate with whatever it is on Mars that's boomeranging their signals. Since they don't have any idea what kind of language the Martians are using amongst themselves (and that problem is exactly the same one on Mars, looking at the Earth transmitter) they're going to try math instead. By sending the first few digits of pi, it's a conversational opening that the Martians could respond to without knowing anything other than a base-ten numbering system. It could wind up being an icebreaker just as impressive as the thing the Martians used on their planet's polar cap.

While they're waiting for a response, the Cronyns explain that the hydrogen valve was designed by a Nazi war criminal named Franz Calder; he was unquestionably brilliant but also irredeemably evil. Chris found the blueprints for the equipment at Nuremberg and got a grant to construct a hydrogen wave transmitter (contrast this with the secretive and isolated cabin that Calder works in). When the Admiral expresses shock that the Cronyns want to give credit to Calder when their results are made public, we get a great understated line about giving the devil his due from Peter Graves (who looks shockingly young in this movie, I must add). When the signal comes back, the first thing the display screen shows is just the digits of pi that were sent out by the Terran observatory but after a few cycles, new (and correct) digits are added that show the Martians understood what was sent to them and can at least potentially open a line of communication. Linda Cronyn is just as elated as the two men, but also offers up a prayer:  "Dear Lord, don't make us sorry".

The news becomes a global nine days' wonder, as it should, with lots of newspapers zooming at the screen while stock footage of people rushing around plays under them. The last paper is from Argentina, and that's a natural enough segue to check in with Calder again; he's on the radio with his masters in the USSR telling them that if he tries to contact Mars, the Americans will know he's listening in on their conversations. Since the Cronyns are just sending math and chemistry information out to the red planet at this point, there's no advantage to be gained letting the West know that the Soviets are eavesdropping on their party line. Part of the montage also shows people selling postcards and balloons related to Mars; I wouldn't have expected a movie from 1952 to be even slightly critical of capitalism, but this one presents the peddlers as irritating and tawdry. Interesting.

The difficulties of establishing some kind of communication with the Martians are thankfully glossed over (Admiral Carey has a team of presumably really smart people working on the problem) and when the clips switch from people reading newspapers to people listening to radios the film drops another bomb:  The Martians are now actively communicating with the Earth astronomers. The first information that gets provided is the average Martian lifespan--three hundred Earth years. Further shockwaves result on Earth when it's revealed that Martian cropland grows an absurdly high yield of food and the London Journal (is that even a real newspaper?) posts a screamer headline about the lack of rationing on the fourth rock from the sun--probably a sore point in 1952. Back on Earth, there's political hullabaloo over the possibility of pension payouts for two and a third centuries and the bottom falling out of commodities markets. It gets worse--after the Martians announce that they've got essentially free energy by using cosmic rays and making nonradioactive elements into fissionable energy sources coal mines close all across America. I think people might perhaps be jumping the gun a little bit; the Martian technologies are hugely advanced and it might take decades or even centuries for the engineers of Future 1952 to build an arc reactor and give the world infinite energy. It's also very telling that some people are angry and worried over the possibility of peace and plenty for everyone on Earth if that means they won't be at the top of the heap any more.

When the coal mines shut down out of fear of obsolescence, the steel mills in America find that they can't produce anything because they don't have any fuel for the smelting tanks. Without steel, American industry shudders to a halt. Again, unless I'm seriously misreading the film, all of this is happening before any free-energy plants have been built! Public opinion turns pretty sharply against Chris Cronyn; instead of souvenir hawkers he's got people throwing rocks at his car and the lone cop guarding the gate to his lab says they're going to need the Army to protect him before too terribly long. Radio and television news bulletins show continuing economic and social collapse worldwide. Cronyn retreats to the lab, defeated and crushed by how poorly things are turning out.

The near-total collapse of the world economy means that the President is taking a direct interest. Somewhat belatedly, the Secretary of Defense gets involved and clamps down on the incoming messages--from that point on, no more messages from Mars are going out into the public without someone trying to consider the consequences of the information release. Of course, nobody in the American political structure knows that a former Nazi is listening in on all of the transmissions. The last thing Calder is able to tell his handler is that the Americans want to know how the Martian civilization progressed to the "free cosmic energy" point without a political dispute wiping the map clean.

While things are deteriorating in the Western world, the Soviets and their allied governments are rubbing their hands with glee, watching everything stagger to a halt. The Secretary of Defense, along with a few other hawkish voices, try to sell the President on a preemptive war against the Soviet bloc while they still have the industrial capacity to fight. An actor who looks somewhat like Eisenhower refuses to start a war against the USSR at this point, even when presented with the possibility that the Reds will decode the Martian messages and make their own cosmic-radiation devices (which would mean the end of democracy in a matter of hours, if not the total extermination of life on Earth). The Secretary of Defense is especially worried; the implication is that he doesn't want to see America on the business end of a power it unleashed against Japan.

The Cronyns are escorted to the Oval Office and personally informed by the President that their project is to be scuttled immediately (leading to didactic words between Chris Cronyn and the Secretary of Defense re:  the duty of scientists to advance the frontiers of knowledge and the duty of politicians to preserve existing political structures). Cronyn refuses to shut down his project without a direct Presidential order. He also reveals his suspicions that Calder is listening in on the Martian broadcasts, and that if the Americans stop working on the messages it will mean giving the Soviets a massive advantage at decoding anything.

Admiral Carey is brought into the meeting and brings the newest message from Mars:  When asked how the Martian civilization avoided destroying itself with cosmic-ray weaponry, the translated response contains a quote from the Sermon on the Mount and chides Earthly civilizations for utterly missing the point of the message they were given "seven lifetimes ago", which would be about 2100 years before the story took place. Chris Cronyn refuses to release the message because it makes no scientific sense, but his wife makes a very telling point--there is nothing in the message to love goodness and hate evil that threatens national security (her husband and the Secretary of Defense immediately disagree with her and agree with each other, which is a bitterly funny moment in a very serious scene).

The new message goes out to the world exactly as translated--and suddenly the USSR is not enjoying the discomfort of the West any more. There's also a neat sight gag in this section where a bunch of really serious looking Soviet characters bunch around Calder's supervisor as he tries to get his pet Nazi mad scientist to explain what's going on. People in America are just as shaken, with church attendance skyrocketing as people decide that they're going to look busy in case God is real. The movie surprised the hell out of me at this point because the President, while broadcasting about the Martian messages, also says that the Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist faiths are searching for meaning through faith. I can just about imagine Barack Obama mentioning something similar if a Martian divine message was decoded today, but I sure as shit can't see any of his political opponents or anyone in the mass media doing anything but excoriating him if he did.

In the wake of this revelation, Soviet citizens return to organized worship (and get crushed by reprisals; that I can believe in a Wellsian science fiction movie from 1952). More messages come out; Calder's handler worries for his life when he has to tell the Politburo that God is alive, ruling Mars, and specifically doesn't like tyranny. Shortly after the former Nazi delivers that message to his supervisor, a model of Calder's isolated cabin is destroyed by an avalanche. In the absence of further contact with Calder, the Soviets start to make their own plans for war; if a spasm of religious fervor helped them beat the Germans in the last war, another one could drive them to success against the Americans in the next one.

Before any concrete plans can be made towards global war, Calder's master has to justify the loss of contact to the Premier, personally, which goes sour pretty quickly. There's a massive distraction when the power goes out in the government building, followed by a budget-conscious uprising that gets put down by soldiers and police, followed by riots and fires in Moscow. It turned out that the Russian people were tired of being ground down by the Man and overthrew the Soviet system; the new government is led by the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church. The USSR is dissolved immediately and the Russian military is recalled to Russia rather than being used to hold down their satellite territories. Additionally, the new government no longer forbids religious expression--the Communist experiment ends in a single night of fighting as the old system gets cast down.

The Cronyns' jubilation is cut short when Herr Calder sneaks into their house / lab; he presents the original schematics for the hydrogen valve as his credentials to the pair of scientists. He tells the Cronyns that he'd just snuck into the country the day before. He's incredibly bitter that his work was used by someone else to change the world; as far as he's concerned, the American government stole his work in the aftermath of the second World War. It turns out that the old war criminal was quite persistent, as well. He dug himself out of the avalanche and came to the California observatory in the wake of the disaster and tells the American scientists that he has copies of all the messages to and from Mars, and that there won't be any more transmissions from the red planet now that his radio gear has been destroyed. Linda figures out the extent of the fraud, and Calder says he's more than happy to share that credit with the Americans.

The depth of Calder's grudge against the world can scarcely be underestimated; he created a paradise on Earth simply for the joy of destroying it when he tells the world that the Martian system was one that he made up. And that would be as a finale to the destruction of the capitalist economy and the entire Soviet bloc--as a megalomaniac, Calder is almost entirely without peer. It also turns out that the American military translators played a part--Calder's faked Martian message that was reported as the Sermon on the Mount was supposed to say "One tribe must have the power" as the Martian political system, which the Nazi had hoped would set the Western and Soviet systems against each other to the death.

The Cronyns try to figure out a way to stop Calder from confessing his fraud to the world (and it turns out they've been outmaneuvered before they even knew there was a problem; the press corps is going to show up in less than five minutes to hear Calder's story). Calder has a grudge against the world, yes, but he's even angrier at the Cronyns specifically for stealing the fruits of his genius. He gets to shatter the new order and humiliate his perceived rivals at a single stroke if things work out the way he's planned. He pulls a gun on the Cronyns to keep them in the lab and Linda prepares to martyr herself by lighting a cigarette (which, due to the hydrogen content in the lab's air, would cause an explosion). Chris agrees that killing themselves to stop Calder is a worthy sacrifice; unfortunately, the evil scientist knows the hazards of a spark or flame in the hydrogen-saturated atmosphere of the lab.

Just before Chris can light his wife's cigarette, a new transmission comes in--and the only transmitter in the world is under thirty feet of snow in South America. The new message is "Ye have done well, my good--"

It turns out that when Calder tries to shoot out the reciever, the flame from his gun is perfectly sufficient to set off the hydrogen in the lab. The world will have to continue on its way, without further guidance from the Martian intelligences. At least until another hydrogen valve radio can be constructed, but until then, humanity has something to strive for--a world free from want, where people live for centuries and work for the common good. Not a bad ending for a thoughtful movie that was far more measured and considerate than I expected it to be.

Come to think of it, it's almost the inversion of the first movie I reviewed for the Checkpoint, Colossus:  The Forbin Project; the development of a new and untested technology sets the world free. It's also much less rabid than I was expecting; it wouldn't surprise me if seconds after the end title THE BEGINNING someone from the John Birch Society started decrying the movie for being too kind to the Russian characters and not vicious enough to its pacifist characters. Half a century and change after the film was made, I'm amazed at how much the political situation has gone differently--not just in the former Soviet Union but right here in America. It's a sobering piece to consider, and if you have a chance you should definitely check this one out.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Brother From Another Planet (1984)


Written and Directed by John Sayles

Joe Morton:  The Brother

Steve James:  Odell
Daryl Edwards:  Fly
Leonard Jackson:  Smokey
Tom Wright:  Sam
Bill Cobbs:  Walter

John Sayles:  Man in Black
David Straithairn:  Man in Black

I've been a lifelong science fiction nerd, and I've always been a total sucker for movies about strange visitors from another planet. But I can't remember hearing about this movie when it came out thirty years ago. Did Ghostbusters eat its lunch? Was it too small a release to play anywhere in the western suburbs of Chicago? Even when I was nine and a half years old I paid attention to movies, but maybe this one just flew under the family radar as well as my own. It's a real shame, because it's a stunning achievement, both for Sayles as writer / director / actor / editor / caterer / key grip / best boy and for Joe Morton in a revelatory performance that almost seems showy for how much he achieves without ever speaking and with tight, constrained, frightened body language--he never emotes for the cheap seats; instead, the viewer has to pay attention to him constantly to determine what he's thinking.

Oh, before I get to the meat of the review--there's another possible reason for the film's obscurity. Sayles got screwed by his film lab when the prints were pulled. In 1984, not having a copyright notice in the titles for your film meant that it wasn't copyrighted, and that legally speaking, anyone that wanted to make a copy of it and rip the filmmakers off was legally allowed to do so. That's the reason George A. Romero never made the billion dollars or so that he deserved off of Night of the Living Dead as well. Watching Quentin Tarantino's films, it's always kinda neat to spot the old-style copyright notice on the title card, even though the relevant laws were changed some time ago. I'm assuming someone with actual clout lost money on something that should have been copyrighted, and had the statutes changed to prevent it from happening again. Copyright laws are a hodgepodge of seemingly random changes made over decades, and they lead to all kinds of strange results like the first five John Carter novels by Burroughs being in the public domain (which is how there was an Asylum Studios adaptation riding the coattails of the Disney version), while the final four are still copyrighted.

But enough about the Byzantine insanity of American intellectual property law, I've got a movie to praise!

The film starts with an extremely budget-conscious escape pod launch from a spaceship--all the audience knows is that there's some blinking red lights on an instrument panel sporting rectangular whatnots made of transparent red plastic and the Predator Word-a-Day Calendar malfunctioning. The pod splashes down outside Ellis Island at night, and the occupant rises up into frame with the Statue of Liberty blurry in the background behind him. Steel drum music on the score and the nameless alien's dark brown skin and dreadlocks make it instantly apparent to the viewer that this is going to be some kind of social-issues science fiction story; the kind of thing where the society is viewed through the eyes of an outsider to give insight to the people already living in it.

It's also significant that the alien visitor (the movie only ever credits him as the Brother; if he's got a name, we never learn it) has no money, can't talk and looks like a black person. Michael Rennie was able to snag a suit and get a room at a boarding house in his alien-contact movie, and Jeff Bridges could explain what he was doing on Earth in his alien-contact movie. But Joe Morton is playing a character that's at a significant disadvantage if he wants to blend in on Earth. Lucky for him he's in New York City; if his pod dropped down in, say, Montana, he'd stand zero chance of escaping detection.

The Brother turns out to have lost a foot in the crash, and cauterizes the wound by touching it; he hops his way into the Ellis Island processing center and gets a telepathic burst of Spanish and French when he touches the wall to brace himself--so the audience learns about his capabilities to psychically experience the past through touch and to stop the blood from his severed shin while the Brother learns at least a tiny bit about the planet he's crash-landed on. It's safe to assume he's a carbon-based life form of one kind or another, and he can breathe the air without any problems. That's about the only good news he's got at the start of the story--when he sits down on a bench to rest he gets overwhelmed with another half a dozen voices in half a dozen languages and eventually just goes to sleep on the floor in lieu of the marginally more comfortable bench.

Dawn breaks and the Brother watches the sun come up behind the Manhattan skyline; the viewer learns that he's not just a psychometric empath--the Brother regrew his foot in the night, which has three huge toes and somewhat nasty-looking clawlike nails at the end. A drop into the Hudson River and subsequent boat ride to the island of Manhattan give us the first look at the Brother figuring out what this strange new world is going to be like (he is surprised by a seagull and a helicopter, so I'm guessing he's from a higher-gravity planet; the movie provides no evidence for this surmise). He finds a castoff shoe in a trash can and is able to conceal his weird foot--and also not step in anything that New York City had to offer in 1984, and thank goodness for that--then starts to explore a little more. It's very telling that the film is showing Morton's face rather than what he's looking at in these opening scenes; the confusion and apprehension on the Brother's face are the first look that the audience gets into what he's thinking. When he hears a radio on the street he ducks into a doorway and hides, so I'm willing to bet that whatever he was fleeing in the opening sequence wasn't a lot of fun. I was extremely impressed with the job the costume department did on the Brother's clothing--he's wearing a baggy shirt and pants that don't look like anything from any specific Earth culture I know of, but also don't look too futuristic either. Yeah, the shirt fabric is shiny, but it's also just a big shapeless baggy wrap rather than a silvery jumpsuit. He's got no real way to know it yet, but if the Brother looks like a homeless black guy he's likely to be invisible to anyone on the street.

As the streets fill up with pedestrians the Brother gets a little overwhelmed by the sea of humanity around him (and the soundtrack fills with voices and music in overlapping waves); we also get to see that the Brother doesn't understand panhandling and doesn't realize how to pay for food at a produce stand. The woman who yells at him for eating a pear in what I think is Cantonese doesn't get subtitles, so the audience is unlikely to understand her any more than the alien protagonist is. And the Brother watches, reserved, when the fruit stand owner accepts some paper for a few pieces of fruit rather than reacting with any strong emotions (or getting physical). He realizes that it's a medium of exchange, but thinks it'll work out if he takes some of those paper notes from the cash register and hands them back to the produce stand owner. And this is also where the viewer learns something else about the Brother--he puts his hand on the back of the cash register and pops the drawer open after a moment or two. When the fruit market proprietor calls for a street cop the Brother sees his badge and gun (which means that wherever he's from, those two things are used to mark authority figures) and runs away as best he can on a foot that's still stiff and new. He evades the middle-aged white cop by hauling ass around a corner and then jumping up a story or so in a really nifty long take that probably involved a couple of crew members yanking a ladder out of the camera's field before the pan up to see him clinging to a building.

When the Brother sees someone else getting arrested on the street (or, to put it in the terms that he'd be thinking in--seeing a man with similar skin tone and hair as his being frisked by a white guy dressed like the person that was sent after him moments ago) he retreats inside a building, which happens to be a Harlem bar called Bar run by a black guy named Odell.  Three regular patrons are inside; all of them are also black, so at least the Brother fits in reasonably well. (It feels clunky for me to keep listing that the characters in the bar are black, and I apologize, but race is hugely important to this film.) The two middle-aged drinkers (one paunchy, the other thin and sporting a salt-and-pepper goatee) are at the bar and a guy in his late teens or early twenties is bitching about a malfunctioning arcade game. This does not appear to be a thriving lounge, no, now that you mention it. Odell opines that the spaceships in the video games were built by the lowest bidders, and that "internal malfunctions" are the reason they keep blowing up even though nothing hit them.

The Brother sits down on a barstool and flinches away instantly; the paunchy barfly says it's because that's the seat someone was sitting on when another boozer shot him to death. He also says nobody likes sitting in that seat, but I'm sure it's even worse when you can psychically read the past of whatever you're touching. When the Brother sits down at an empty table everyone just decides to let him be; two or three overlapping and disjointed conversations resume covering subjects ranging from diseases on crashing satellites to whether or not Odell has to refund a quarter to Fly when it was a loaned coin in the first place. Smokey, the paunchy guy wearing a bow tie, decides he's going to figure out what the Brother's deal is. He's got three possibilities to work through:  Either the strange visitor to the bar is deaf, an alcoholic, or insane. While Odell and his girlfriend trade affectionate barbs, Smokey pops a paper bag behind the Brother's head; he flinches, so Smokey crosses "deaf" off the list. He offers the Brother a shot of scotch and the poor guy reacts like everyone who tried the store-brand scotch from Osco Drugs back at B Fest 2005. Smokey settles on "crazy", and helps himself to the rest of the drink. (Walter, the guy in the goatee, goes on at length about the dangers of drinking from a Haitian's glass but nobody pays attention to him.)

Sam, a caseworker for some kind of social-aid service, arrives after work and everyone already there lets him know that the weirdo in the baggy shirt definitely needs some kind of assistance. Sam tries English, Spanish and French out but the Brother doesn't respond to him. But Sam's a patient and kind man, and eventually goes down to basics and determines that the Brother can understand him, but not speak. After this breakthrough, the Brother gets up and lays his hand on the arcade game, curing its internal malfunctions. Once he's demonstrated a skill, the bar regulars put him in a completely different category. He used to be that weird new guy who can't talk and doesn't like booze, but now he's that person who fixed the video game. And just like that, they make room for him in their lives. It's also the first time--but not the last--that the Brother will point his thumb to the sky and make a little gesture when someone asks him where he's from (the bartender assumes that means "uptown", not "a completely different planet").

Sam and Ordell know a woman who takes in borders (which she's not allowed to do under the terms of her City of New York benefits); Ordell offers to pay for the first week's rent and Fly the video game addict thinks Sam should be able to find someone somewhere who would be willing to pay for the Brother's talent. Sam offers to take the Brother to the woman's apartment so he's at least got a place to sleep for the next week, and Walter the patron recommends that they throw away the glass the Brother drank from (he's still on a kick about all the various diseases that Haitians carry). One of the movie-standard "group of youths shit-talking the passersby" is hanging around in the rain by the apartment that Sam's going to, and they take time out of their busy day to rag on the Brother's shabby-looking clothes.

Randy Sue Carter, the woman who takes the Brother in is the first character in the movie who sets up the pattern for the way the film is structured from here on out--the mute alien makes his way through New York City as best he can, and because he's incapable of interrupting people they talk to him, and in doing so they reveal more about themselves than anything else. It's the main pleasure of the movie for me; all the different characters from different walks of life give little glimpses of humanity to the Brother (and to the audience) through their monologues. In her speech, Randy Sue gives a biographical sketch:  she was in love with a guy named Bobby, who got her pregnant and left her with little Earl, who she genuinely loves. She's from Alabama and can't go back there with a multiracial son, and Bobby's mom will be along for dinner and to criticize her cooking. She's also kind enough to offer the Brother a set of Bobby's clothes, which will help the stranger fit in a bit better in the city. And she happens to be wearing sandals so the Brother can tell that her feet don't look much at all like his. He's certainly smart enough to figure out that he needs to keep himself concealed in order to stay safe on Earth. He also fixes the staticky TV set and a scrape on Earl's knee; whatever else he's learned about currency and transactions on Earth, he's trying to contribute the way he can.

From here there are three plot threads that weave around and intersect--the Brother encounters plenty of one-shot characters that tell him about themselves, with each interaction giving an actor a chance to shine for a moment or two in the film. They range from a white beat cop (who, in a speech I would not have expected from flaming leftie Sayles, talks about how Harlem doesn't deserve its reputation as far as he can tell; it's actually a really nice neighborhood and everybody he's met has been really nice so far) to a dreadlocked street poet named Virgil who introduces the Brother to marijuana to

In the second thread, the Brother learns how to interact with the people on Earth, fitting in a little better as he learns to dress like a person in New York City does, get a job (he fixes video games in a Times Square arcade at first, then drifts away from that, eventually just performing odd appliance repairs at second-hand stores to stay inconspicuous). The arcade sequences are comic, with his boss Mr. Lowe--a racist white dude with a pinched, angry soul--griping about all kinds of different ethnicities and taking the discovery that his new employee can lay hands on a video game and fix it completely in stride when he figures out how much money he's going to save on spare parts. Also at the arcade is Hector, a friendly guy from Colombia who assumes that the Brother is from Puerto Rico ("that's where all the brothers are from") and who offers to run interference with Mr. Lowe if it's necessary. I think it's safe to say that Hector assumes that a united front against white dickheads is just the polite thing to do (and since Lowe doesn't know any Spanish he can insult the guy to his face whenever he feels like it).

It's also a kick to see all the old video games; I wasted a significant portion of my adolescence at the Enchanted Castle and Galaxy World fun centers so it's cool to see that Lowe's arcade has a Satan's Hollow standup, for example, among many other video cabinets. And one of the people who gets a one-scene monologue is a high school girl cutting class in order to play at the arcade all day; she's a very smart person who uses the games as a way to distract herself from the fact that she sees her life laid out in front of her, as predictable as a level of Battlezone. She's in the coolest city in America but without resources that she just doesn't have and likely will never get, an attack pattern on Astro Chase isn't the only thing she can see coming. The Brother helps out by supercharging the game, at least for a little bit, and giving her at least one surprise in her life.

But the third thread is significantly more ominous. A pair of white men in head-to-toe black clothing, a guide to English as a second language, and a photo of the Brother that wasn't taken according to any Earthly aesthetic are out looking for him. They're played by David Straithairn (who, among many other things, was Admiral Stenz in this year's Godzilla movie) and John Sayles himself. And because they look and act like authority figures, they're able to move through society in a manner utterly different from the way the Brother does it. They stop in at Bar, acting vaguely menacing while also looking around like confused birds at things that are actually pretty mundane. They're also not so great at blending in when the taller one clarifies that they'd like their beer on the rocks. They show a photo of the Brother around and ask if he's been there; Smokey doesn't help anything when he points out they can't learn the mystery man's name if he can't talk. Nice one, friend. The men in black ask Fly for his green card (which he wouldn't even have; he's NYC born and raised), tick everyone off, make a few elementary mistakes with grammar and colloquial English, finish their beers and leave. (Smokey:  "White folks get stranger all the time.") If they looked like the Brother and were that confused and confusing about basic things while acting like they owned the city, they'd have already been in jail.

Sayles demonstrates his sense of fairness, though; the human white characters aren't all jerks like Lowe. There's a pair of utterly lost academic-conference participants from Indiana who miss a seminar reception but do wind up in Bar making mild fools of themselves as they drink up and realize that they might well be in Harlem but they're getting along with everyone and quite enjoying their day (and Odell gives them concise directions to get back to their hotel; he's probably also quite happy that they bought as many drinks as they did). They go from panic to maudlin sentimentality and manage to come across as foolish and awkward but at least self-aware enough to realize that they have had privilege and experiences completely different from everyone in the bar (although when they're pouring out their hearts to the Brother about wanting to be Ernie Banks, they don't realize just how separate their life experiences are). Yeah, they're dorks, but the world needs dorks too. And the film is careful to show them as harmless goofs open to learning rather than just big dumb hicks in the city. I can't think of any other movie that would be as charitable to a pair of gangly overeducated Indianans in the city as this one.

The Brother also falls in love with a singer who has a regular gig at a nightclub; one of the driving forces in his assimilation urge is the desire to look nice and get enough money to get into the bar for a show, and even without his voice he's able to communicate to the singer how much he enjoys hers. It works out really well for him, though it turns out his toeclaws can do a number on bedsheets (though he and his paramour were too occupied with other matters to notice at the time). The importance of voices and communication--and what the Brother is missing out on by his lack of one--is driven home by my favorite scene in the film. In a secondhand store the Brother passes his hands from one broken radio to another in a row, instantly fixing them all and bringing a different musical voice into the room one after another, until the room is filled with a joyful cacophony of song and voice and presence and humanity. And it's the best moment in a film packed to the margins with great, sharply observed facets of the human condition.

But for all that the movie is a love letter to New York City, it's a realistic one rather than an idealized view of the city. There's love and acceptance for the Brother, but also noise, confusion, and psychic awareness of every horrible thing that can happen in the city. There's a scene in a subway car were a young Fisher Stevens (in the hat-and-vest combo that's the movie uniform for NYC street performers) goes through a lengthy and baffling card trick that uses up the entire deck, and then points out that the conductor's voice announcing a particular station as the next stop might as well be a magic spell to empty the car of white people. Sayles knows that the city's a big melting pot but there's some nasty stuff in that pot from time to time--the Brother gets mugged in the lobby of the building he lives in, and there's a sequence where he learns about heroin and how someone with the skin tone of his pursuers makes a lot of money selling it to kids that look quite a bit more like him--and when he finds the body of one his muggers dead of an overdose it drives him to an act that could get him killed by terrestrial police if he winds up on their radar.

All the while the men in black get closer and closer to the Brother (they call him "Three-Toe" when talking between themselves, but that obviously isn't his name, just his category). They track him down to the social services office where Sam and one of his coworkers run interference by cheerfully offering to help, as long as they can provide the proper IDs, fill out a mountain of paperwork and let them know exactly which agency it is--out of the two that the men simultaneously mention--they work for. This stalling tactic helps, but the two alien slavecatchers do eventually track the Brother down, and help comes first from Fly and Odell (though they turn out to be nowhere near as strong or fast as the two weirdos), and then from a place that the Brother didn't expect, but who he would trust implicitly. And who let him know that wherever it was he came from originally, he's just as much a part of New York City as Central Park or the Ramones now. And those bizarre authority figures get exactly what was coming to them.

Really, I can't recommend this movie enough. It's a look at humanity from an outsider perspective and an insider one at the same time, and a way to see a spraypainted wall as thrilling art just as much as it is a reminder that people just need to be kind to each other and make space in the world for people that aren't quite like you. And it's a love letter to New York City, but the NYC that you're familiar with from Ghostbusters and the films of Larry Cohen much more than, say, Friends. In fact, I'm willing to guess that Odell's bar has more black people in it than you'd see in an entire season of that sitcom. I've tried to leave things a little more vague than I usually do for this review, because the pleasures of this movie are the pleasures of settling in and seeing where the storylines take you; there's some meandering and some redundancy, some loss and fear and rage and terror. Joy and laughter and finding a place for yourself. This movie makes me wish like hell John Sayles would be able to direct a Superman movie. He's got his strange visitor from another planet in the big glamorous city already; if only Warner Brothers would throw him the keys to their big franchise we could see something that shows us the super man, rather than just the superhero. (In fact, the Tom DeHaven novel It's Superman! would be fantastic for this; it's a period piece set in New York City instead of Metropolis, and Clark Kent's politics are about as far left as Sayles' seem to be so it'd be a perfect match--but that's a fanboy rant for another day).

And if we're lucky, Joe Morton would be in a scene in Metropolis, fixing arcade games and radios in the background. A little tip of the hat to a career-finest performance and the reassurance that the Brother is still doing all right, thirty years on.

Friday, October 31, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 26: Zombieland (2009)



Written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick
Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Jesse Eisenberg:  Columbus
Woody Harrelson:  Tallahassee
Emma Stone:  Wichita
Abigail  Breslin:  Little Rock

Monster movies have rules. It's one of the pleasures of the genre--stakes and sunlight kill vampires, silver bullets will take care of werewolves and messing with an infernal Rubik's Cube can keep one's soul (and body) out of the hands of Cenobites. Without some kind of weakness, monsters are just unstoppable antagonists  and there's no way to create drama or tension if there's not even the slimmest glimmer of hope for the people in the monster's path (for crying out loud, even the Terminator wasn't quite invulnerable).

And over the last ten or fifteen years, zombies have become part of the Western movie monster canon. This makes my heart sing, because when I was a high-school loser I made all my friends watch Dawn of the Dead; it's still as relevant and grotesque as it ever was. Living in a world where random non-horror-fan Americans know that head shots kill shuffling corpses and bites carry lethal infection is not something I ever expected, but I'm perfectly content to be there now. For that matter, enough people have seen 28 Days Later and its sequel or the Dawn of the Dead remake to know that old-school shuffling moaner zombies have been somewhat replaced by the more contemporary "sprinting dead" model. While I'm talking about things related to the movie that make me happy--the writers and director are very obviously fans of not just the zombie genre, but horror films as a whole.

I can tell that because the movie starts out as a first-person found footage horror movie (and one with some genuinely striking and appalling imagery; the Presidential limo is upside down and on fire in the ruins of Washington, D.C.). A fast zombie sees the person capturing the aftermath of an attack and chases him down; the moron with the camera runs away backwards to keep the zombie in the shot, trips over something he didn't see and dies horribly 55 seconds into the film because that's how things would play out in real life--it also seems to be something of a mission statement on the part of the filmmakers--funny, gruesome, metatextual and dependent on the audience recognizing the situations that are being skewered (sometimes literally).

Oh, and speaking of rules, the voiceover explaining how utterly screwed the human race is? It belongs to a permanently twitchy geek who is only alive because his obsessive personality and pathological fears have manifested as a set of behavioral rules that he follows in order to live another day. The first two rules are that one must maintain one's physical fitness (everyone too out-of-shape to escape from a sprinting infected died in the first days of the apocalypse, which actually makes sense), and that shooting a zombie only once is a recipe for disaster. The "double tap" means that a survivor is considerably less likely to get a fatal surprise when a zombie gets knocked down, but it gets up again. Shooting it in the head again is a way to make sure you keep it down.

Also, the graphics used to keep the rules listed on the screen are a nice way to keep things visually interesting--they aren't just appearing on the screen in a typewriter font or something like that. Thought was put into their placement and use each time. And while the so-far-unnamed protagonist explains his rules through voiceover, the audience gets to see what happens to people who aren't living by those particular codes of conduct (SPOILER:  They die, horribly, although not always from a zombie attack). Then the credits roll, with super-slow-motion tableaux of people trying and failing to escape from sprinting rage zombies, in situations ranging from the comic to the ghastly (and occasionally both--the three-legged-race of the damned at a picnic is an image that stayed with me for five years after seeing the movie).

We meet the narrator next; he's a thin young white guy carrying a shotgun and gassing up his car in the empty suburban wasteland of Garland, Texas (he assures the audience that it looked like that before the apocalypse). While talking to himself he drops the knowledge that it's been two months since a disease-riddled gas station hamburger hit the system of Patient Zero of the fast zombie epidemic; for all the narrator knows, he is the single remaining uninfected human being in America. Even he thinks his continued survival is unlikely, but with his handy list of rules and his tangled inner web of phobias and paranoiac suspicions he's actually doing pretty well. And when he gets attacked by three zombies after fueling up his car, his adherance to things like buckling his seat belt in the car pay off with him living to run another day.

While walking from Texas to Ohio (he was going to college in Austin when the world ended, and wants to go back to his hometown to see if his parents are still alive; it's as good a reason to get up in the morning after the end of the world as any), another survivor crosses his path. It's a middle-aged goateed white dude in a Cadillac SUV customized with a snowplow blade and Dale Earnhardt's number hastily painted on the side. Just moments after the protagonist was talking to himself about how much he'd like to see a human face again, the car roars up the highway clogged with empty cars. And the first thing he does is hide, then stands a dirt bike up as a makeshift barricade. There's a wordless standoff between the two (the younger man literally shaking with adrenaline and panic) before they come to an accommodation and the narrator gets a ride.

The new guy introduces himself as Tallahassee and refers to the narrator as Columbus; he doesn't want to learn anyone's real name; the implication is that he's very, very used to people dying on him at this point in post-human history). They make a comically mismatched pair--Columbus is terrified of everything to the point of near-paralysis and Tallahassee drinks Jack straight from the bottle while driving--reckless beyond rationality. Together they kind of average out.

Tallahassee turns out to expose himself to danger above and beyond the whole "America crawling with animated corpses that eat people" risk factors. It's been sixty days since the last time anything got delivered to a grocery store or gas station, and he's hoping to find at least one undamaged, non-stale Twinkie in the ruins of civilization. Unfortunately the truck he found is full of Snowballs and Tallahassee hates the consistency of coconut.

Columbus gives us a glimpse of his life before the world fell apart; school and online gaming were the only things he really did. No friends in real life and as little contact with other people as he could manage. It worked for him, but his world was empty years before it was for everyone else. A neighbor interrupts his World of Warcraft session for the evening in a panic (she refers to him as "408" after his apartment number, so we don't get his name). He fails to come across as anything but a childlike goof talking to his neighbor from 406; she tells him about being confronted by a crazy homeless man that tried to bite her in a random attack.

406 falls asleep nestled against Columbus on his couch as he finally makes some kind of tentative human connection. Unfortunately, when she wakes up she's drooling infected blood and pus and her skin is rotting off her face. It turns out the only thing in his apartment that's remotely useful as a weapon is the ceramic top of the toilet tank, but that's perfectly serviceable as an anti-reanimated-corpse implement. And seeing his neighbor holding herself up on a shattered ankle still trying to bite him forces the protagonist to confront what's actually in front of him--he might be impaled on his own neuroses but he's aware of what's going on after that attack.

Back in the present day, Tallahassee wants to talk about sex. I didn't think Columbus could look any less comfortable then he did before, but Jesse Eisenberg digs deep and manages to achieve it. It's probably the only time anyone's been glad to see an undead woman sucking bone marrow out of a shattered human thigh bone, because at least that means there won't be any more euphemisms for coitus coming out of Woody Harrelson's mouth.

A stop at an abandoned grocery store leads to some genuinely impressive mayhem as Tallahassee beats a trio of obese zombies to real death with a banjo, an aluminum baseball bat (the stuntman really earned his hazard pay in that scene) and a pair of garden shears. And then a beautiful uninfected young woman walks into the pair's vision. She's Wichita, and her younger sister Little Rock has been bitten. Little Rock demands that one of the pair ends her life before the disease eats through her brain, and Wichita finally says it's her responsibility to take care of the family. Which she does by turning the gun on the two men and stealing their car. Tallahassee's double-middle-finger as he realizes he's been played is a real joy to behold. (The redneck:  "Nice goin', genius." The geek:  "You're the one who gave her the gun.")

The girls are looking for something, too. Little Rock asks if it's true that Pacific Playland is really the last spot in the country free of zombies and Wichita assures her that this is indeed the case. While they're driving off in search of the happiest place on the Cursed Earth, the Y-chromosome-bearing duo are looking for a car and making small talk in a town notable for the sheer number of auto accidents on the streets. Tallahassee also beats the shit out of a defenseless minivan with a crowbar as a way to vent a little hostility (although he did not limber up ahead of time and strains himself; if he'd listened to Columbus that might not have happened).

Soon enough they find an undamaged bright yellow Humvee with the driver's hands and forearms at the wheel and a duffel bag full of firearms in the back seat ("Thank God for rednecks!" is declaimed in a state of near-religious awe by Tallahassee when he sees the arsenal they just stumbled over). The older, crazier, more violent man drives off in search of the girls so he can have revenge and we get to see a flashback of him in happier times, utterly devoted to a puppy he had named Buck. "I lost him, and there ain't no getting him back". He's looking only to the future because the past is an open wound that will never stop bleeding.

The girls turn out to have abandoned their fried-engine SUV somewhere on a lonely rural two-lane highway and while Tallahassee checks the situation out, Columbus gets snuck up on and taken hostage by the prepubescent Little Rock. At least this time the two men are still allowed in the vehicle (and Columbus keeps working on that crush he's nursing on Wichita). Another flashback shows Wichita and Little Rock working a con on an overly trusting gas station attendant (with Wichita telling him a lost engagement ring was worth three thousand bucks, Little Rock "finding" it and selling it to him for 400 dollars, and leaving him holding the bag). One more firearm-swiping reversal and John Woo "guns at each others' heads" later, Columbus finally shows a little steel and demands that the four people stuck in the car together not point guns at each other and not endlessly make things even more difficult for everyone.

A sullen detente settles over the four people in the SUV as Little Rock reveals their plans to get to Pacific Playland in California. Columbus asks if Wichita has heard anything about his namesake town and she says it's burned to the ground. And, wonder of wonders, Tallahassee is the one to try and get her to be a little more sensitive to the emotional needs of the other people in the group (really, this scene is the one where I realized the movie was going to stay good till the end--it's one thing to have wacky gruesome zombie action, but another for the script and actors combining alchemically to make characters that the viewer genuinely cares about. It's also the first moment that Tallahassee expresses any kind of concern for another person in the film).

Columbus realizes that finding his family alive at the end of his journey was always a pipe dream, but he's still shattered by the realization. And Wichita undoubtedly knows what that's like, because every single person left alive in Zombieland watched their family die. The film doesn't shy away from the emotional toll that survival can take. At night (with Tallahassee and Little Rock out cold in the back of the Humvee), Wichita stops by an abandoned truck and wishes Columbus good luck in his travels; the paranoid dork decides to stay with the group instead because he wants to be with her rather than taking chances on his own.

Later that night Tallahassee is starting to feel cooped up and twitchy in the car, so they pull over at a wigwam-themed tourist trap called the Kemo Sabe to shoot a zombie in the head and poke around--just do anything that isn't sitting in the car or driving the car (as the veteran of a decade of family driving vacations, I can fully sympathize). Columbus tries on some cologne and gets needled by Tallahassee about wanting to have sex with their captor / companion. Things escalate and Columbus actually shows a little spine when he reacts to the teasing (and he gets hit with exactly 45% of Tallahassee's full strength in retaliation) and then everyone just has fun knocking stuff over and destroying things. And it turns out to be exactly what they needed as a way to vent a little bit of steam.

The miles roll on as every possible conversational topic is exhausted (and Little Rock tries to explain the setup for "Hannah Montana" while Tallahassee is driving). Everyone keeps from getting on each others' nerves enough to avoid bloodshed and soon enough they're in California. In Hollywood, a quick detour by the scorched ruins of Grauman's Chinese Theater for a star map leads the group to the home of Bill Murray (Tallahassee wants to rest up somewhere really nice), and then the movie goes utterly and charmingly bonkers. If you haven't seen the movie yet, please, go and watch it before you finish the review.

I'll wait.

I have time.

It's been 26 days of October-appropriate cinema. It's okay if you have From Hell It Came spoiled for you, but this is different and if you haven't had the pleasure of watching this one yet you should take care of that before you continue reading..

Last chance.

It's not too late to re-read 5000 words on Telstar:  The Joe Meek Story.

Okay, it's on your head.

There's a shot of Murray rising from his bed when he hears people in his mansion, shuffling and moaning as he approaches the survivors we've been following for the whole film--and it turns out that he's one of the very few remaining live human beings in the world.

Gloriously, he's not playing himself so much as he's playing the pop culture conception of himself--the guy who steals bites of strangers' lunches in Central Park and tells them nobody will ever believe it happened, and the most entertaining guest David Letterman ever has. Three of the four people in the group are instantly star-struck when they wander through his estate. The fourth, and coincidentally the youngest, doesn't know who he is (Tallahassee:  "Hey, I've never hit a kid before," but it sounds like he's awfully tempted at that point). Really, I don't know who else they might have approached for this section of the film but I cannot imagine any living actor that would have worked as well as Murray does here.

After a fakeout to the characters and the audience about Murray showing up as one of the undead (he's wearing makeup to blend in because zombies don't attack each other) Tallahassee and Wichita are utterly starstruck. I also like to believe that Woody Harrelson actually screamed with joy every time he saw Murray on set in Kingpin as well as this movie--Method acting at its finest. The semi-connected gibberish that Tallahassee lets out when he's gushing over the SNL star is a fearless performance and also perhaps the first time that Tallahassee felt good about anything other than breaking stuff or killing zombies since Outbreak Zero.

So, while Columbus and Little Rock are in Murray's absurdly plush home theater watching Ghostbusters, Wichita and Tallahassee get super, super high off of the comedy legend's weed stash and re-enact scenes from that movie with him. I especially like the great touch that Tallahassee gets to wear  the actual uniform and proton pack prop while Murray has a canister vacuum cleaner--he's such a good host.

Unfortunately, everyone's so stoned that they think it's a good idea to have Bill Murray, in full zombie makeup, sneak up on Columbus to scare him. He winds up blowing a hole clean through Murray's torso with the shotgun. Apologies and True Confessions abound and the quartet takes time to grieve and salute the fallen icon. That night, over real-money Monopoly there's a conversation about the good points to living through Armageddon (and Eisenberg, who would go on to play Mark Zuckerberg a year later, gets a dig in at Facebook). And then the bad points come up and Columbus figures out that the "puppy" Tallahassee lost earlier in the outbreak wasn't a dog. There's a legitimately heartbreaking look back at the insane brutal redneck in happier, loving times and Tallahassee finally feels close enough to the others in the group to let his guard down and tell them exactly how much he's lost.

Later on Tallahassee and Little Rock bond over a shooting lesson (destroying a swath of Bill Murray's antiques and china), while Wichita and Columbus split a bottle of 1997 Georges de Latour and reminisce on their adolescence in that year ("My first school dance. It was Sadie Hawkins, so...girls' choice." "You didn't go?" "It was girls' choice". Compared to that fiasco of a year, getting a fake tattoo and seeing Anaconda as one's first R-rated movie seem positively wonderful. But, wonder of wonders, Columbus finds out that he might be just about the last man on earth, but it's never too late to actually be a girl's choice for a dance. He doesn't have the slightest idea what to do but figures it out, and gets what might well be his first kiss slow-dancing by candlelight at the end of the world.

Or at least he would have, if Tallahassee didn't show up to ask for help to move a couch and build a fort with Little Rock. Poor bastard. To the film's credit, it does show that both Columbus and Wichita are missing out and have regrets about it not happening. But it's after the girls leave for Pacific Playland and it's too late for either of the two to do anything about it. Night falls and Columbus is packing up his gear and getting ready to leave while Tallahassee mentions plans to go into Mexico, saying that letting people close is only going to get you hurt.

That night, while the two men are having their little heart to heart, Wichita and Little Rock break into Pacific Playland turn on the power to all the rides and attractions. For one brief moment, Little Rock smiles just like a kid again, even though all the horror that she undoubtedly saw for the last two months of the Zompocalypse.

And every blood-drooling sprinting zombie for miles around sees and hears the rides as they get activated (I'm willing to bet a substantial amount of the movie's budget got spent on this third-act setpiece, and it was worth every last penny). Dozens--if not hundreds--of zombies converge on the sisters in the shadows and neon of the second-tier theme park midway, and Little Rock thinks fast enough to get on a drop tower ride that at least keeps the women off the ground and away from the horde. But they've only go so many rounds in their shotguns and unless something really unexpected happens they're going to need to save one last shell apiece for themselves.

It's not unexpected that Columbus would want to go after them and try to save the day. (It's also not unexpected that he wouldn't get very far on Bill Murray's motorcycle since he's never ridden one before.) What is unexpected is that Tallahassee is willing to risk losing his life, and worse, getting close to people again, but he does. And it's time for the two men to ride to the rescue, with both of them using their own individual apocalypse-survival skills to clear the zombies out from Pacific Playland in a sustained quarter hour of utter badassnesss. And even better, everything that Columbus and Tallahassee do in their rescue attempt is completely consistent with their earlier characterization and behavior. Tallahassee fights in a continuing berserker rage while Columbus is faster and uses hsi surroundings to his advantage, and in the manner of third-act climaxes in action movies, faces down his fears and defeats them--not for himself, but because he's trying to protect someone he genuinely cares about. And there's still time for a sound effects gag or two when Columbus has to enter melee range with a blood-drooling zombie clown.

When I first saw the trailers for this movie I figured it was going to be an American retread of Shaun of the Dead, but not in a good way at all. I was amazingly pleasantly surprised, instead, to find that it was an American version of Shaun of the Dead that celebrates the wide open spaces of the country's southwest. Instead of English pub culture and a synchronized zombie beating to Queen on the jukebox there's a look at celebrity and junk food--cultural and otherwise. The people who made this movie knew how to make a scare, a laugh, an action sequence and a tearjerker all work. It's the complete spectrum of emotion done in a single zombie movie. From the reviews of his later films, the director never quite hit the same heights again (possibly because studios expect more from you when you've got a bigger cast and budget than when you're making a silly horror comedy). But supposedly we're getting a sequel in the not too distant future, and I'd quite like to see what happens next with these characters in that world. Hopefully next time they'll know better than to turn on all the theme park lights at night after the end of the world.


This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for movies beginning with today’s letter are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  Zombies of Mora Tau

Yes, I Know:  Zombies on Broadway

Thursday, October 30, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 25: The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968)


Written by Nigel Kneale
Directed by Michael Elliott

Tony Vogel:  Nat Mender
Suzanne Nerve:  Deanie Webb
Leonard Rossiter:  Co-Ordinator Ugo Priest
Martin Potter:  Kin Hodder


The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. --Attributed to Socrates



I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland. -- Newton Minow, chairman of the FCC, to the National Association of Broadcasters



TLC ‘Reassessing Future’ of ‘Honey Boo Boo’ After Star's Relationship With Convicted Child Molester Surfaces -- Headline from Wrap.com, October 23, 2014

As much fun as it would be to just throw a few thousand words of mass-media quotes on this page and call it a day, I'm going to do a review instead. But since this is a dystopian satire about mass media made about three generations ago, it's probably a good idea to give people a few signposts about culture and entertainment before I start the synopsis and the cheap jokes. First up:  It's nothing new for older people to gripe that the younger generations are enjoying life inappropriately and that things are getting worse. Second:  Television is super bad for your soul and your culture. Third:  Things aren't that bad yet. They may not be good, but at least we're at the point where even the networks pandering to the lowest common denominator imaginable are capable of some level of shame, or at least more worried about getting sued out of existence for child endangerment than they regret lost ad revenue.

Today's movie is set "sooner than you think", which is almost as cool as Streets of Fire occurring in "Another Time, Another Place". And it's only around to watch in black and white because the BBC--guardians of culture that they are--never saved a copy of the master tape used for broadcast, and only the accidental discovery of a black-and-white recording made it possible for the commentary to be released and viewed at any later date. Somehow I think that makes the movie even more relevant. The warning about media culture being deliberately wiped by the mass media makes a certain amount of sense, wouldn't you say?

The film drops the audience right in their dystopia--workers at a television studio are starting a broadcast called Sportsex, talking in impenetrable slang about how they hate the slack-jawed morons in the audience but have to watch them watch television to get the equipment calibrated correctly for the broadcast. All the performers on the show (and the people in the Future BBC Command Center) are wearing clothing with patterns and what were undoubtedly loud colors, while the numbly staring audience members are in white smocks; for that matter, the people on the show itself--men and women--are wearing jewels affixed to their faces in addition to Vegas-style costumes. Perhaps they're not just showing off conspicuous wealth with their adornments, but also giving the people watching them something shiny to look at moment-by-moment.

Nat Mender--the guy who takes his job very seriously even as he finds himself repulsed by the audience he's tracking--gets teased by announcer and television personality Misch (I guess she's got one name, like Cher or Madonna); some of the audience members he's looking at have to be thirty years old, if you can believe that, their skin shiny and worn compared to the youthful directors in the command booth. Then it's time for the broadcast to start, with Misch dropping tidbits about the competitors while teasing the upcoming event and reminding the Sportsex audience that the winners of the national events go on to the next Sex Olympics. This scene really suffers from the black-and-white transfer; it looks like the announcer and most of the competitors are wearing garish makeup that doesn't translate at all when it's in B/W.

The film shows its prescience when Nat gets a call on his wristwatch while at work and gets distracted. Then the starting buzzer sounds and the contestants (heard but not seen) go to work; another man in the broadcast booth starts critiquing everyone's technique while moans and gasps flood the soundtrack. Tellingly, none of the three workers in the broadcast booth are aroused by anything; they're just trying to get the show sent out without any technical hiccups. The test audience of proletariat are being monitored for their reactions and one of the teams gets disqualified and dropped from Sexsport for being too appealing to them. Nat states that the guiding principle for the show is "apathy control", though exactly what that means is currently not explained. The other man in the control booth says their job is to keep things cool:  "Cool the audience, cool the world". I'm not certain that a live sex show would have that effect on its viewers, but if they're used to it then perhaps it's just boring audiovisual wallpaper.

Nat clarifies what the apathy control principle contains a moment later--the future BBC is showing impossibly beautiful people making love perfectly as a way to get their audience to think of sex as something to watch rather than to perform on their own (or, perhaps more accurately, with someone else). The audience-monitoring camera screen shows a bunch of people bored and chewing gum, looking out at the viewer as they catch another episode of Sexsport, so it looks like Nat knows what he's doing.

When Ugo Priest, the department head of Future BBC Thing, shows up to complain about the poor showing from that disqualified team and learns that Misch picked them to perform and Nat didn't go through all the proper channels with his boss before putting them on the air. He brings Nat outside of the control booth for a friendly boss-to-subordinate chat and we get a little more information about the future society when there's a free dispenser of some kind of drugs called "Brighteners" in the hallway and both Nat and Priest partake while on the job (and the long shots reveal that both men are wearing what could best be described as Nehru jacket dresses; apparently the most decadent thing that the BBC could think of in 1968). The Brightener packet is a marvel of production design--it's a little tube with a baby bottle nipple on the end so a user has to suck the goo out of it to get whatever effect they're supposed to get. But it also looks amazingly incongruous to have two grown men sucking on baby bottles while discussing their jobs (and we learn from Nat that "vice" is a word that's distinctly out of fashion in the year Sooner Than You Think; apparently when everything is permitted, nothing's considered particularly immoral). Two other words that Turner can't ever recall hearing before in his life come up in this conversation:  "pornography" and "censor".

Priest also implies that concern about overpopulation was one of the principles behind apathy control, and that "watch, not do" would be a guiding philosophy that would keep the second-tier humans of the future from causing too much trouble for their society or their betters. While musing about the past that he can remember and Nat never knew, Priest also points out that there are "old-style" words with too many syllables and too much nuance to them, explaining "vicarious" as "this for that" when the younger man--who has shown himself to be smart and capable in an amazingly difficult and high-pressure job--doesn't have the faintest idea what it means. The future society isn't entirely dystopian, though, another word that Nat can't define further than "a kind of tension" is "war".

Priest is protecting one of his own interests during this chat--he's the one who got Nat placed into the job he's got, and with the Sex Olympics coming up that year he wants to make sure that his subordinate doesn't make him look bad in front of a global audience. Nat gets another call From Deanie; their son is sick and he begs off from his boss to go take care of his child (with, surprisingly enough, Priest's blessing). Then the camera cuts to "The Hungry Angry Show", with two shirtless fat middle-aged men scooping pie filling up from massive piles and either eating it or throwing it at each other. I expect this would get at least a half-season order on TLC in 2014. Deanie's the one in charge of the pie-throwing and eating show; the audience sampler shows a crowd that looks just as bored watching slapstick pie fights and gluttony as they did watching attractive people having sex.

Nat reveals more about the world while he's talking at Deanie; the proletariat outnumber the elites two hundred to one; at least some of the reasoning behind keeping them placid and watching television all the time is to control overpopulation and protect the people running the world. Watching it in 2014, I do think I'm possibly watching a play about how the 1% would view themselves, though I find it hard to accept that Roger Ailes would willingly rock a minidress and medallion while he's telling his employees what to do. We also get a piece of Nigel Kneale-created NewSpeak while Nat talks about his feelings for the audience:  The placid dupes that watch TV and get taken care of are "low-drives" while the people who run the government and media are "high-drives". This appears to be inborn in the film's universe; Deanie says that the child she had with Nat is testing low on the metabolic scale and she suspects they've produced a low-drive daughter. Nat's furious; he can't conceive of that possibility playing out. During a talk with Deanie's new man he says they were "picked", but not what for; the new guy understands instantly so there's either a fertility lottery in the future or some kind of selection process.

Kin Hodder, the new guy, is experiencing a crisis of conscience without the vocabulary or introspective nature to understand what's happening to him; he asks Nat to give him a reason to keep working on the second-tier show Artsex and to keep propping up the system with his efforts. He's also had about a dozen Brighteners and causes a minor stir when he says he wants tension, as opposed to the society that he works to maintain (which avoids all possibilities of any kind of "tension", all the time). He's also got a barely articulated idea that making some kind of fixed art rather than flickering televised image might soothe his soul. By implication, this means that the only arts in existence are the ones shown on TV to keep the world docile and stupid. And Kin also finds that he wants to share whatever new art he's able to make with the world, including the low-drives--who might or might not be able to appreciate it, or even understand why someone would make a picture that doesn't change or flicker.

Kin stops by Nat and Misch's place and intteruptus their second attempt at coitus that evening; he's brought some pictures he's drawn that he wants to show off (Misch:  "But how can they be pictures if they're not moving?"). They're all portraits with screaming mouths and bulging or hollow black eyes; Misch is appalled and Nat finds that he wants to see more of them--he describes viewing them as "like something you remember, but you've never seen". But he refuses to help Kin set up a viewing for other people to look at the artwork, at least partly because he thinks that Misch's reaction would be shared by anyone else who looks at the pictures, high-drive or low.

The next day Nat and Misch meet with their nine-year-old daughter Keten after the governmental aptitude test that's probably meant to suggest the General Certificate for Education; she's overjoyed at the thought of having tested so low that she's done with math forever (not that she understands exactly what anyone was telling her when she got this news); Keten also says she likes listening to stories more than making them up for herself and generally comes across as a bit dim, but very enthusiastic and kind. Nat's incensed; for one thing, if his offspring is considered defective it goes on his "record", and one can safely assume that just as the high-drive and low-drive populations are kept in a strict hierarchy, there are stratifications among the high-drive as well.

Later on, Nat's in a funk while Misch does a burlesque dance along with that day's Artsex broadcast, asking the distracted and distant Nat whether or not he thinks she'd be better at the show than the talent currently on the screen. This gets interrupted by one of Kin's paintings, which distresses Misch enough that she has a screaming fit (and the low-drive audience gets interested and upset by it as well, with their levels remaining upset for another full day after the pirate signal break-in). The picture's plenty creepy in black and white, but I do wonder what it looked like in full color.

Priest stops by the control booth to gently question Nat about whether or not he told Kin to put his pictures on display--and Deanie's there to replace Misch, who is still in shock after getting a look at the picture on her wall-sized TV screen (but not so catatonic with fear that she can't narc on Nat as someone who saw the artwork before Kin broadcast it). Good news for Nat--his boss believes that he had nothing to do with the signal hijack. But unfortunately Priest cannot have missed Nat's enthusiasm for the pictures. And it's absolutely bad news for Kin that the Co-Ordinator gets told by Nat that the artist said he wanted tension. Which is, of course, the one thing the world society is managed in order to minimize.

His later talks with Priest show Nat struggling to articulate what he feels when he's never learned any of the words that would help him describe what's going on in his mind. And Priest, for all his experience and wisdom, can't help Nat because he doesn't have the firsthand experience or emotion that the other man is feeling ("I remember--well, I don't, but I remember the people who did remember before we got apathy control"). He gets a soliloquy about how desperately the world needed to be taken in hand and all the tensions of life diluted, where it's explained to Nat (and the audience) that the process of lowering tension worldwide was done gently, gradually and without coercion. So at least the brave new world that Nat and Priest are in was one created without killing or imprisoning those people that wouldn't go along with its creation. They just got seduced by the numbness of the new system, one by one.

Priest stops by the control booth for Sportsex to explain a new finding from the computer (that he happily agrees with). It turns out that the low-drives do need some kind of stimulus, but one that won't lead to tension. They need to laugh--which is also low-key abdominal exercise. But they don't find the slapstick excesses of "The Hungry Angry Show" worth laughing at, so something new is going to have to be developed. The first attempt is just a bunch of people in clown makeup throwing pies and dumping buckets of water on each other, with the occasional pratfall. The low-drives aren't having any of it; they're just as uninterested in the frenetic zaniness as they were in watching people screw or throw pie filling around. I did crack a sour smile at the protective gear that Priest and Deanie were wearing while filming it; their suits made it look like they might have thought clowning was contagious or radioactive.

In the control booth for Sportsex, Priest drops by before a show and winds up talking about humor and why people laugh with Nat (who has Misch and his other coworker pegged--Misch finds anyone that isn't like her ridiculous and amusing, while the other guy in the broadcast booth likes to see someone other than him get inconvenienced or embarrassed). Priest says it's the "fruit skin" principle. When you see someone else slip and fall on a fruit skin you laugh because it wasn't happening to you. Misch's attempt at wordplay and silliness fails to stir any kind of reaction from the low-drives as well. But when Kin Hodder tries to break in live and show his artwork to the viewers, he slips and has a fatal drop from the rope he was hanging from; it's caught live by the cameras and sent worldwide instantaneously. And, finally, something gets a laugh out of the low-drives watching as the test audience. Ugo Priest says, ominously enough, that they just found the fruit skin to amuse the proles.

In the wake of the fatal broadcast, Nat is stricken--he thinks he helped get an innocent man killed, while Priest thinks that they've found the next great leap forward for apathy control. The low-drives saw something unexpected and fatal, are glad it isn't them, and they have a great big laugh. The perfect solution to the problem of trying to get the brain-numbed organ bags to have a big giggle, and Kin Hodder had to die in order for the solution to present itself. While discussing how to duplicate that reaction without killing someone off on TV every night with Priest and the others in the control booth, Nat comes up with a possibility:  Putting people in an old-world situation where nothing was planned and anything could happen. The audience watching it would be amused by any mishaps and subtly educated about the old ways and why they needed to be abandoned during the lulls in the action. And somewhere along the line it turns out that Nat and Deanie have decided they want to be the "performers" for this brand new type of show (much to Misch's dismay).

Priest runs the pertinent variables through the computers and comes up with an island location that's not too hot or cold, but where both Nat and Deanie will have to work for their survival--building fires, making shelter to keep the weather out and growing or hunting their own food (at some considerable risk; without the danger, the program will be worthless to the network because the low-drives won't want to watch it). Nat is thrilled, since he's got a way to try something utterly new and also channel his growing discontent with his society into helping it. Priest does try to warn the pair that the isolation from their society and comfort will be something they won't know how to deal with at all. But as Nat points out, in the regimented world that's been built for them, nobody knows anyone else. Or even themselves. For the chance to really connect with Deanie and with his own soul, Nat's willing to take the risk.

The preparations for the show are made; it turns out that Nat's second in command (whose name will eventually be revealed as Lasar Opie) will be in charge of things on the technical side. The island's going to be wired for picture and sound with multiple hidden cameras, and once the pair of "performers" are living on their own they won't be in contact with anyone back in the advanced world. It'll be called The Live Life Show and it's going to broadcast continually, 24 hours a day, on its own special channel. Nat and Deanie pick up their daughter and try to explain to her that they're all going to be leaving for somewhere else, and that their living arrangement is something that can only be explained with an old-time word that nobody uses any more:  "family".

On the island, there's an old stone house provided for the trio to live in; they take a moment to marvel at what grass looks like on the ground, and Nat leaves to haul all their necessary gear inside. A small audio device gives Nat instructions about how to set a fire (which he's never had to do in his life) and other ProTips on living out on his own for the show. He's thrilled at things like feeling the wind on his skin--which he's also never experienced--and doesn't quite have the words to explain what the clear glass panels on the wall are, or why the view from them never changes like all the other screens that he, Deanie and Keten have seen at every other point in their lives.

The first night, Keten can't sleep because the wind outside is making her anxious, and Nat and Deanie talk about their finite and dwindling supplies; neither one of them knows how to make more candles, for example, and they need to plant their vegetable garden if they're going to have anything to eat once their rations run out (I also think this part of the planning was pretty slapdash; on the other hand, it's not like the network won't be able to tell if the family's going to need another supply drop and it isn't in their economic interest to watch the three starve to death). Deanie finds herself thinking about the main camera in the ceiling and dislikes being watched all the time; Nat and her retire to bed and snuggle for warmth. And Deanie expresses her faith in Nat as well as her own abilities to make things work before they drift off.

The next morning Nat surveys the area, finding a flock of sheep placed on the island for their eventual use as food and skins; the audio instructions tell him to kill them, which is a word that makes Deanie melancholy and Keten's never heard it before. The trio explores the island, which has steep rocky cliffs at one point (and a really great shot, where the camera keeps pulling back and back and back to show the family as tiny little specks on the outcropping; whatever percentage of the film's budget went into that one shot, it was worth it--after seeing the three claustrophobic city sets for more than an hour it's a breathtaking sight). When they get back to the cabin, Nat points out the vegetable plot that's been started, and Deanie's delighted to think that they can feed themselves without having to kill rabbits or sheep.

And back in the cabin there's two people waiting for them--a man named Grels and a woman that doesn't get properly introduced; the man says he lives on the other side of the island and saw the film crew setting things up for The Live Life Show. The man promises to teach Nat how to catch seafood and survive in their situation, but when the pair leaves Nat accosts the main camera and tells Lasar that they had a deal, and nobody else was supposed to be on the island. In the control booth, Priest asks Lasar what's going on and the showrunner tells him that something has to happen on The Live Life Show in order to give it a sense of narrative; Grels is the setup for that. Both Nat and Priest mention that there was a deal in place; looks like Lasar doesn't particularly care about that.

Grels and Nat work together to harvest crabs and edible plants and pick up driftwood for the stone house's fireplace; their activities would be as new to the studio audience as they would be for Nat, which means that in a way the low-drive audience and the high-drive performer would have something in common. Back in the cabin, Keten's been injured. She saw something--or someone--outside and fell against the rocks while trying to find out what was going on. The wound is too severe for anything that Nat or Deanie can deal with, and Nat smashes the ceiling camera in rage when he realizes that his daughter's injury and possible death is a laugh for the audiences at home.

Which is why it's so worrying that Lasar switches to the secondary, hidden cameras in the house and tells Priest that the real show can start now that Nat thinks he's not being observed. Back at the house, Grels is nailing boards over the windows and telling the woman with him, Betty, to boil crabs for everyone. Grels says he's been on the island for as long as he can remember and for all the viewer knows he's telling the truth. He's certainly handy with his gaffer hook and strides around like he owns the place.

At night, Keten wants a story from her father, but his life has left him utterly incapable of telling one, or making up a fiction. He gives it his best shot but tapers off when he realizes he can't figure out how to make a narrative. But he does tell his daughter "I like you" over and over--the closest thing that the language of his society has for how he feels. She drifts off to sleep as he keeps repeating the simple phrase.

Back in the control room, Lasar is watching the audience watch the show, and realizing that the low-drives are fully capable of handling "tension"--that for the first time, they look engaged and interested with the program rather than just bored. He's got a certain mad-scientist gleam in his eye as he realizes that they might not just tolerate tension in their televised narcotics--it looks like they actually want it. And they'll have plenty to work with--Keten's wound is going bad and she's got a fever. The only thing Nat knows to do is build up a fire to keep his daughter warm and when Deanie goes outside to get water she gets startled by Grels, sleeping in their doorway. Nat is happy to see the other man, because he's utterly out of his depth with Keten's fever but when he asks Grels for assistance he just gets a blank stare in return. When Grels finally does speak, it's to say that Betty's gone, and that she might have fallen down to the rocks while gathering gull eggs. But when he's saying this, it sounds more like he's trying to come up with a plausible story than to explain something that happened.

And when we get another look at the control room, we find out what Grels' story really is. He killed his partner in the Sex Olympics a dozen years ago and was exiled onto the island for lack of any other ways to deal with him. Both Priest and Lasar have a stiff, nervous chuckle about how unfortunate it was that Grels didn't commit rape and murder on camera, because it would have been a massive boost for the ratings. And Lasar exults in the emotions on display in the cabin, with Deanie displaying rage, terror, despair, worry and pain while watching her daughter get sicker and seeing Nat incapable of helping her. And, as Lasar says with a TV-megawattage grin, it looks like soon enough they're going to see an old-time emotion called "grief". And he's right; as Keten doesn't make it through the night and Deanie and Nat struggle to articulate their feelings to each other--they might be high-drive but they were raised in a society that never prepared them for the situation they're in.

The audience finds it hysterically funny, though, so at least their child's death wasn't a total loss. The camera zooms in from afar while they're digging the grave for Keten, the frame intruding on their grief voyeuristically. The audio device says after filling in the grave there's nothing more to be done, but Deanie silently places a driftwood marker for her child. And during the impromptu ceremony they hear rocks clattering; Deanie returns to the house where Grels is waiting--and the door slams shut once she's inside. She screams as Nat tries to break the door down with the firewood-cutting axe, and when he finally makes his way inside he strikes Grels dozens of times, leaving him a blood-spattered ruin on the cabin floor (and the blocking of this scene is amazing--the attack is shown via the viewscreen in the broadcast control room, so it's framed in a way that diegetically prevents the audience from seeing the axe actually strike another person and lets Tony Vogel let loose with insane fury without having to worry about hitting anybody else during the shoot).

His homicidal rage and grief are the absolute funniest thing that the low-drive audience has ever seen, but better than that, the high-drive people in the control room are laughing just as hard. It's a smash hit, the ratings are at their peak, and Lasar announces via voiceover that another series of The Live Life Show will be starting soon while Priest shivers and mutters to himself, wondering what they've done.

What an amazing film, and what a way to absolutely not deliver on that title in the best way imaginable. Nigel Kneale, from what this movie tells me, must have absolutely hated his job writing for the BBC. Or, at least, he hated the aspects of it that had to be made accessible to the lowest common denominator. I can see how that would give him ulcers--the creator of Bernard Quatermass having to write scripts that the original audience for Benny Hill would like is making me a little nauseous just from thinking about it. It's a damned shame that I can't see what the goofy-ass costumes all looked like in color, but even in its bonsai form on DVD it's really worth checking out. I hope the people who tuned in back in 1968 expecting something titillating got their feelings hurt SO BAD. It's a scathing, brutal indictment of the loathsome tastes of the television audience out there, and an even more excoriating look at the professionals who pander to them for money. I thought I was going to be watching 100 minutes of Nigel Kneale griping about youth culture and wanting people to get off his lawn. He was much more interested in burning every bridge between him and the television industry that he could reach. I hope he enjoyed the taste of the hand that fed him.



This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for movies beginning with today’s letter are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  You're Next

Yes, I Know:  The Yellow Sign