Monday, December 8, 2014
Sunday, November 30, 2014
Checkpoint Telstar wishes to thank Cora Buhlert for supplying German sociocultural information relevant to this review.
Screenplay by Bernd Lichtenberg and Wolfgang Becker (with contributions by Achim von Borries, Hendrik Handloegten and Christoph Silber)
Directed by Wolfgang Becker
Daniel Brühl: Alex Kerner
Katrin Saß: Christiane Kerner
Maria Simon: Ariane Kerner
Chulpan Khamatova: Lara
Florian Lukas: Denis
Stefan Walz: Sigmund Jähn
Once more into the breach between East and West Berlin, dear readers. Since the Berlin Wall was dismantled twenty-five years ago this month, El Santo at 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting asked if I'd like to go in on some Cold War movie reviews to mark the time on our metaphorical calendars. I wish I'd thought of this earlier, because I only managed to get movies from the 1950s and 1960s reviewed during November; I certainly think something from Peter Watkins for the seventies and Val Kilmer as a hypergenius slacker at Cal Tech would have fit the bill nicely.
But enough about regrets. Onward to the future.
This film, if you're an American, is an obscure arthouse comedy from Germany starring the guy who would later be the sniper / war hero in Inglourious Basterds and the antagonist Formula 1 driver in Rush (and who will hopefully be raising his profile considerably when he's in Captain America: Civil War in a couple years). If you're German, it's the third-highest-grossing native film in your country's history. Not knowing about it would be like a United Statesian being unaware of Jaws. One of the reasons it was so resonant with German audiences would have to be the way it addressed the German national character; it's a home-grown movie about domestic concerns. I'm sure that there are subtleties and references I won't even remotely get because I just don't have the cultural background to do so. For that matter, high school German was a long, long time ago and Frau Tate was a semi-competent teacher at best. Mostly I'll be reading the subtitles and hoping that I understand the deep structure of the film.
Alex Kerner is a young man in East Berlin--but the first we see of him is home movie footage from the late 70s (I'm enough of a cult movie geek to note that the year of his summer-vacation film clip is the same as Dawn of the Dead's theatrical release). He appears to be a perfectly happy child, and like many kids in the Cold War, he's a big fan of the space program. Sigmund Jähn, the first German into space, is a particular favorite of his. And on the day that Jähn becomes the first Deutschlander into space, plainclothes officers from the Stasi are asking Alex's mom about his father's travels out of Germany. Alex's dad defects to the West, with the ten-years-older Alex fuming over the way his father rejected his family to sleep with an "enemy of the state" in capitalist Europe. His mother takes the betrayal far worse than Alex does; she spends two months catatonic in a psychiatric hospital that is exactly as cheery and warm as "East German mental health facility" suggests.
When Alex's mother returns home she amputates his absent father from her life; among other things, she sends his clothes off in a sack with SOLIDARITY WITH MOZAMBIQUE stenciled on it. According to the voiceover, Alex's mother decided she was married to the Deutsche Demokratische Republik instead. He doesn't have a father any more, but his mother is devoted to the fatherland. She becomes very involved in the East German equivalent of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts (and the communist organization seems more enlightened about gender inclusion than the Western European or American youth organizations; there's kids of both genders singing songs and going to summer camp together in the home movie footage).
Her efforts to swim with the tide result in, among other things, an award for exemplary citizenship at a nationally televised ceremony. Alex seems to be accepting this new reality, becoming very attached to his mother and still dreaming of space and rockets--hoping some day to be the second German in space. It's probably very important to note that Jähn is never referred to as the first East German to travel into space; he's a German first and a member of the political system second. Looking down at Earth he wouldn't be able to see any political borders; the Berlin Wall is utterly invisible from orbit.
Ten years later, Alex is an aimless young man working at a TV repair shop and lounging around on a park bench on his day off as East Germany prepares for its 40th anniversary celebrations (the contrast between the slouching dude stifling a burp on the bench and the voiceover declaring Alex was "at the height of his masculine allure" is amusing, but it also lets us know that Alex doesn't have all that many illusions about where his life ended up and how he's living it). He's in an apartment in a tower block, living with his mother and his older sister Ariane (and his sister's infant daughter Paula), in a room full of spare electronic parts and posters for rock groups probably not approved by the Central Committee. What appears to be actual period footage of the East German Army marching by the review stands contrasts later with Alex and hundreds of other young activists taking to the streets to protest in favor of democracy.
During this protest march (for "the right to go for walks without the Wall getting in the way", according to Alex's understated and sardonic commentary), two important things happen--when Alex starts choking on a bite of an apple he brought along as a snack a pretty young student nurse from Russia named Lara whacks him on the back till he spits it out, and they click once they get a look at each other. That's the good news. The bad news is that scads of police show up to corral the protesters at first, and then to beat the tar out of them with riot batons. Alex's mom is in a taxicab trying to get to the 40th Anniversary ceremony in East Berlin but gets blocked by police trucks and has to get out to take the subway to get to the event. Which is why she gets to see her youngest child as he's snagged by a pair of police, a shock so jarring to her that she collapses to the ground. Alex tries to run to her when he sees this, and gets tossed in the back of a transport truck as prelude to a punitive beating. But his mom is listed high enough on the Party org chart that he gets pulled out of the cell where the protesters are kept and released so he can get to the hospital and find out what's going on. His sister and the doctor give him the lowdown: His mom had a heart attack, CPR wasn't performed quickly but she did survive, albeit in a coma. The doctor can't tell Alex or his sister whether or not their mother will ever wake up.
Frau Kerner remains in her coma for a highly significant nine months; during that time the head of the Communist Party in East Germany resigns, the Berlin Wall is torn apart and the Cold War judders to a halt, symbolized to the world by the two parts of Germany reuniting to become a new nation--no longer a divided pair of countries sharing an internal border, but a new Germany that will proceed into the future as one place, just as Sigmund Jähn was a Deutschlander, not an Ostie or a Westie when he was in space. It's tempting to use mental illness as a descriptor here, with Germany suffering a decade-long psychotic break followed by the paranoid split personalities of the Cold War countries. Now that there's a brand new nation put together, it remains to be seen just what kind of nation it will be, and how the two different Germanies will work with each other to make it that nation.
History is occurring daily in front of him, although Alex is more concerned with something much more personal at the time. While the news clips that I'm sure are utterly iconic to an actual German (rather than an American who was properly awed by the peaceful reunification of the two parts of Germany but who only saw the highlights on TV) play out his mother sleeps on in the coma. Ariane gets a job as a cog in the great capitalist machine (becoming Employee of the Month at an East Berlin Burger King, as well as dating her boss, the "class enemy" who manages the franchise). Rainer, the fast food manager, moves into the tiny apartment to be closer to Ariane, leading to a great reaction shot when Alex observes them belly dancing in their underwear and decides he doesn't want any part of that. It's a great sequence, counterpointing the changes to the nation and to the flat at the same time.
Alex also meets Lara again after accidentally knocking the drip line out of his mom's IV bottle; it looks like she shows up in his life during medical situations. Which makes sense; she's a nurse. I'm certain that having a Soviet student nurse named Lara in the film is a Dr. Zhivago reference, but I don't know enough about the German take on that movie to make much out of it. At any rate, Alex continues visiting his mother at the hospital but makes sure to do it on days that Lara is going to be on duty. He's quite attracted to Lara but doesn't make any moves towards her, at least partly because everything else in his life is getting shaken up. The TV repair shop closes and Alex gets a job installing satellite dishes (the logo of the company looking very similar to the hammer and sickle); the installation manager picks names out of buckets labeled O and W (for Ost und West) to put crews together--doing his little part for unification. Alex is paired with a film fanatic named Denis and they hit it off pretty well.
What with the new job (and the implied lack of support from the new German welfare state as opposed to the old Communist one), Alex can't visit the hospital as much as he wanted to for either reason. He rigs up a tape deck to a timer and narrates an audio diary for his mother, which is more for Alex's good than hers at this point but also lets Lara see what kind of person he is if she's around when the timer hits 5 PM and the tape starts up. Eventually they go see some kind of techno performance art Teutonic version of GWAR at a nightclub and again I flounder as I wonder if the German audiences would recognize these goofs or if they're just as obscure in their homeland as they are in United Statesia. When the pair sneaks off to hang out in an art installation and not listen to the band for a while Alex and Lara chat for a while and our young protagonist shows that he's utterly inexperienced at doobie smoking (one wouldn't typically think of the USSR as a hotbed of youth in revolt, but Lara's handling the smoke a lot better).
When he's not working, dating Lara or worrying about his mother, Alex hangs out with Denis (whose Matrix-code shirt is part of an elaborate joke cut out of the movie; just roll with it). Denis, scraping up a little extra cash like a good class enemy, has a job shooting birthday and wedding videos but what he really wants to do is direct. He's got his own kitbashed editing studio in his apartment and he's actually got some talent (view the bouquet-tossing at an outdoor wedding that turns into a Kubrick homage and be amazed). As it turns out, Alex never saw the movie that Denis is referencing; East Germany and the rest of the Communist world was extremely careful about letting Western cultural artifacts in through official channels and our protagonist isn't a big enough pop culture junkie to track stuff like that down on the black market.
Months pass and Alex starts to fit into the new routine, though he's completely aware of how much everything has changed. The day he finally takes the initiative and makes a romantic move on Lara at the hospital happens to be the very moment that his mother comes out of her coma. The physician tells Alex and Ariane the good news--it's a minor miracle that their mother ever regained consciousness. The bad news is twofold: nobody spends that much time in a coma without some kind of long-term mental damage; at this point, the extent of Christiane's deterioration is unknown but memory loss and confusion are the likeliest possibilities. The doctor then drops another bombshell: It's almost certain that Alex's mother isn't going to live more than another month or so, and another heart attack will definitely kill her. The doctor warns Alex that he's got to protect his mom from any kind of excitement, which will put fatal stress on her heart. Alex realizes instantly that he's got to bring Frau Kerner home to the flat; at the hospital she'll find out that there isn't an East Germany any more and that will certainly be enough of a jolt to end her life. The doctor agrees and one jump cut later plans are being made to bring Christiane home (although I'm not certain how much information she's been given about exactly what's going on).
Alex turns out to be a really shitty liar; instead of telling his mother what actually happened, he comes up with an instantly transparent lie about her collapsing in a shopping queue due to the heat, in October. In East Berlin. Back at the flat, there's a three-directional argument between the two siblings and Rainer, Ariane's new guy. Alex's plan is simple and desperate: To the best extent possible, shield his mother from the social and political changes in the world by fixing her bedroom up the way it was back when the Communist bloc hadn't fallen apart. She's going to be bedridden anyway, and her memory problems and assorted other mental-clarity issues are going to probably make it more possible to carry off the deception than one would think.
Denis gets dragooned into helping put the bedroom back together in a sped-up sequence set to a synthesizer version of The William Tell Overture; it looks like Kubrick references follow that character around like a faithful dog. Also, good on him for helping move a bunch of furniture up to the eighth floor of an apartment block when the elevator's busted. As the move-in date approaches, Alex also goes to charity shops to rebuild the East German wardrobe that he and Ariane discarded once Western products were available (though Alex himself, as a quietly rebellious guy, had a Levi jean jacket even when he was in East Berlin rather than just Berlin). He talks to the new doctor at the hospital--the old one having taken off for Dusseldorf as soon as was practical--and is kind of a snot to him about responsibility and duty to the nation. Which means the guy probably enjoys it a little more than usual when he demonstrates the proper CPR-at-home method to Alex by thumping him on the chest with vigor and abandon.
The big day arrives and Alex seems to be pretty out of his depth instantaneously; even the radio news bulletins in the ambulance are talking about things like switching East German currency to Deutsche marks. But after a couple minor hitches (like trying to make sure his mom doesn't see a neighbor wearing bright capitalist clothing) he gets her installed in the bedroom and safe from the outside world. Now his real task begins. For as long as her life lasts, Alex is going to make sure that his mother doesn't realize the sweeping changes that have gone through every aspect of German life and culture. It means dressing like a real goofball (I assume the clothing is authentically Communist), and also making sure that the radio is busted but the tape deck works; after all, he can control what cassettes make it into the apartment. It's an inversion of the usual family dynamic--Alex, the son, taking care of his mother. But he's going to protect her from finding out the truth, no matter what it takes.
The problems start immediately--from the small (the East German pickles his mom wants as a snack are no longer available now that competing Western stores have opened in his Berlin neighborhood) to the huge (his mother cannot remember where she stashed her bank book, and there's less than two weeks remaining to swap East German currency for the unified German marks). Alex turns out to be rather resourceful when he has to be. I don't think I would have had the patience to repackage all the various foods into old bottles, cans and jars even if I'd thought of the deception. But Alex is really applying himself to the project. The next difficulty pops up when his mother says she feels guilty for the round-the-clock care and asks Alex to set a television up in her bedroom so she has something to watch. The siblings also try to get power of attorney over Frau Kerner's bank account--in actuality so they can swap the East German money for the new currency, but in order to sell the story they claim their state-manufactured Trabant is ready for pickup after only three years on a waiting list. Alex's mom doesn't sign the paper and does tell Alex and Ariane a little secret--she didn't keep her money in a bank. But she can't quite remember where it's stashed in the flat and neither sibling is willing to push the issue too far out of concern for her health.
The geopolitical realities being what they are, a great many former East Germans are abandoning ship and moving elsewhere; this means that Lara and Alex can occupy an apartment abandoned by someone apparently more influential and powerful than the Kerner family--the place, which appears to be a swinging bachelor pad, is larger than the flat shared by Alex, Ariane and their mother. Lara is thrilled to find the phone still works there; Alex can't believe his luck when he sees a bunch of Communist-era packaged foods in the cupboards. The apartment even has a balcony; none of the windows in the gigantic tower block where the Kerners live have balconies. The apartment scenes also have a great sight gag where Alex helps Lara with her homework, which means that he gets stuck in the bathtub with a plaster cast on three limbs. This is almost certainly not what he expected to have happen when she made that request.
Alex decides to pick Denis' brains about what to do in order to prevent news of the world leaking into his mother's presence when she's watching TV; Denis says just showing the old programs again would probably work, since the Communist countries never really changed anything up and never had up-to-date equipment when making the shows. It seems to me that Denis is a relative rarity in the West, in that he was familiar with the East German programs. Maybe he liked them for the camp value, or just liked seeing what the Soviet bloc was doing. I never really thought of it before, but it's likely that the West Berlin channels could be watched in the East and vice versa. The two halves of the city were too close together for it to be any other way. Rigging up the television to show programming that his mom will be able to safely watch is one thing; the other is that her birthday is coming up and the neighbors will be invited, just like every year. And all of them have to be briefed about what conversational topics must be avoided (which is basically everything happening in the country and the world).
Alex finds capitalism to be quite useful in continuing the deception, bribing a pair of kids 20 marks to sing old East German youth organization songs as part of the celebration. This sequence also puts a human face on the old guard. People who were Alex's age or younger when East Germany became a political entity are now told that everything is different now (true) and better (possibly not). The East German constitution promised a job for every worker, and in the brave new world that isn't true. Not only are the older teachers and principals out of a job, but during one of their gripe sessions they mention the troubles their kids are having looking for steady work in the unified Germany. In the scene where Alex talks to the principal at the school where his mother taught, he displays a steel and resolve almost completely absent from his personality at any other time--it's now safe to criticize someone more powerful than you in East Berlin, and he makes the most of the opportunity.
The birthday party goes off rather well (Rainer the Burger King manager commits to a Method performance, passing himself off as a buyer for a chain of restaurants that existed in the Communist days but no longer does--he also wears goofy-looking plaid-accented Western wear that I'm guessing is the height of fashion for his status and rank and has a remarkably goofy haircut. He even takes detailed notes on his faked autobiography in case any questions come up. And the old principal of the school where Alex's mom taught stays sober enough to not embarrass himself at the shindig--he's one of the characters that takes to the new world rather badly, having unexpectedly found himself consigned to the ash heap of history--which had been the fate predicted for capitalism, not the Marxist-Leninist system he'd lived under since he was a child. And he gets a chance to tell Frau Kerner how much she should have been appreciated by the system when she worked there. Even there Alex is on a tightrope without a net, hoping that the gaps in reality don't become too noticeable for his mom (and the kids who learned their properly Socialist songs do a fine job, and get paid). It all seems to have gone off without a hitch until the gigantic red banner is unfurled on a building that Alex's mother can see from her bed, and instead of a gigantic DDR slogan it's the logo for Coca-Cola, the single most imperialist and class-enemy carbonated beverage.
Before I go any farther, I'd like to praise the movie here, because it's as good a spot as any, for treating all of its characters sympathetically and for all of them being nice people underneath it all. Even the one-note characters like Herr Ganske, grumbling about how dire things are in the new world when he sees Alex looking for old produce jars in a trash bin, have moments where their concerns are taken seriously by the film and the filmmakers. It cannot be easy to shift gears after four decades of life in one system and try to do things completely differently over the course of a single year. But everyone pitches in to keep the deception going and to help Alex protect his mother. Rainer even buys a Trabant rather than a BMW to keep the charade going, and that's a sacrifice worthy of legend. As the article in that link will tell you, "Trabant" means "satellite" in German, so even though it's one of the worst car models ever built I have a certain affection for them.
Even with the affection the film has for its characters and respect for the difficult situation they're in, I don't think it's ever guilty of sugarcoating the regime in East Germany. The buildings are all crumbling and dingy (and in the inevitable return to the hospital, the capitalist system has brighter lights, better equipment and obvious significant improvements in everything visible to the audience). The scenes of people throwing Stasi records out the windows of the headquarters and of the Berlin Wall coming down are presented as unquestionably good, not as ambiguous events. I'm guessing that's one of the other reasons that it was such a smash hit in Germany--it understands what both sides were going through during the year of reunification and sympathizes with both the East and the West. Like Sigmund Jahn in space, or the successful all-German soccer team in the World Cup, it's a movie about Germans--not about East Germans and West Germans.
Back to the narrative--Denis has gone through the national archives of the former East Germany and taped dozens of hours of programming, setting up a system where Alex can have a series of normal "broadcast days" going whenever the TV is on and at least at the beginning of the scheme, his mother doesn't really notice the difference (a commercial about setting up satellite dishes in East Berlin is explained away as "interference", which might well be something that happened a lot on German television). And to start explaining things like that ten-story Coca-Cola logo outside the bedroom window, Denis becomes even more invaluable to the scheme. Frau Kerner has never met him and has no idea what he looks like, so with a bad haircut, a stick-on moustache and a powder-blue suit jacket he looks exactly like anyone else on the news and he can create "special news bulletins" that get dropped into the existing programs with increasing frequency as Alex's scheme turns out to be increasingly unsustainable (and, to Lara, creepy). To hear Denis and Alex explain it, there was a patent-law case proving that Coca-Cola was stolen from an East German chemist and now the drink is officially Communist instead of American.
After the Coca-Cola news break, Alex's mother remembers where she hid her life savings--it's in a piece of furniture that was taken out of the apartment to be hauled away; thankfully, the capitalist garbagemen haven't gotten there yet and Alex gets to rifle through all the abandoned furniture looking for the money. Naturally, Herr Ganske shows up just in time to grump that they've been driven to a new low by the switch to the new system, and wonder what use there was to working for forty years to build a Socialist paradise. Alex misses the deadline as it is, and the bank teller informs him that they would have had to make special arrangements to exchange paper currency instead of bank book records at any rate. Understandably, Alex loses his temper and gets thrown out of the bank. That night he scatters the worthless banknotes off a roof and, at Lara's insistence, engages in some primal scream therapy. Just as he lets out a bellow, fireworks fill the sky. The reunified German soccer team won the World Cup (having "exceeded their production target", according to Alex). His mom even feels better every day.
Another piece of the constructed reality falls apart soon after, but from a direction Alex wasn't expecting. His sister, working at the drive-through, took an order from their long-vanished father. She recognized his voice even through the crappy speaker, and handed over three cheeseburgers and two orders of fries with mayo (Germans apparently preferring that condiment to ketchup). Whatever might have been in her mind about meeting her father again after all that time, I'm positive Ariane didn't expect to just thank him for choosing one particular franchise restaurant for his hamburger needs. Far worse than that--her dad handed the meal off to a pair of young kids in the back seat. Germany might be together again but it sure looks like Herr Kerner won't be looking for the wife and kids he left behind when he fled to the West. Ariane doesn't mention the kids to Alex so he assumes his dad is a fat dude constantly eating terrible food (and the set design for the "capitalist pig class enemy" house is a great little cutaway gag).
When Paula, Christiane's granddaughter, takes her first few tentative steps, Alex's mom decides she should try and get out of the bed and walk around a little bit herself. When she leaves the bedroom, she's also leaving the tiny little scrap of East Germany that Alex constructed around her to keep her safe. Walking outside the apartment tower for the first time in weeks, Seconds after she's outside the building she encounters someone moving in from Wuppertal, in the West, and literally everywhere she looks there's something else new and confusing that makes no sense in the context of a world where there's still an East Berlin and she's still an East German. It's the helicopter hauling away a statue of Lenin (with his hand reaching out to Frau Kerner) that makes the biggest impression, and I'm positive that's a reference to a film I haven't seen yet--like Alex, my education is incomplete when it comes to art film. Ask me one about kaiju eiga films instead, and I'm probably your guy.
At any rate, Alex and Ariane's mom certainly knows that something is up now. One quick studio mockup later and Denis is acting as a newscaster explaining that East Germany is allowing refugees in from the West in the wake of economic collapse; I didn't notice the first time I watched the movie that Denis is wearing a suit coat and no trousers at the news desk. The material that gets repurposed as Westerners seeking political asylum in the Communist world is almost certainly Berlin Wall breach news footage; maybe they just pointed the cameras in the opposite direction? Alex observes that the fantasy East Germany he's creating to keep his mother safe is the country he always wanted to live in. Again, the evenhandedness of the film knocks me out. It's not exactly that the film is refusing to take sides; instead, it's more that the filmmakers are acknowledging that there are two different sides to be viewed. They aren't ten thousand percent for capitalism and Western politics any more than they could be said to be promoting Communism.
When Alex's mother sees the traffic streaming into East Berlin, she knows that she's got to do something to help all those refugees. It's the least a devoted Party member could do for the asylum seekers. There's no room to take in anyone at the flat, but they do have a weekend getaway cabin that could be fixed up and made available. While talking about this situation ("You'll have to decorate the whole city now"), Ariane and Rainer drop the news that they're going to have a child together. One that is both East and West German, and symbolic of the new accords between the two former nations. Also, it's worth noting that the Communist hospital didn't have an ultrasound viewer; the technological advances brought to the Eastern half of the country aren't limited to cars and soft drinks.
At the cabin in the woods, the Kerners, Lara and Rainer don't run afoul of a merman or dragonbat, but there's still problems. With significant nudging from Lara, Alex is about to confess his entire scheme to his mother, since she seems to be strong enough to withstand the emotional shock. Just before he can explain everything, his mother makes her own True Confession. Her husband fled to the West, but not to be with another woman. He wasn't a member of the Communist Party and was facing dismal personal and professional consequences every day. When he had the chance to flee to the west he took it, but Christiane was supposed to take the children and join him shortly after. Her nerve faltered, because if she failed in getting her kids out of the country they would have been taken away from her. She was more willing to live as the wife of a defector in the East than lose her kids and run to the West.
In that moment, Alex truly understands what he's done to his mother through his deception, but he's stung much too badly to react; while he's still numb his mother has a cardiac event and gets rushed back to the hospital. While Alex accompanies his mother to the hospital, Ariane tears the kitchen cupboard apart until she uncovers a decade's worth of mail sent to the family and hidden from her and her brother. Thanks to the return addresses on the mail, she knows where to find the long-absent Robert Kerner and sends Alex out to do just that. One of the last things Christiane said before her second heart attack was that she wanted to see her former husband one more time.
Outside the hospital, Alex gets one more ghost from his past--a cabdriver that's the spitting image of Sigmund Jähn, the first German into space. The cabdriver says he's not actually Jähn, but the movie is rather ambiguous on whether or not he's lying. He takes Alex out of East Germany and into Wannsee, where Robert Kerner has lived since his departure from East Berlin. Alex turns out to be rather underdressed for the cocktail party that's going on at the Kerner residence, and eventually spots his dad playing the happy host before stumbling on his half brother and sister watching a stop-motion children's show called Sandman that he remembers fondly. He calls the character a cosmonaut instead of an astronaut, and when the kids ask where he's from he simply says it's another country. He could mean the past just as much as he means East Germany. His father gets called away to give a speech to the partygoers, leading to the stingingly ironic "Robert, you sure kept us waiting" called out to him as he leaves his son. When he returns to the kids' TV room there's a fantastic bit of physical staging as he sits down next to Alex; the father and son haven't seen each other forever but they've got identical posture.
While Alex is off on his mission, Lara explains to his mother what's actually gone on in Germany for the last year or so; Alex has brought his dad back to the hospital (telling him to think of a good reason for coming back to "East Germany" after all this time). While he's cooling his heels in the hallway with a bouquet of flowers, Ariane shows up to see her mom. He suspects he's having another family reunion; she knows. And she walks away without another word, giving her dad a taste of just how that feels. Alex--and the audience--don't find out what Christiane and Robert talk about in the hospital room, but Alex has decided that his charade has gone on too far, and is utterly unsustainable at this point. It's time to wrap it up.
But he's going to do it on his own terms, and by reuniting East and West Germany himself. To help him in this task: Denis, a law library with an impressive backdrop of books, a video camera, and a cabdriver in a second-hand dress uniform. With the polite tolerance of everyone at the library (who watch in baffled acceptance), "Sigmund Jähn" gives an important speech and Denis edits all the real-world footage he needs into the faux news feed. When he shows the news to his mother (five days early; she's in very bad shape and probably won't survive until the genuine reunification day), he has no idea that she knows it's all a well-meaning hoax meant to preserve her life in a strange new world. And, for the first time, she's the one lying to Alex about it to save his feelings. She lives three days longer than East Germany, and her son believes she never found out the truth.
A rooftop ceremony with a model rocket and Christiane's ashes is the last scene in the film; the people, East and West, who knew here are there to mark her passing with an aerial scattering of her ashes. Both halves of Germany forbade that, incidentally, but Alex was willing to change the world and reverse the course of history to protect his mom. Funeral laws didn't stand a chance.
I really can't praise this one enough. I'm going to have to watch The Room or something soon or I'll have nothing but masterpieces on this blog. It's a bittersweet comedy about truth, history, and reconciliation that affects me deeply even though I've got only the most tenuous connection to the time and place where the story happens. Daniel Brühl is way too young in the film to be as good as he is, with everyone else supporting his efforts magnificently. I keep forgetting how much bitterness is in with the sweet after I watch it, and every emotional beat hits like a sledgehammer. If you haven't seen this one, and you love movies, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
This review is part of the "Berlin Thanksgiving" event with 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting, commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall and corresponding end of the Cold War 25 years ago, in November of 1989.
Sunday, November 23, 2014
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.
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.
This review is part of the "Berlin Thanksgiving" event with 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting, commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall and corresponding end of the Cold War 25 years ago, in November of 1989.
Sunday, November 16, 2014
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.
This review is part of the "Berlin Thanksgiving" event with 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting, commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall and corresponding end of the Cold War 25 years ago, in November of 1989.
Tuesday, November 11, 2014
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.