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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Brother From Another Planet (1984)

Written and Directed by John Sayles

Joe Morton:  The Brother

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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