Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Thursday, September 5, 2013
Into An Untroubled World
Some nights I cook for myself. I don’t claim to be any good but it’s something I like doing especially when I make pasta, probably more often than I should. I chop up onions and garlic and other things to put in the sauce while listening to music that you’d probably hate but particularly on Sunday nights it’s a ritual that I’ve developed a weird attachment to by now. It’s something that I look forward to doing and that’s just the way it is. So, anyway, the remake. Commonly known these days as the reboot. Which, I suppose is one way to avoid actually saying that it’s a remake and is also a way to avoid having to come up with an idea for something. Beats working for a living, after all. There are actually many points to make in favor of the remake—hey, it wasn’t until the third version of THE MALTESE FALCON when they got that one right and something like HIS GIRL FRIDAY was of course a remake of THE FRONT PAGE, only with an arguably better spin on it. But unlike back then the very concept in this day and age behind any given remake is to not offer anything new beyond making the overall approach more ‘grounded’ and ‘real’—the skeleton of whatever the structure might have been made of is still visible and the story may make sense but the way it ultimately plays out is lifeless, a movie going through the motions of its own self. The title has as much to do with it as anything else and the days when the classic noir OUT OF THE PAST was updated to the 80s and titled AGAINST ALL ODDS to bring an updated spin to the story are long since gone. These days the point is to remind people of the original in the most hollow way, bringing very new little to the table, to streamline the story, removing things like irony and satire while maybe tossing in a cameo from someone who was in the original while they’re at it, maybe to give the impression that the whole thing is authorized. There have been good remakes. It’s just tough to remember what they are sometimes.
Edgar Wright’s new film THE WORLD’S END which you’ve hopefully seen by now is about many things one of which is the danger of nostalgia, the folly of one person attempting to remake what he remembers as the greatest night of his life and what happens next from that return to one’s hometown. As I’ve written about before I may remain haunted in the dead of night by images of where I grew up, a place I don’t have much of a desire to go back to—members of my family have all moved elsewhere so it’s really not a concern for the time being. To mangle a line from MAGNOLIA, I may be through with the past but that past doesn’t seem to have very much interest in me either. In addition to being hugely entertaining, THE WORLD’S END struck a nerve in me down to the bone and Edgar Wright is one of the few directors of this generation who displays a love of films, as well as being someone who has some of the best story sense around but you can also tell how personal some of this is for him and with this new film you can tell that he’s setting the bar for himself higher than before and I’m looking forward to many repeat viewings. It gets a lot of things right, not the least of which is to point out that eventually you have to say Fuck Nostalgia. Fuck where you came from. Sure, there’s going to be some love mixed in all that way deep down but you can’t live there. You shouldn’t live there. You need to do something new, to keep moving forward and face what the future might conceivably hold. Something remakes don’t do. New things in life are good. That’s forgotten way too often these days.
Which makes this the perfect opportunity to talk about a remake that actually is excellent, one that is willing to expand on the original, turning it into its own thing while keeping the spirit of where the story came from very much alive. After all, the metaphorical possibilities in science fiction and horror do lend themselves to updating a concept to another time in order to take advantage of the new era. Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of CAPE FEAR became a giant swirling mass of cinematic imagery combined with how the south of the original had changed in the thirty years since it was made. Even if Cronenberg’s THE FLY and Carpeneter’s THE THING had nothing to do with the AIDS crisis as the world responded to it in the 80s in terms of intent it’s hard not to think about the subject while watching those films. In comparison you could make the argument that since the 2011 prequel/remake of THE THING was also set in 1982 it isn’t really about anything at all. The 1978 version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS directed by Philip Kaufman was very much about something that was in the air at the time the film was made, just as any version of that particular story needs to be, has to be. There’s always going to be the fear of losing ourselves, losing our individuality, becoming lifeless and going through the motions of its own self. Of course, exactly what that loss means, what we are in the greater context of society, means something a little different in each decade. As part of the lead-up to the release of his new film, the ‘78 BODY SNATCHERS was programmed as part of Edgar Wright’s two-week “The World’s End is Nigh” series at the New Beverly and it was a great thrill to see it in 35mm for the first time, even if the print was slightly faded, since it’s one of those 70s films that even if it was a hit at the time has maybe fallen through the cable TV crack a little more than it’s deserved to. It stays in the brain and maybe haunts me now more than it ever has.
Almost as pure cinema, the first remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS essentially tells us what’s happening right away, beginning with an opening credit sequence that details the process of these lifeforms departing their own world to eventually arrive on Earth in San Francisco. Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) works for the Health Department whose co-worker Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) has discovered a strange new flower and the day after bringing it home her live in boyfriend Geoffrey (Art Hindle) is suddenly acting strange to the point that she genuinely believes that he’s not Geoffrey. Matthew has Elizabeth talk to his friend Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), a well-known psychiatrist, for advice, but even he speaks of a strange hallucinatory flu that seems to be going around. As Matthew’s married friends Jack (Jeff Goldblum) and Nancy Bellicec (Veronica Cartwright) get involved he genuinely begins to believe that there’s something going on around him, that people really aren’t who they seem to be anymore.
Shortly after the opening credits as the webs make their way down into the Bay Area we get a now infamous Robert Duvall cameo, with the actor briefly seen dressed as a priest on a swing set as one of the lead characters pass the playground nearby. And that’s it. It’s unexplained. We never see him again. And yet the recognition of the moment sets us perfectly on edge. Almost unnoticed as everyone is paying attention to how this really is Robert Duvall are two things: the teacher who has just been suspiciously glaring at the passing Brooke Adams is encouraging the kids to take the flowers home to their parents so she is obviously already a pod person, just as the priest Duvall probably is as well, and the kid on the swing next to him is behaving particularly goofy, something that probably won’t be happening for very much longer. These elements in each shot are laid into things all the way through, continually keeping us on edge while maintaining a sly wit in just about every scene. Almost as if contradicting itself it’s one of the best San Francisco films ever while at the same time somehow making the charming city seem totally cold and hostile. With a screenplay by W.D. Richter (SLITHER and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, along with directing BUCKAROO BANZAI) based on the original novel “The Body Snatchers” by Jack Finney, this version of the story has been greatly discussed in the past as taking advantage of what the 70s were just as much as the small town original version had lent itself to the McCarthy 50s whether about communism or people simply staying at home to do nothing but watch television from then on. The San Francisco of the Me Decade seen here containing book readings filled with people looking to pour their hearts out to the latest big name in pop psychology and live-in boyfriends more focused on the game he’s watching with his headphones don’t seem that different from certain equivalents that would be around today. The context of post-counter culture sixties is there even if it remains under the surface and it’s not a reach to look at the film 35 years on and see it as being about the ultimate nightmare of the sixties generation in that city as everyone just sits back and lets Reagan take over—it’s not for nothing that one of the possibilities suggested of what may have happened to Geoffrey that he’s become a Republican, which before the truth is learned may seem like the most horrifying possibility of all.
There’s continuous snap to the dialogue whether discussion over whether anyone expected ‘metal ships’ or a decidedly ominous “I’ll see you soon…I hope” one woman who has turned says to Adams at one point. Every beat of the narrative is laid out expertly and even the relationships between the characters are vividly mapped out through shorthand without overexplaining why certain people are friends or how they know each other, particularly in the unspoken flirtation that’s been going on between Sutherland and Adams as well as whatever he’s told his friends about her (“This is THE Elizabeth?” is heard when one of them meets her). There’s also Nimoy’s teasing of Goldblum, a successful psychiatrist and author who seems to be pulling the appropriate advice from the filing cabinet in his head instead of listening versus the jealous poet who takes six months to think of a single line, the hack who’s a success placed against the artist with his principles jealous of that success. Scenes like these offer a consistent immediacy to the film’s tension and humor making it stand out all the more—maybe since Kaufman was never a horror director along the lines of John Carpenter the tone he’s going for here feels that much more jaggedy, distorted like through those funhouse mirrors in the bookstore. It’s as if his uncertainty of what would play correctly for the genre works for the uncertainty of the narrative, dangling on the precipice between suspense and satire as people about to be forcibly turned are earnestly told to not ‘be trapped by old concepts’, between the blank stares of Art Hindle’s Geoffrey and the insistent humanity brought forth by Sutherland’s lead performance, playing a person who seems relaxed in his daily life as he cooks for himself yet seeming to enjoy the exacting nature of his power over fancy French restaurants.
Maybe best known now for directing THE RIGHT STUFF (as well as his co-story credit on RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK), Kaufman’s work here is some of the best of his career containing metronome-like pacing to every single scene with those ominous garbage trucks everywhere. It propels itself forward through the enshrouding dread of the second half and a certain pop feel to the social commentary while being always serious about the threat as the utter blackness of the sequences where the characters are being pursued feel like the worst possible nightmare yet still very real. Right from the start Kaufman is planting suspicious-looking extras around the edges of the frame which seems almost too obvious and yet you could imagine in real life people wouldn’t pay much attention to that sort of thing. It’s to the film’s credit that many of those strange glances could be just about anything. It’s also to the film’s credit that every single one of them are probably exactly what we suspect they are in the end, an encroaching threat that seems like a shroud of darkness literally making its way over the film. The logic of the film seems to be that everything has already happened before the characters in the film have had a chance to even begin to realize it and the result is almost unnerving in its normality at times—when it becomes clear that one character has turned he doesn’t come off as a monster so much as someone simply annoyed that it wasn’t allowed to happen sooner.
There is some middle-of-the-movie juggling in the narrative when all it can do is stand in place for a few minutes while the threat intensifies, so a meeting with a city official is barely seen and doesn’t result in anything afterwards. But the best things stand out, like the genuinely eerie depiction of exactly how the change takes place when the pods are nearby as well as the score by Danny Zeitlin which maybe could better be described as a full-on soundscape (I could write a whole piece on my favorite uses of sound in the movie—Ben Burtt of STAR WARS legend is credited with the sound effects) along with the tiny touches like the strip club barker promising that what’s inside is “Guaranteed to make you feel like a new man!”, a genuinely memorable use of “Amazing Grace” or just the basic paranoia of the big city, the people who won’t stop staring, the cab driver (played by Don Siegel, director of BODY SNATCHERS ’56) repeatedly asking where you’re going. Like the San Francisco-set FREEBIE AND THE BEAN from a few years earlier barely a sequence goes by without a glimpse of the Transamerica building—on Kaufman’s DVD audio commentary he speaks of wanting it to appear to be pod central, a notion that certainly comes off in a few shots and considering how this is film was released by United Artists when they were owned by Transamerica the concept comes off as meta in several ways.
The question of what exactly remains of the former person inside is intriguingly not completely answered, all the way up to the famous final image and a moment near the end where we get to see people at their job, take over, zombified, changed, having already slept, doesn’t seem that far off from the real world these days. In spite of its placement in the series at the New Bev and however much these themes tie into the plot of THE WORLD’S END it feels a little like the film was at least as much of an influence on Wright’s earlier SHAUN OF THE DEAD, particularly the growing tension of the first half and a similarly unexplained shot of a man running in terror down the street—the constant attention paid to the angling of the houses on these San Francisco slopes makes me wonder if this film was also a large inspiration for how Steven Soderbergh photographed the city in CONTAGION. But the more I think about THE WORLD’S END and how bitterly its characters display their regretful feelings towards the past it at times makes me wonder if there really is more to the comparisons under the surface. The genuine enjoyment of this BODY SNATCHERS stands out and makes the film continually engaging on repeat viewings, yet the emotion that comes to the surface near the end makes me think about similar thoughts of regret and waiting around, not doing anything about what you deep down want to change. Matthew tells Elizabeth that he loves her, something that only happens because of the situation they’re in. And then suddenly it’s too late. Before then he was doing his thing, enjoying his casual flirting with her, cooking his food, doing his job, trying to be casual about it all. But he couldn’t say it. Not until then, when there was nothing more that could be done about it. Since she was living with a guy anyway, there probably wasn’t anything that could have been done earlier. Life isn’t fair. Which I suppose is an emotion that the pods want to rid us of. They want to make it so that doesn’t matter anymore. Either way, there are no happy endings.
Donald Sutherland is outstanding, using his height to intimidate when necessary but allowing his confidence to shrink down as he becomes more unsure about everything and the chase grinds on—I can’t think of many other examples of a hero begging for his life as nakedly as he does late in the film. Everyone is excellent and add to the flavor of each of these people mattering—the down to earth goofiness of Brooke Adams, the nebbish insecurity of Jeff Goldblum (seen in three films throughout the ‘World’s End is Nigh’ festival—INTO THE NIGHT and THE BIG CHILL were the others), Veronica Cartwright who is particularly good at balancing her exposition with the growing freak-out of her character and Leonard Nimoy in a sly use of the baggage that comes with his most famous role which he plays as if overjoyed at the chance to balance himself between the two halves, making every statement seem like he’s processing a quantum equation. Of course, Kevin McCarthy of the 1956 original 1956 makes a cameo appearance early on essentially reprising his most famous scene from that film, one of the first times this sort of cameo appearance ever happened and probably still the best—not at all shoehorned in, the moment plays perfectly well if you don’t know the original and if you have makes it all the more unnerving. As directed, McCarthy seems to go through the reprise of his most famous dialogue faster than we’d expect as if he doesn’t have the energy to shout it anymore. He knows what’s coming. He already knows.
On its release Pauline Kael went gaga for the film proclaiming, “For undiluted pleasure and excitement, it is, I think, the American movie of the year—a new classic.” The shrieking of the pod people has since become iconic and I suppose that a few lines of dialogue have as well, particularly, “How do you know my name? I didn’t tell you my name,” additions that have become as familiar to the BODY SNATCHERS lore as anything in the original. And it’s been officially remade two more times to date, by Abel Ferrara as BODY SNATCHERS in the early 90s and by Oliver Hirschbiegel as THE INVASION in 2007. Both productions had their problems—Warner Brothers barely released the Ferrara version to theaters (I’ve always liked that film) and the latter film, which even featured Veronica Cartwright in a supporting role, underwent extensive reshoots with another director. It’s a safe bet that it’ll be remade again eventually. The fear of losing someone you love, losing yourself, while you ‘sleep’, is too good a concept to not explore as our world continues to change. To be optimistic about this inevitability I’ll say that at least it’ll be another chance to prove my belief about the worth of remakes wrong. And I’ll be happy to let that happen. In the meantime I’ll return to my kitchen on Sunday nights making my pasta, listening to “Sinatra at the Sands” or whatever weird Italian lounge music I’m in the mood for and dream of being myself, thinking about the certain women I’m avoiding declaring my real feelings to. After all, it’s not too late yet. And if it is, I’ll try not to think about that for a little while.