Monday, March 23, 2009

It's Always Later Than You Think

There’s a lot on my mind right now, but I’m not going to talk about most of it. It’s much easier to focus on other things, like certain films that I feel more connected to as time goes on. To mention one of them, I couldn’t stick around to see THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE when it played at the New Beverly a few weeks ago. The reason for this was mainly because the first film of the night was A BOY AND HIS DOG and was immediately followed by a Q&A with Harlan Ellison which, no surprise, lasted only a few minutes shorter than the running time of A BOY AND HIS DOG. I can safely say that it was the most unbearably funny post-film discussion I have been witness to since...well, probably the time I saw Ellison speak after a Cinematheque screening of THE OSCAR a number of years ago. He'll be at the New Beverly again in April with a festival of films that he's programmed, so don't miss it. Anyway, with the second feature starting over an hour after it was supposed to, there was no way I could stick around. I have to get up too early. As I was heading off to my car Ellison, bless him, was still holding court with people on the sidewalk out in front of the theater. The film started, I went home to sleep. So I missed out on a chance to see a 35mm print of THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE (Joe Dante’s, from what I hear), not the first time it’s happened. Another occasion was a few years ago when it played at the Egyptian with director Val Guest (since deceased) in attendance. I've heard from several people who were there that it wasn't a large crowd, but when the film ended the power of the film was such that they gave the director a standing ovation. I'm genuinely sorry I missed that. It’s a remarkable film that seems to become more powerful to me with every viewing.

The premise is deseptively simple: simultaneous nuclear bomb tests have caused the earth to break out of its orbit and head for the sun. The complexity of 1961’s THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE, a title which makes it sound like something else altogether, is what stands out in it. Much of the film is a newspaper story, centering on cynical, alcoholic reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd, who passed away only a few short weeks ago) who stumbles into this story just as he meets Jeannie (Janet Munro), a young woman who works for the government office that is engaged in trying to cover up what has happened. As the world spirals further into disaster and their relationship intensifies, Stenning finds his own passion beginning to reemerge.

THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE is filmed in stark, black & white Scope (there's a special red tint used in the framing sequences as well) with surprisingly effective uses of stock footage integrated to make the presumably modest-budgeted film seem much bigger than it really is. It’s not a film about special effects—the focus is on the people, with a loving, detailed look at the ins and outs of newspaper life in post-war England—that aspect of the film is sadly beginning to seem like science fiction as well—and it’s thrilling to see this fast-paced world presented in such a way. The dialogue is so crackling and fast-paced that it’s a shame the Anchor Bay DVD doesn’t come with subtitles to keep up with it at times. But even more than that, the presents us with a burgeoning relationship between two lonely, suspicious people who find themselves able to open up to each other just as the world may be in its death throes. Interestingly, the escalating nature of their relationship seems to parallel what is happening to the planet, as if each step closer to doom is matched by the intensity of their need to be with each other. The film is shot in a dynamic, sometimes naturalistic style with fantastic camerawork as we follow these characters through the newspaper offices—it’s not quite documentary-like but the intensity of it is such that director Guest pulls off including footage of an actual ban-the-bomb rally that figures into the plot, complete with leading man Judd making his way through the scene. The British setting of a genre storyline that makes use of such blatantly political statements is very reminiscent of CHILDREN OF MEN and while the two films bare no real connection to each other, with the exception of the presence of a certain actor, it’s just about the greatest compliment I can think of to say that THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE fully deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as that more recent film. For all I know, stylistically it could even have been a key inspiration for Alfonso Cuaron when he made it and the way they compliment each other would make an ideal, if emotionally exhausting, double bill. Each film in its own way seems to be stating that maybe the absolute worst is going to happen—but what we do still matters and maybe in those times it matters more than ever. As they begin to get serious with each other Munro’s character asks the lead character, a reporter named Peter, “What happened? They say you used to be a writer.” This line of questioning obviously cuts deep for him. On a day like this, I feel like the question is being asked of me.

Both Judd and Munro give affecting, layered performances that become richer with each viewing but longtime character actor Leo McKern is damn near brilliant in the supporting role of Bill Maguire, the hardened newspaper reporter who is able to deduce what is going on before anyone else can. Seen very briefly in an early appearance as a traffic cop is Michael Caine and there’s no mistaking that voice. There’s the direct connection to CHILDREN OF MEN.

This is my 300th post on this site and I wanted to mark the occasion with a mention of a film that somehow deserved it, that deep down I truly care about. Not too long ago somebody asked me why I write this blog and I didn’t have a good answer. I suppose if I did I might not have to write it anymore. Maybe it’s to figure out what it is about films like this that make me want to think about them, to write about them, to see them again and again. Maybe it’s to figure out what they mean to me.


Anonymous said...

Excellent review about another film I don't know anything about! (Maybe - until now - the title sounded too much like Fifties SF-exploitation to me.)

And you really don't need to FIND a reason why you write this blog - quality and devotion always speak for themselves!

This trend of society, that everything has to be explained (to death) has become very annoying over the last 20 years. It's especially prevalent in the media and narrative arts. (No wonder that "film-recyclers" such as the older George Lucas could thrive in such a climate.)

This blog, on the other hand, does not answer all the questions - or tries to "integrate" into the legion of other "movie fanatics and film conoisseurs"-blogs.

And that's the good thing about it!

To say it with Popeye - the original character from the comic strips, not the dumbed-down, shallow cartoon stereotype: "I yam what I yam and tha's all what I yam!"

Keep up the good work!


Unknown said...

I love Harlan Ellison too. In the 1980s, I braved a cataclysmic snow-storm to see him speak in Toronto but it was worth it. The man answered questions for over three hours and he probably could've gone on longer. Great stuff.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


That's very nice of you to say, it all means a great deal. Thanks very much for that and for reading.


Yeah, Ellison's just great, we all just wanted him to go on and on. Incidentally, at that screening of THE OSCAR that I mentioned I recall during the post-film discussion he threatened to bash every single one of us over the head with a baseball bat. It was quite an evening. I hope to go to at least a few of his New Beverly screenings though it'll be tough to accurately describe the full experience of something like that. I can't wait.

Greg said...

I love this movie! I've used it as a Name That Movie clip several months back (Arbo got it) and when I was uploading the clip I just went ahead and watched my DVD of it again. Just amazing. It really is so much more than that title suggests.

Happy 300th post too!

Unknown said...

It's a brilliant movie, great to read your thoughtful blog on it. Indeed I was at that Egyptian screening with Val Guest in attendance. I was completely blown away. Guest seemed deeply flattered by the standing ovation and questions afterward. It was shown on a double bill with his QUARTERMASS XPERIMENT.

The CHILDREN OF MEN connection you made is spectacular!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


The movie has a power to suck you in even if you're just watching a few minutes. Thanks very much for the well-wishes!


Now that's three separate people I know who were there. I'm sorry I missed it. Thanks very much for the nice comments. Someone really should show a double bill of this with CHILDREN OF MEN! That's what the New Beverly should do next time around.