Tuesday, September 24, 2013

An Infinite Number Of Truths

Sometimes I’m tempted to just write down everything I’m thinking, everything I’m feeling. But I choose to keep things private. This isn’t about depression, at least not now. This is about dissatisfaction, the stress that happens and makes me unable to breathe, the wish that you could somehow flush all the nonsense out of your head and just relax. So that’s how it’s been going lately. I suspect I’m not alone in the world in feeling this way, but whatever. I wish I could just take a moment somehow but I don’t expect that to happen any time soon while trying to deal with the insanity of the world, the madness of those things that happen day after day.
The definitive study of how American society was changing as things rolled over from the 70s to the 80s seen through the Hollywood prism has yet to be written. This will not be that examination. But there is something to be found in films made right around 1980 which seem caught between decades, between tones, between approaches, as if something is in the air only the filmmakers are not quite sure what that is so they have to plow ahead regardless and make whatever film it is they’re going to make. Maybe that’s just how they play to us all these years later. The science fiction-tinged social satire SIMON, starring Alan Arkin and released in February 1980, seems like a very good example of this. The film was also the directorial debut of Marshall Brickman, the sort of person who just skimming his bio makes him seem like the sort of person who it would be fascinating to listen to their stories for a few hours. He was a member of The New Journeymen, the band John and Michelle Phillips were in before The Mamas & The Papas. His TV credits include working on THE DICK CAVETT SHOW and CANDID CAMERA as well as being head writer on THE TONIGHT SHOW during the late 60s. In recent years he’s co-written the books of Broadway musicals including THE ADDAMS FAMILY and the smash JERSEY BOYS but he’s also been the screenwriter on a number of films including, most importantly, co-writing several with Woody Allen particularly SLEEPER, ANNIE HALL and MANHATTAN. Those titles are probably all anyone needs to know but he directed a few films as well and while that portion of his career didn’t last very long something like SIMON is still of interest, a science fiction comedy caught between those two decades that isn’t quite a home run but is still very much of interest not only for anyone who’s seen certain Woody Allen films several dozen times but because the satirical elements that the film explores makes it somewhat unique.
The secretly all-powerful think tank The Institute for Advanced Concepts headed by Dr. Carl Becker (Austin Pendleton) who along with his fellow scientists (Max Wright, William Finley, Wallace Shawn and Jayant) engineer the events that cause such chaos in the world like nationwide tampering with the Nielsen ratings--did you know that DONNY AND MARIE is actually only watched by 1,200 people in the entire country?--and what’s known as the “Nixon Substitution Scenario” comes up with a plan to invent an extra-terrestrial and present it to the world to see what the possible effect on the population might be. Aided by super-computer Doris (voiced by what is presumably an unbilled Louise Lasser) they decide their test subject to serve as this figure will be psychology professor Simon Mendelssohn (Alan Arkin) who they invite to the clinic and proceed to brainwash through various means including a prolonged stay in an isolation tank and the friendly charms of a woman who they introduce as Dr. Cynthia Malloy (Madeline Kahn). When Simon emerges from isolation with his plans to change the world the ensuing publicity frenzy makes the doctors realize their plan may have gone a little too well. After deciding to get rid of him, Simon escapes with girlfriend Lisa (Judy Graubart) and, on the run, becomes even more of a celebrity than he was before using a handy TV signal to speak to the world and spread his genius.
SIMON feels serious-minded in its satire and yet scattershot at the same time as if its disparate parts are glued together in a frenzied state to try to make them coalesce. With a screenplay by Brickman and story by Brickman & Thomas Baum, it certainly has ideas, which counts for a lot even if they are all over the place, as well as a genuine point of view of mirthful anarchy in its satire. After a documentary-style introduction to explain the nature of The Institute of Advanced Concepts SIMON settles into a straightforward approach that is pretty random in its plotting at times with various elements popping up for intervals after which they’re forgotten about—the Madeline Kahn character, the commune devoted to television worship— along with its various targets that include these scientists, the media, the government, the military and just society in general without setting its sights on any one goal for very long but the ideas it presents do contain some bite, playing as genuinely funny part of the time or at least relatively amusing in its exploration of what can happen when an unencumbered mind is given permission to run wild. Among other things, SIMON is the only film I can think of aside from NETWORK to contain a reference to the MARY TYLER MOORE spinoff PHYLLIS and a portion of the satire here isn’t actually all that different from the goals of NETWORK, depicting a world that is becoming obsessed by the media that is swarming all around, by the messages it produces whatever they are, willing to latch onto whatever it can. If it ultimately has a problem it’s that there are a few too many of these thematic conclusions thrown at the wall.
The Preston Sturges-like potential of some of this never quite reaches a full steam of hilarity and the lack of a more relatable lead character may be why I feel a certain amount of clinical distance from the film but it is consistently enjoyable in a loose way, with bits throughout like Alan Arkin single-handedly depicting the evolution of man after he emerges from isolation (sort of an abstract concept to depict so we get voiceover from Wallace Shawn explaining it, along with a brief Also Sprach Zarathustra burst on the soundtrack) and how the top of the TV-worshipping commune’s steeple contains not a cross but an antenna. Not much sends me into hysterics but the film is pleasant, blithe and the small scale feel of the production actually works for the shaggy nature of the humor. The plot construction may be a bit haphazard and undisciplined to put it mildly but SIMON seems to take an actual interest in the science of things and how people behave out of the madness of the world around them. Certain conclusions are reached in terms of how the mind works and the isolation tank element would make it play as a comedic rejoinder to ALTERED STATES (the second film authored by Paddy Chayefsky that I’ve mentioned here and I don’t know what to make of that) if SIMON didn’t actually come out ten months earlier.
When people learn of the existence of this supposed alien they argue over whether it means this is proof there is a God or isn’t a God and during a quick headline montage we see a Time Magazine cover about Simon with a headline that reads ‘The Answer?’ while the Newsweek equivalent headline asks ‘The Question?’ The America in SIMON is one where absolutely no one knows what is what. SIMON is, among other things, ultimately about a world where the smart people are only asking questions because they’re bored, not because they need to be asked and no one really knows what exactly needs to be asked or answered anyway. Mixed in with all that are myriad other ideas, like the concept of smart men with next to no idea of how to handle the women in their lives—Simon ignores the pleas of the reasonable Lisa, the brainwashing procedure gives Simon a ‘mother’ to implant the false memory of his extra-terrestrial origins, Madeline Kahn’s Cynthia Malloy is a plant but she intimidates all the men anyway and even Carl Becker’s relationship to the supercomputer Doris which is depicted as a giant slimline telephone receiver (a very SLEEPER-like element and since this computer is depicted as female not all that different in concept from MUTHA in THE PHYNX) results in him declaring his unbridled passion for her.
There are also references to things that were prominent in the world at the time like Muzak and diet books and Bess Myerson and the secret formula of Orange Julius which probably don’t get the laughs they might have gotten back then (secondary headline on a New York Post front page: “Margaret Trudeau Seen At Studio 54”) but more interesting than that is the point the film makes in depicting how people are only going to follow someone up to a point, checking out when they become aware of how they’re being lectured to. They want to believe they have power and greatness as individuals but when someone is lecturing them about how dumb and hopeless they are or bringing out the Tolstoy to enlighten everyone with it’s all going to go south. A quick cutaway of a guy shooting out his TV in response to this it almost feels like there’s another level of satire the film could move on to but instead we get the main character’s realization of what he finally needs to do which is followed by a sort-of action climax to wrap things up.
“You can move the world with an idea but you have to think of it first,” is an idea that’s repeated in dialogue but the film could also add that you can’t force people to live in the version of the world that you want to live in. You can’t tell them what to like or how to think. Maybe some of its themes are muddled but the message of the film is basically that we’re not going to change the world or learn some grand revelation about our past but there are good things to make it all worthwhile—what gets name checked like Fred Astaire, Penicillin and air conditioning sounds a little like they could have been given as reasons in a Woody Allen film as well—and maybe if we’re lucky we can make some small, if absurd, difference in the end. All we can hope for are some small victories coming out of our own personal madness mixed in with normalcy, which maybe makes it sound like a science fiction version of King Vidor’s THE CROWD and that’s not really what SIMON is since there are too many other ideas swirling around the way the film seems to build to this sort of quiet acceptance is a little refreshing considering how most such movies now are about how special the lead character is. I don’t know if SIMON completely lives up to the potential of the multiple concepts it tosses into the mix but at the very least it’s willing to put them out there, particularly if these thoughts are being voiced very loudly by Alan Arkin while acting like a lunatic. That’s something I’ll never have a problem with.
And Alan Arkin fully embraces the cracked ego that allows the messiah lunacy that emerges out of his own Arkinness (it’s an intriguing daydream to imagine Woody Allen playing the part) and he dives into it fearlessly, giving it an engagingly different look at his familiar persona, that look in his eyes totally unable to conceal his own particular madness. Playing Lisa, Judy Graubert is a Gilda Radner-Paula Prentiss type who like Arkin has a background in Second City and knows how to bring just the right spin to her dialogue like her mistakenly talking about how Simon is from “out of space”. She seems somehow familiar to me, maybe long-dormant memories from watching her on THE ELECTRIC COMPANY (she was also in a lot of commericals in the 70s—turns out there’s a good amount of Judy Graubert on Youtube), and even though she’s offscreen for much of the middle Graubert provides the somewhat cold film with any real warmth that it has. Austin Pendleton, presumably done up to resemble Carl Sagan, enjoyably straddles the line between dweeb and villain while the foursome of Wright, Finley, Shawn and Jayant are all given moments to pinpoint their particular characterizations. In spite of her high billing Madeline Kahn’s role comes off more as a ‘special appearance’ as if they only had a few days with her, Fred Gwynne is an uptight military guy who reacts to the existence of a ‘stupid’ gas by imagining how it could be used in combat and Adolph Greene is the leader of the TV worshipping cult who confides with Simon that before his nervous breakdown he was ‘head of programming at the American Broadcasting Company’ to which Arkin pats him on the shoulder sympathetically. David Susskind and Dick Cavett appear briefly as themselves but considering when this film was made and who made it I’d be surprised if at least one of them didn’t turn up.
Brickman only made other two films—1983’s LOVESICK and 1987’s THE MANHATTAN PROJECT both of which I haven’t seen in decades—so SIMON can’t quite be placed in the context of a full directing career. Listening to Brickman interviewed during a podcast on The Projection Booth it makes clear that some of his interests are in science—not science fiction—which certainly makes the link between this film and SLEEPER more intriguing but what he has to say in this interview also makes me appreciate the film a little more. SIMON, available on disc from the Warner Archive for anyone who’s curious or hasn’t seen it since early 80s cable, is the sort of film that I find myself thinking about way too much sometimes as I try to dig into just what the film is, what about it works and what doesn’t. Sometimes I’m willing to give a movie that’s trying for something out there a little leeway. Sometimes I’ll watch these things over and over and find something in the themes, a piece of madness that I find myself relating to and wish that I could reconcile with what I’m expecting to find, no matter when the film was made. Among other things, SIMON is about the madness in the world that can result from no limitations. Of course, I often feel like I have madness with limitations all around me every single day or just while I lie awake at night. Nothing is ever perfect.

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