To kick off our third year, here's an excerpt from Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism, my latest book currently in progress (which also explains my periodic absence from Critics at Large). But it just so happens that I'm also about to begin a nine-part lecture series on Reflections a week from Monday at the Miles Nadal JCC in Toronto (see details here). While I considered posting material from the Introduction ("If History's Taught Us Anything...") which covers the first lecture where I examine The Kennedy Era (through The Godfather, Part II and The Manchurian Candidate), the section was just too long to include here. Therefore, I'm jumping ahead instead to a portion from The Reagan Era where I discuss Phil Kaufman's 1979 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (a post which is still long but I beg your indulgence).
I know that, in the literal sense, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was made in The Carter Era, but Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors is not a literal interpretation of the American movies in each Presidential period. I work from the notion that since movies operate like waking dreams there is an unconscious nation that lies beneath the conscious one. In this post, I've tweezed together the opening portion from the book's introduction and the section on Invasion from the chapter Mourning in America: The Reagan Era. The students from my recent film criticism class, who composed terrific reviews of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, will no doubt recognize most of this material from a review of the movie that I also wrote for the class.
Since the early Sixties, you could turn to almost any American film and recognize the political period that spawned it. A rousing epic like Spartacus (1960) signaled the rising hopes of the Kennedy years, just as The Manchurian Candidate (1962) foreshadowed the tragedy in Dallas the next year. In the Heat of the Night (1966) reflected the racially troubled Johnson era as equally as the police thriller Bullitt (1968) indirectly brought brought out our ambivalence about Vietnam and the growing culture of violence at home. The subject of violence was articulated eloquently, but with a marked uncertainty, in various genre films, from the Depression-era gangster film Bonnie and Clyde (1967) to Sam Peckinpah's bloody western The Wild Bunch (1969).
The Seventies' paranoia of the Nixon years gave us both an anti-hero for the Silent Majority in Clint Eastwood's vigilante detective Dirty Harry (1972) and one for frustrated liberals in the counter-culture counterpart, Billy Jack (1971). The holistic Carter period tried to salve the country's wounds over Vietnam with the homespun nostalgia of Bound for Glory (1976) and Coming Home (1978). Yet it was the ground-breaking blockbuster Star Wars (1977), however, that took viewers back to a presumed innocent age. Drawing on the gloried past of Hollywood studio movie-making, Star Wars asked Americans to forget about the demons of Vietnam and Watergate. In providing a comforting creed for seeking salvation, which meant believing in the Force, Star Wars laid the seeds for the arrival of Ronald Reagan. Speaking of seeds, though, if there was one film that more presciently defined the chief characteristic of the Reagan years, and what that era would represent in the decade ahead, it was Philip Kaufman’s witty and sumptuously scary 1979 re-make of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. If the Reagan years were about refuting the Sixties by having us take refuge in the cozy nostalgia of an earlier time, where one could “sleepwalk through history” (as historian Haynes Johnson described it), Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a thrilling science-fiction classic about the dangers of nodding off.
In Phil Kaufman’s highly original re-make, he updated the material and turned his Invasion into a hangover from the turbulent Sixties. Setting the story in his home city of San Francisco at the end of the
Seventies, Kaufman (along with screenwriter W.D. Richter) built some profoundly witty variations on the themes of the original. Considering the picture’s relationship to the Sixties, the first truly funny (and ironic) part of the story is just setting it in San Francisco. Besides being resident to some of the most non-traditional and eccentric artists and personalities of the previous two decades (a city that gave rise to both the Beat Generation and the hippie movement), San Francisco has a history of protecting its individuality. So it’s a huge joke on the audience to choose the place that gave birth to the non-conformity of Flower Power and suddenly make it home to the new Flower Power of conformity. From the opening scenes, where we watch the web-like spores travelling from their home planet to Earth, and falling with the gentle rain on a normal day in the Bay area, Kaufman provides the kind of spooky nuances that invoke the cautionary SF films of the past while anticipating a new spin on the genre.
|Leonard Nimoy, Donald Sutherland and Jeff Goldblum|
|Brooke Adams and Donald Sutherland encounter Flower Power|
Most science-fiction films, especially those in the Fifties, were cautionary fables about our destructive ways, and many of them (even good ones like the 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still) became terribly obvious civics lessons. The human characters in these pictures, too, often lacked any dimension that we could possibly care about. (The actors and their dialogue were usually stiff and unconvincing.) With Invasion of the Body Snatchers, however, Kaufman catches the idiosyncratic rhythms of the city's inhabitants so that we become concerned about their fate. Besides Sutherland, who brings an off-centre warmth to Bennell, Brooke Adams provides a sunny skepticism that complements his. You believe that these two could fall in love. Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright also turn up as their eccentric counter-aparts, Jack and Nancy Bellicec, who run a Turkish mud bath. They have the loony non-conformist tensions of the city wrapped up in their affection for each other. Goldblum with his tall lanky frame is note perfect as a frustrated writer who hates the more successful Kibner because Jack cares about writing while Kibner cares about being a success. Cartwright matches up perfectly with her wrinkled nose, tickled by the more unorthodox life they lead. These are amazingly vivid, funny personalities who bounce verbal jokes off each other while their city turns to mediocrity. (“Where’s Kazantakis, where’s Homer, where’s Jack London?” Jack complains at Kibner’s book launch, while Matthew scanning the room for his beleaguered partner asks, “Where’s Elizabeth?”) It’s perhaps a stroke of genius to cast Leonard Nimoy, who brings all the associations of both SF and his role as the logical Spock from Star Trek, as the smug Kibner. Nimoy is so measured projecting Kibner’s self-righteousness that you’re never sure if he isn’t already a pod when we first meet him.
|A dog who wakes up a...different dog|
Of course, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an entertaining horror-comedy not designed self-consciously as a serious warning cry. Yet that’s what makes it all the more effective as both satire and political commentary – just like the equally audacious The Manchurian Candidate was in anticipating the events of Dallas, Texas a year before JFK was shot. But consider the on-going relevance of the movie's themes. For instance, when the first Invasion was on movie screens in the Fifties, writer and critic Philip Wylie was drawing the attention of his readers to a book of essays by Baltimore psychoanalyst Robert Lindner called Must You Conform? "The grimmest demon of our day – [is] the demand for conformity set up by the frightened men, the unfree men, the men George Orwell said would triumph by '1984,'" Wylie wrote. "Dr. Lindner draws his material from his immense experience with American men and women who have grown 'sick-minded' trying to be true to themselves in an era of rigid attitudes and senseless pressures." Lindner goes even further in his book to describe this malaise. "Our schools have become vast factories for the manufacture of robots," he says in the title essay. "We no longer send our young to them primarily to be informed and to acquire knowledge; but to be 'socialized' – which in the current semantic means to be regimented and made to conform...grades are given for the 'ability' of a child to 'adjust' to group activities, for whether he is 'liked' by others, for whether he 'enjoys' the subjects taught, for whether he 'gets along' with his schoolmates...[ultimately] revealing a cynical kind of anti-intellectualism."
The other underlying theme of Phil Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers accounts for the critical shifts that took place in the Sixties counter-culture. As the Seventies turned into the Reagan Eighties, the desperate need in the middle class to survive (at any cost) created a new species of Yuppie careerists who had morphed right out of the counter-culture itself. And, like the folks who flocked to Dr. Kibner's book launch for answers, they also looked to the self-serving banalities of pop psychologists for answers. The spoken goal of this quest was self-knowledge, but the hidden desire was to find 'enlightened' ways to regain lost prosperity. What was sacrificed in this process was the more complex understanding of behaviour, provided by hundreds of years of literature, philosophy and psychology.
– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. In January 2012, at the Miles Nidal Centre JCC in Toronto, Courrier will be doing a lecture series (film clips included) based on Reflections. Check their schedule in December. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.