What's the Message, Mr. Gardiner?

An open thread dedicated to discussing books, movies, and tv shows we love. And occasionally some politics.

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Lookout sent me a link to the following 13-minute analysis of American post-World-War II science fiction movies. If you have a few minutes, take a look, as it is, to coin a phrase,

Here it is. The general thesis is that Americans really channeled their Cold War political ambitions and sense of competition with Russia into their movies about outer space:

This could be a really reductive argument, but the professor, Ian Christie, keeps it from being so by acknowledging that American post-war films ALSO, almost always, allow room for other interpretations of their narratives (The Manchurian Candidate is an exception). So, for instance, I love Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the original). It certainly can be interpreted, easily, as a powerful anti-Communist movie. The first sign the main character has of anything being wrong in his town is that a farm family has shut down the stall where they sell their vegetables. "It was too much work," says the pod-corrupted mother.

Too much work?!? Dear gods! The Commies have arrived!

However, it's also a very powerful film for anyone who has experienced being part of a community that's being corrupted by an unseen force. It doesn't have to be Communism. It can be anything that maintains outward forms of life as a disguise for internal change, so that horrors can be accomplished seamlessly.

This gives me the excuse to post one of my favorite-ever moments from American science fiction (start at 1:40):

Who handles all the decisions that happen transparently around us?

Wow, Mr. Straczynski. Way to figure out the most important question facing your society and knock that mofo out of the park:

If you've ever had the misfortune to get anywhere near a cult, you will feel the power of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In Invasion, ordinary unarmed people become genuinely terrifying, as they search for the hero and heroine, calling out "We won't hurt you!" while they intend to take away from them all power to dissent or choose. The horror is that the movie gives us no sense that they're lying: they genuinely believe they're doing it for the best.

Is there enough space in this movie (no pun intended) that you can feel the hero's horror at losing his ability to perceive, choose, and love, to differentiate between one person and another, to decide what he thinks about a particular issue and whether to stand with the group or apart from it--without becoming a dupe to American anti-Communist propaganda? Weirdly enough, the film works really well as an allegory of the power of propaganda, as if the movie were turning back its vision on itself. The fourth-wall-breaking final scene of the movie actually fits in really well with the idea that the movie itself could be the danger:

The studio moguls felt that the original cut of Invasion was too dark and depressing. It was supposed to end with "You're next!" but that was too unhappy an ending, so they filmed a frame scene with the doctors that suggested that maybe the protagonist's warning had gotten out in time. This frame story is mostly an annoying cop-out that interferes with the impact of the story as a whole. But it shows the difficult position one is put into by the power of storytelling itself. You HAVE to use the power of storytelling to get the word out about how people are deprived of their power to choose, as seamlessly, somewhere, someone makes an invisible decision that the workday must be 9 to 6 rather than 11 to 4--a decision so invisible it doesn't look like a decision at all, but a law of the universe. Yet the power of storytelling, with its subtle and pervasive impacts on the human mind, is, in itself, extraordinarily vulnerable to corruption. Any story seeks to persuade its recipient to believe in it, to feel along with the characters, to have the right reactions at the right times. It is incredibly easy to abandon one's morals and use that power to manipulate the listener's ability to choose until it scarcely belongs to them at all, but functions rather as an almost Pavlovian puppet:

Or, to put it more elegantly, as Yeats did:

HALF close your eyelids, loosen your hair,
And dream about the great and their pride;
They have spoken against you everywhere,
But weigh this song with the great and their pride;
I made it out of a mouthful of air,
Their children’s children shall say they have lied.

I've spent a lot of time on Invasion here, because I love it so much, but I don't want to lose Dr. Christie's original point: the fact is that American cinema, in the 50s at least, perceives outer space as being a question of competition, struggles for dominance, the threat of conquest. I'd argue that The Day the World Stood Still, though featured in Dr. Price's video, actually takes that trope and holds it up to ridicule, as it makes it clear that war with the aliens happens solely because of the bellicose assumptions of the humans, in this case, Americans, who make the first contact:

But I'd also argue that The Day the Earth Stood Still is the exception that proves the rule; the movie whose scriptwriters were self-reflective enough to think about their genre and what message it was sending.

It's actually not until much later that American cinema begins to catch up with the Russian cinema in their treatment of space. According to Dr. Christie, Russians see, or saw, space incredibly idealistically; the ascent to the stars symbolized to them both a technological and a spiritual ascension to a higher and better human being. (I wonder if that belief is what enabled them to get there first? Because, you know, they weren't entirely focused on getting there first?) I don't really think American cinema catches up to this until 2001: A Space Odyssey
:

However, American television oddly gets there sooner, I'd argue in both certain episodes of The Twilight Zone, and, obviously, Star Trek. And in the light of Christie's argument, Gene Roddenberry's achievement looms large, in that he uses space very much like Christie says the Russians do: it is both a symbol of humanity's ascension to its higher self and a field on which the attempt to BE that higher self plays out. This is why Star Trek is so often a morality play: space confronts the crew of the Enterprise, and the audience, with the question of what it means to be human; seeking out new life and new civilizations confronts the crew of the Enterprise, and the audience, with the question what it means to be a good human.

What better way to measure the quality of one's humanity than by how one treats the alien?

I find it interesting that apparently Roddenberry believed that an editorial had been written in Pravda criticizing him for the lack of a Russian on board the Enterprise, though it seems that never actually happened. This belief may have had something to do with him deciding to create the character of Chekov as a Russian, instead of as a Brit, which was his original intention.

http://www.snopes.com/radiotv/tv/chekov.asp

However, apparently there is at least something to the Pravda story, as the 1996 book Inside Star Trek: The Real Story (by Desilu executive Herb Solow and Star Trek Associate Producer Robert Justman) reproduces a 1967 letter from Gene Roddenberry on Star Trek letterhead to the editor of Pravda, informing the latter of Chekov's addition to the cast. Unless the letter was a latter-day forgery created to lend support to a publicity stunt, it would indicate that Roddenberry at least believed Pravda had run such an editorial, whether they genuinely did or not.

We doubt Pravda actually did run an editorial about Star Trek, but we also doubt that even Gene Roddenberry would have forged a back-dated letter to support the claim that they did, so we think it likely he genuinely believed they had. How much any of this might have influenced Roddenberry's decision to make the added Star Trek character played by Walter Koenig a Russian, we can't tell at this remove.

I think the Pravda story is MORE interesting because it was all, basically, happening inside Gene Roddenberry's head. It shows a kind of weird awareness on Roddenberry's part that it really *wasn't* fair to have a 23rd-century crew from Earth (mostly) that included no Russians. That said, imagining a resentful Russian, peeved at being ignored by an American television show about space, pretty well buys into the idea of space as something to be fought over by nations, significant mainly in its ability to signify that one or the other side "beat" the other. But clearly, Roddenberry also decided that the Russians *should* be part of his Trek. He really did want the whole of humanity to be included in the ascent to space, for space travel to somehow trump the ugly, petty spectacle of nations warring with each other and trying to outdo each other.

If Roddenberry had had greater resources, and more time, I think he might have written a scene something like this one, which J Michael Straczynski wrote about 25 years later, and which never fails to make me cry:

UPDATE: And damn it, now I have another reason to cry! Jerry Doyle joins the too-long list of deceased members of the cast: Michael O'Hare, Richard Biggs, Andreas Katsulas (who gave the performance of his life in Babylon 5), and Jeff Conaway. Goddamnit, 2016.

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I never thought this movie had communism as its subject. Just the opposite: I thought it was about Americans being conformist through government sponsored fear campaigns like the McCarthy/Eisenhower witch hunts and black lists. It had at its root the commodification of mass culture and was a critique of the governmental "trust us" vibe that was part of the 1950's and for which the 1960's was to be a partial cure.

"In the bleakness of the Eisenhower 50's, you'd hitchhike 1000 miles to see a friend"...Gary Snyder

I'm not saying your interpretation is incorrect; I am saying I have felt strongly that the film was a necessary allusion(because of censorship and the governmental clampdown on artists) to the conformity people imposed on themselves to protect themselves of being accused of harboring leftist thoughts.

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"The justness of individual land right is not justifiable to those to whom the land by right of first claim collectively belonged"

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@duckpin I see it that way too. I think what I was trying to get at was that it can easily be read both ways--which is a strategy American screenwriters often used to get around the censors--at least that's how it looks to me.

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The issue is patriotism. You've got to get back to your planet and stop the Commies. All it takes is a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal I understand what you are saying and I agree.

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"The justness of individual land right is not justifiable to those to whom the land by right of first claim collectively belonged"

Lookout's picture

and I guess sci fi in general helps get us out of our box, and I think can be interpreted in many ways.

Pod people can be seen as Hillbots, commies, or any group that blindly follows orders, not thinking for themselves, and wants you to be like them....

Some futuristic movies actually predict the future. Who can forget Gort the robot in the day the earth stood still and the prediction that brought him to life - electo barak obama Wink
(actually it was "Klaatu barada nikto")

youtube offers dozens of old sci fi - here's a few dozen to choose from:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSVrj8eIzjw&list=PLI3_EPPOjyNpf2yx8ZSQHK...

Thanks for the OT, CStS. Hope you all have a good day.

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“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Thanks for today's OT, I think the prez is "signaling the CIA" that propaganda wars are ON no holds barred, and he is already their useful tool. Skipping to the end:

During an appearance at the CIA Saturday, he wrongly said the inaugural crowds gathered on the National Mall stretched to the Washington Monument, despite clear photo evidence to the contrary.

Either that or, what? Sounds delusional. Gotta cover up theft of treasury somehow, eh? Bernays he loves bigly. Chew upon the outrage. Or not:

http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/6587010-181/president-trump-announces-major-voter

Bouncing to pop culture I like what Cristela Alonzo said about the Great Wall, something like "doesn't the dumb-ass know we use tunnels now?". But it will be eight billion dollars beautiful! China envy.

Love one another, that is all. Religion is coming like it or not. Rastafarian?

Peace

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riverlover's picture

Shock Doctrine appears. At least I read the book, so I can see/fear the setup.

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Hey! my dear friends or soon-to-be's, JtC could use the donations to keep this site functioning for those of us who can still see the life preserver or flotsam in the water.

Shahryar's picture

similar theme, with people changing, conforming. Michael Moore is a good example of a "rhinoceros" with his "woo-hoo! Just voted for Hillary!" tweet.

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@Shahryar Good playwright he was

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"The justness of individual land right is not justifiable to those to whom the land by right of first claim collectively belonged"

@Shahryar @Shahryar I somehow never knew there was a film of the Ionesco play. And Zero Mostel slays me. I'm going to have to check it out.

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Creosote.'s picture

@Shahryar @Shahryar
Would that fit the date of the film?

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Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@Shahryar This is a playwright I've heard of, but haven't read. Worth a read?

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The issue is patriotism. You've got to get back to your planet and stop the Commies. All it takes is a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

has always been my least favorite decade of film. It's generally so sterile and surface. I saw the sci-fi movies as a kid, but generally think them silly these days. Of course, I love Body Snatchers- with the original ending only (which is oddly hard to find). All of that Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds (RIP), Douglas Sirk etc. stuff makes me nauseous or just bores me.

For some reason I have been thinking about overrated directors tonight. As I've revisited films I saw as a younger person, I am often surprised at how poorly they hold up. The Nouvelle Vague films (and French film) in general now leaves me cold. There's a bloodlessness to french film that I find tedious now, whereas I loved Truffaut, for example, as a student. (Still love Confidentially Yours though).

I have come to find the auteur period very self-indulgent and find that the clever filiming tricks are not enough to sustain so many of these films. (Of course, in part, because the novelty is gone. Their devices have been so standardized that we cannot experience the newness of them. It's like watching Psycho.)

For some reason I am particularly stuck with how underwhelming I find Scorsese. I think Goodfellas is a great film, and really like Taxi Driver (the film is ll that's left of the old east village). He's great with a camera, but I find he's a terrible story teller because he really has nothing to say. Or perhaps he's afraid of saying anything (still the little sickly kid looking out the window at the cool tough guys?)

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@orestes I painfully have to agree with you. Taxi Driver seems dated, and de Niro's performance sometimes overindulgent (though with flashes of brilliance). Goodfellas was good, but it suffers from one of Scorsese's weaknesses, a choppy narrative structure. I tried to watch Raging Bull recently, and despite all the camera fanciness it came across as dull and conventional as a medieval morality play. I liked The Departed, mainly because of Nicholson's last great performance, and the plot pacing was much more even and brisk.

I grew up reading science fiction from the classic writers like Clarke, Heinlein and Asimov, and wore out a couple copies of Dune. I always thought reading science fiction from that period infinitely preferable to watching it in movies or teevee. Even though I no longer read science fiction, I remember those first generation classics very fondly.

The 50's had some virtues as a movie decade. Brando's early films were definite upgrades on the gritty Warner Brothers potboilers of earlier decades. Two of my favorite movies, All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard, opened the decade, and another closed it: West Side Story. But overall the Fifties were almost as banal as the Eighties. I still rate the Sixties and Seventies as probably the best movie decades, in film as in popular music since Presley.

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@Dallasdoc @Dallasdoc I forgot to mention that Scorsese has a real problem with pacing, which is amusing to me since pacing seems to be a major element of his filmmaking. Oftentimes, there is a real lag at some point in his movies. Even in Goodfellas, which I apparently like more than you, the day of arrest sequence drags. I saw Raging Bull when it was chosen as the best film of the 80's and had the same reaction. Although I admired the cinematography, I don't think I could ever watch it again. It was so dull and had nothing to say (medieval morality play is a perfect assessment). Gangs of NY and Age of Innocence, to pick two obvious duds, are painful in their pacing IMO. The exception for me is NY, NY. I always loved that movie (uncut) even though it gets interminable and has nothing to say. Nice gal falls for self-absorbed immature jerk. Jerk remains jerk. At least the girl moves on! It works for me because it's a genre film and he is clearly trying to turn Liza into her mother. I was friends with a woman who was married to a NY camera operator, who worked on all of the Scorsese films. Apparently, he was merciless about Liza after their cocaine-infused romance ended.

I agree about Brando, Eve, and Desmond. There were films that either didn't speak to the 50's sensibility or were reactions to it. I like Touch of Evil, the 50's Hitchcocks (although some of those are very 50's- eg, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder), the noirs (Asphalt Jungle, etc.), Garland's Star is Born, and, of course, I Want To Live (as little gay boy, watching Susan Hayward chain smoke in a black slip and heels behind bars, on the late show no less, was irresistible; I became an instant fan), to name a few.

Final thought on Scorsese- he puts a curse on his actresses. You will note that most of his leading actresses receive incredible acclaim for their work, but usually never achieve any further acclaim- Moriarty, Bracco, Mastrantonio, Bernhard, Lewis, Ryder, Ladd.

On West Side Story, I simply could never buy the conceit of ballet dancing gang members. Probably because I grew up with the real thing, including the mafia. I was heartened when I read the Secrest Sondheim bio years ago in which he remarks that WSS is too precious. Ah, Stephen and I agree! I love Sondheim and the show/film has its hardcore fans. I just could never buy it. My favorite movie musicals are Cabaret,All That Jazz, Sweet Charity, and How To Succeed. Generally, I find most movie musicals (certainly the MGM brand) too fluffy and bland, but do love the Berkeley Warners musicals. Ruby Keeler never fails to make me chuckle, with her earnestness and heavy hoofs.

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@orestes I agree with you that Cabaret and All That Jazz are my favorite musicals, especially Cabaret (interesting both went up against the good Godfather movies at the Oscars.) WSS is kind of a guilty pleasure: the acting sucks, the book is atrocious, but the music and choreography are so sumptuous I can't not love it. Bernstein's score is incredibly sophisticated behind the 50's pop veneer, and it rewards relistening as much as Bartok or Schoenberg. Older musicals never really caught my fancy -- too saccharine or over the top for my taste, even Berkeley. I much prefer listening to the great songs to watching the movies.

Hitchcock is a bit of a mystery to me. I've seen his classics at least twice (Vertigo is my favorite), but I don't see in them what others see. Yes, they're smart psychological studies in the main, but there's a claustrophobic air about them that puts me off. I know that's apostasy, but that's never stopped me before.

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@Dallasdoc My personal favorites are Saboteur, Foreign Correspondent, The Lady Vanishes, Strangers on a Train, and Shadow of Doubt. I think what I like about hitchcock is that you just go along for the ride. He's so manipulative (in a good way) that it's like riding on a roller coaster. I can see your claustrophobia, but I would tend to see that in the 50's (ahem) and later films (except Psycho). I should watch that truffaut/hitchcock documentary (read the book/interview ages ago), but I expect I'll find truffaut pretentious. Nice chatting with you on this.

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Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@Dallasdoc I *love* Seventies films, although I wouldn't want a diet of nothing but--because they were into a kind of hyper-realism there, and, much as I love it, I wouldn't want my movie diet to ONLY be uber-realistic stuff. The more ornate, melodramatic, just plain dramatic conventions of 30s and 40s movies appeal to me too.

I found this interesting--has everybody else seen it? I think the scholar who made it died in the past couple of years. Excellent piece of work:

And it brings up two of my favorite movies from the fifties: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like it Hot. I like GPB better though--it's way more subversive of a lot more things, most particularly how capitalist economics, morality and sexuality collide in this culture we have. Or used to have.

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The issue is patriotism. You've got to get back to your planet and stop the Commies. All it takes is a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal Thanks for sharing that. I'll confess I've never seen GPB, but will have to look for it on your recommendation. Who doesn't love Some Like It Hot? It doesn't get any better than perfect Billy Wilder -- although I actually prefer 1963's Tom Jones as a comedy. A classic English confection with that sublime wit: I'm totally in love with it.

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Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@Dallasdoc I re-watched The Music Man recently, and just can't shake my love for its essential conceit, which is Meredith Wilson lovingly and devastatingly poking fun at the land of his birth.

Then there's his understanding of the power of language. Talk about guilty pleasures. Next to Air Supply, this is my guiltiest pleasure. As someone at TOP once said, all Harold Hill needs is a swastika. Yet I can't stop loving the demonstration of the power of language. And laughing at it too.

This is why academics and English majors are hated by the general populace....because we notice when they're acting like boobs.

I try to push that part of me down hard because I also believe, with all my heart, that I'm not actually better than those people who let themselves get convinced that there's trouble in River City.

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The issue is patriotism. You've got to get back to your planet and stop the Commies. All it takes is a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem