What's the Message, Mr. Gardiner?
An open thread dedicated to discussing books, movies, and tv shows we love. And occasionally some politics.
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.
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.