Monday, December 22, 2008

Men in Boxes (1962, 1980, 2004)

When a British scientist with pacifist leanings commits suicide under mysterious circumstances, after taking part in a sensory deprivation experiment, he stands accused of having been a traitor to his country. In order to prove that it was the sensory deprivation tank that caused his suspicious behavior, an Oxford colleague (Dirk Bogarde) agrees to repeat the experiment. But without his knowledge, another colleague and a government security official supervising the experiment use sensory deprivation to brainwash a susceptible Bogarde into believing that he despises his pregnant wife (Mary Ure, wife of Robert Shaw). If the experiment works, they think, Bogarde will be proven right and the dead scientist will be exonerated. Unfortunately, the experiment turns out to work all too well, and the second colleague and the security official have a difficult time deprogramming an increasingly unhinged Bogarde.

This is the plot of The Mind Benders (1962), an authentic artifact of Cold War paranoia, directed by Basil Dearden (Dead of Night and the father of James, author of the screenplay for Fatal Attraction), and written by James Kennaway, author of Tunes of Glory, one of the best novels and movies about the peacetime military. The Mind Benders cogently dramatizes the dangers inherent in the use of the experimental box. Bogarde enters it one way and comes out of it with a completely different personality.

In an interesting aside, in 1968, the newly formed film division of the Beatles’ Apple Corps Ltd. purchased the rights to Kennaway’s novel, Some Gorgeous Accident, about a love triangle and a wife’s infidelity. It was supposedly inspired by Kennaway’s wife’s affair with spy novelist John Le Carre. In an ironic twist, Le Carre’s fictional alter ego, George Smiley, has a wife, Lady Anne, whose nymphomania is probably the worst kept secret in the history of the Circus—the Secret Intelligence Service. With its cool, probing intelligence and espionage overtones, The Mind Benders plays like a science fiction novel written by John Le Carre.

This movie about brainwashing and sensory deprivation is a contemporary of John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and a forerunner of Ken Russell‘s Altered States (1980). Both movies are adaptations written by Broadway veterans—the former by George Axelrod, the latter by Paddy Chayefsky. In the case of Altered States, a scientist (William Hurt) uses a sensory deprivation tank, in conjunction with a decoction made up of magic mushrooms he picked up in Mexico, in order to locate the seat of human consciousness. What he discovers, when the experiment goes wildly out of control, is his enhanced mind’s ability to transform, first his own anatomy, regressing into a proto-human figure that wanders the nighttime streets of Boston in search of prey, then the nature of reality itself. The scientist enters the box that is the sensory deprivation tank in one state and exits it in a completely altered state, hence the movie’s title.

In both The Mind Benders and Altered States, the sensory deprivation tanks have jury-rigged looks to them, all exposed electrical cables, pipes and insulation. They are the stuff of real science, not sleek and futuristic science fiction. They have an authentic bootleg, bootstrap look to them that really sells the reality of their science fiction premises. In fact, The Mind Benders is in the tradition of British science fiction movies such as The Day of the Triffids, Village of the Damned (both based on novels by John Wyndham) and Children of the Damned, which tend to take their stories very seriously indeed, something that American science fiction movies from the same period, the early 1960s, could never be accused of.

Which brings us to the third box—the packing crate tied together with duct tape time travel device that is the centerpiece of Shane Carruth’s Primer (2004), a science fiction movie shot on a $7,000 budget that had many viewers and critics scratching their heads when the movie enjoyed its brief theatrical release. This is literary science fiction, not movie science fiction. It is an intensely cerebral movie about the causality and potential paradoxes of time travel. But instead of George Pal’s Victorian chronocraft in his movie adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine or the time-traveling DeLorean in Back to the Future, the time machine box here has a completely handmade look to it, just as Primer itself looks handmade (in a good way).

In Primer, two techno geeks, Abe and Aaron, are also best friends. Abe lives with a couple of roommates. Aaron is married and has a young daughter. Abe is like another member of their family. Both work for high tech companies, but perform scientific experiments in Aaron’s garage in their spare time. Abe and Aaron begin work on a superconductor that they accidentally discover has time travel applications. How this time travel device, kept in a storage locker, works, is part of the script’s rigorous approach toward its science fictional premise.

The two friends use the machine to go back in time six hours and make money by buying stocks they already know will go up in the course of the day. But then, something happens. Aaron wants to use the time machine to achieve more godlike powers of prescience. Abe wants to go back in time to sabotage the machine and prevent his previous self from discovering its use. Aaron goes back in time even further to frustrate Abe’s intentions. In the end, both the partnership and the friendships are dissolved as their two disparate philosophies force Abe and Aaron to quarrel violently with one another. They enter the box as friends, but depart it as bitter enemies.

These three movies are separated by roughly twenty years each. And yet the device, the box, used in the movies are virtually interchangeable. Dirk Bogarde could crawl into Abe and Aaron’s time machine and feel right at home. Abe and Aaron could use William Hurt’s sensory deprivation tank and believe that it came out of their garage band approach to scientific experimentation. At heart, all three movies are about the effects of science on human relationships: between husband and wife in The Mind Benders, between William Hurt and his estranged anthropologist wife (a radiant Blair Brown) in Altered States, and between two best friends in Primer.

The Mind Benders takes way too long to set up its premise and its climax is less than suspenseful. In between, though, the movie provides a resolutely keen anatomy of a contemporary marriage. But it seems like Basil Dearden was the wrong director for the job and one can only imagine the fun that Michael Powell (The Red Shoes, The Small Back Room), a far more flamboyant filmmaker, would have had visualizing the inside of Bogarde’s sensory deprived mind. No stranger to the psychedelic potential of cinema, Ken Russell turns Altered States into a real sixties-style headtrip. Paddy Chayefsky hated Russell’s direction of his dialogue and famously ordered his name taken off the film (the screenplay is credited to “Sidney Aaron”). Shane Carruth is far more restrained in his direction, constrained as he was by his miniscule budget. But he nevertheless manages to create one of the most lived-in depictions of the world of the techno geek.

In the end, despite their cautionary themes (distilled to its essence, Altered States’ is right out of The Wizard of Oz: “There’s no place like home.”), there is something hopeful about watching smart, dedicated men working on a shoestring budget to produce something new and exciting. That is exactly a metaphor for what Shane Carruth accomplished in Primer. One can’t wait to see what happens when he unveils his next box.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Man's Favorite Sport? (1964)

With the possible exception of Blake Edwards’ The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark (both featuring Peter Sellers as Inspector Jacques Clouseau of the Surete), 1964 was not a banner year for American movie comedy. Comedies released for the year include David Swift’s Good Neighbor Sam, J. Lee Thompson’s star-stuffed (as opposed to star-studded) What a Way to Go! and Ralph Levy’s Bedtime Story (remade in 1990 as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). Most of these movies had sex on the brain, yet lacked the refinement of an Ernst Lubitsch to make the sex seem anything but witlessly vulgar.

Even Billy Wilder, a disciple of the “Lubitsch Touch,” co-wrote, produced and directed the misguided Kiss Me, Stupid, a movie about a would-be song writer (Ray Walston) who, in order to sell one of his songs, pimps out a stripper (Kim Novak) to a Vegas crooner passing through town (Dean Martin playing a character referred to in the script as “Dino”). It was considered so depraved that the movie was condemned in the strongest language possible by the Catholic League of Decency. Wilder blamed the failure of the movie on the fact that Ray Walston was a last minute substitute for a heart attack-stricken Peter Sellers, for whom the part of the song writer had originally been written. One year later, J. Lee Thompson’s strenuously unfunny John Goldfarb, Please Come Home (written by a pre-Exorcist William Peter Blatty), generated an equal amount of Catholic ire by showing the Notre Dame football team seduced by a band of harem girls.

Three of the biggest American comic stars of the decade were Cary Grant, Jack Lemmon and Rock Hudson. Grant was winding down his career with the romantic thriller, Charade (1963), and the family comedy, Father Goose, in which, cast against type, the usually suave Grant spent the entire movie barefoot, rumpled and unshaven. In 1964, Jack Lemmon was represented by Good Neighbor Sam, a comedy that timorously exploited that shocking new phenomenon of wife swapping, based on a minor novel by Jack Finney (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Time and Again). As for the well-named Rock Hudson, he appeared in two romantic comedies that year, as Doris Day’s foil in Norman Jewison’s Send Me No Flowers and as Paula Prentiss’ in Howard Hawks’ Man’s Favorite Sport?

At the time, Hawks was coming to the end of a distinguished career as one of the greatest American film directors, with a protean command of any genre. He could direct comedy (His Girl Friday) and drama (Only Angels Have Wings), contemporary films (To Have and Have Not) and historical epics (Land of the Pharaohs), crime melodramas (Scarface) and westerns (Red River), war movies (Air Force) and detective stories (The Big Sleep). It is even believed that, in addition to producing, he secretly directed The Thing from Another World (1951), which featured his trademark overlapping dialogue as well as another Hawksian staple—the lone female character who can hold her own in a world of male camaraderie.

In Man’s Favorite Sport?, Hawks generously steals from himself and recycles many of the most famous gags from what is probably his best screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby (1938). Although well regarded today, the movie was a disaster when it was released because the humor in the movie is so lacking in motivation that the entire picture has an absurdist air to it. Katharine Hepburn plays a mad heiress who becomes obsessed with winning the love of a man she barely knows, a distracted paleontologist played by Cary Grant. He seems more concerned with finding his Brontosaurus skeleton’s missing bone than in Hepburn’s flirtatious assaults. The bone in question, the intercostal clavicle, has been stolen by the heiress’ dog (played by Asta on loan from The Thin Man series). But that is not the Baby of the title. Baby is a leopard the mad heiress keeps in her Park Avenue apartment (and who goes after the dog who goes after the bone).

What is man’s favorite sport? According to Johnny Mercer’s lyrics to Henry Mancini’s title song, “the favorite sport of man is girls.” But in the movie, the sport in question is ostensibly fly-fishing, of which Rock Hudson, playing a San Francisco Abercrombie and Fitch salesman, is supposedly an expert. (In those days, A&F sold sporting goods and camping equipment instead of retailing teen erotica fantasies.) In reality, Hudson has never been fishing in his life and has faked his expertise. The plot kicks in when Hudson’s bosses ask him to take part in a fishing tournament held at a lodge north of San Francisco. Paula Prentiss is a P.R. woman who represents the lodge. Fearful of being exposed as a fraud, Hudson resents Prentiss for roping him into this potentially scandalous situation. The two of them spend most of the movie fighting tooth and nail, which, this being a screwball comedy, only makes them fall in love with one another. And along the way, we are treated to a series of scenes in which Hudson, the non-fisherman is forced to pretend to be an expert on fly-fishing (just as Hudson, the closeted gay man, is forced in all his movies to pretend to be a heterosexual ladies’ man).

Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss are Hawks’ contemporary stand-ins for Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, although they are pale copies when compared with the sparkling originals. Prentiss affects the same madcap air as Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, but here, her attraction to Hudson really seems to come out of nowhere. And Rock Hudson’s indifference to Prentiss’ come-ons appears to come from a deeper place than just his opposition to her scheme of having him continue to fake his expertise during the fly-fishing tournament. The script even honors genre conventions by giving Hudson a requisite straight-laced fiancĂ©e to complete the love triangle according to the rules of screwball comedy (although, this being 1964, Hudson's fiancee is a slightly sexier version of Cary Grant's prim, ascetic fiancee in Bringing Up Baby).

The movie has a plodding pace compared to the headlong momentum of Hawks’ best movies of the thirties and forties. And there is a general air of mustiness that hangs over most of the jokes. And yet, Hawks still manages to supply some inspired moments. One occurs when Rock Hudson tries to wriggle his way head first into a locked car through its open sunroof. The sight of six-foot-five Hudson stuck upside down inside a tiny foreign car is a visual gem. As a leading man Hudson was never in Cary Grant’s league, but, in Man’s Favorite Sport?, he proved himself to be a very good sport when it came to making fun of his own manly image.

There is another fresh gag (in both senses of the word). It happens when Hudson, Prentiss and Maria Perschy, playing the lodge owner’s daughter, Isolde “Easy” Mueller (Easy: a Hawksian nickname if ever there was one), go into the woods for a private confab after Hudson has revealed to them that he is a phony. The two women have their backs to the camera. Hudson is facing them. It begins to rain. The rain makes Prentiss’ and Perschy’s blouses turn transparent, something they are unaware of as they gab on and on. And the humor in the situation is derived from Hudson’s growing frustration over his inability to inform the oblivious, chatting women that they “look like they haven’t any clothes on.” This racy gag must have come across as quite shocking to movie audiences in 1964.

But these examples aside, compare the otherwise creaky antics in Man’s Favorite Sport?, shot entirely on the hermetically sealed environs of the Universal backlot, to what was going on in British and Italian cinema at the same time. Pietro Germi’s Seduced and Abandoned, also released in 1964, is a maturely considered, savagely funny attack on Italian sexual hypocrisy with a plot that boldly demonstrates the courage of Germi’s satiric convictions. And in England, Clive Donner and Richard Lester were shaking up British cinema with, respectively, Nothing but the Best, the story of a charming sociopath played by Alan Bates, and A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles’s critic-defying movie debut.

One year later, in The Knack…and How to Get It, Lester would pull off an audacious comedy stunt by having three characters (played by a very young and very thin Michael Crawford, Rita Tushingham and Donal Donnelly) push, ride, tow and row an iron bed on wheels across London. The scene is a triumph of cinematic ingenuity as Lester playfully collapses time and space in order to work in every possible gag he can dream up for this rolling iron bed, one of the most iconographic images of British cinema of the sixties. Contrast this to the lack of cinematic spark found in these American comedies, directed for the most part by old men, dirty old men or studio hacks with no comedic flair whatsoever, to be consumed by a complacent, middle class, middlebrow audience. It would take Mike Nichols with The Graduate to break a few windows and let some fresh air into the room. But this advent was still three years in the future. And it couldn’t come soon enough to help shake the American cinema out of its doldrums.