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.

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