Monday, September 1, 2014

Cardboard Science: No, Ray, I fear the spider because I do understand it


An interstellar incident with both sides to blame, but seen through self-loathing eyes; an allegory for overcoming intolerance, marketed largely upon its horror elements.  Like capitalism, it continues to fail to collapse under its own internal contradictions; unlike capitalism, it is pretty darned good.  Happy Labor Day!

Directed by Jack Arnold
Written by Ray Bradbury and Harry Essex
With Richard Carlson (John Putnam), Barbara Rush (Ellen Fields), Charles Drake (Sheriff Matt Warren), Joe Sawyer (Frank), Russell Johnson (George), and Kathleen Hughes (June)

Spoiler alert: high

Let me tell you a story about a man.

At the dawn of the 1950s, he built a reputation as a celebrated documentary filmmaker.  He began his feature career in B-movie noir, but his talent was recognized immediately, and he was rapidly promoted to more prestigious fare.  With larger budgets, he went on to produce massively-successful, highly-regarded work.  In the midst of his own burgeoning career, he even took over directorial duties for a faltering project, as a personal favor to a friend.  His touch remains evident; nonetheless, he would speak little of his role in the finished film.  Then, as the 1960s beckoned, he made a well-regarded comedy with Peter Sellers in three roles.  But before you get too confused, I assure you that our man did not go on to direct 2001: A Space Odyssey, for by the time it began filming, he was far too busy helming Mr. Terrific, a television comedy about wacky drug addiction.

And that is the baffling biography of Jack Arnold, dear reader: the man who did so much to define American cinema in the 1950s wound up almost exclusively a TV showrunner, with more than twice as many film directorial credits in those brief seven years, 1953-1959, than in the twenty-four years between 1960 and his retirement in 1984.  Why this transformation?

Sorry for the anticlimax, but that's a legitimate question.  Perhaps he craved the stability of TV; there's no shame in that, for stability is what we all want.  But it is also a gut-punch pity that the genre he helped build, and in which he created a permanent legacy, he abandoned before the decade was through.

But not without leaving eight science fiction films (or nine), and many more cool movies besides, few if any of which can be safely ignored.  No, the best thing for us is to no longer avoid the elephant but to ride the elephant, embarking upon an exploration of Arnold's work.  So let's stow all that talk of the end, and begin at the beginning, or as close to the beginning as the semi-lost nature of that first B-noir, Girls in the Night, permits.

Cue theremin.

It Came From Outer Space entered life as a mere twinkle in the eye of producer William Alland, who took the germ of an idea to litSF luminary Ray Bradbury.  Bradbury loved it, but in a fit of condescension wrote two versions of the treatment. One was "vulgar" and "obvious" and for the studio; the other was for his own personal edification.  Universal, like lambs, greenlit the good version.  Alland needed a writer for the screen, however, and turned to Harry Essex, who has ever since claimed all the credit, and been roundly vilified as a result.  (We'll see how fair this is.)

Thrown into the mix was our unproven director, but Jack Arnold somehow convinced them he was an expert in science fiction.  In response, they gave him bags marked with dollar signs and, due to Bradbury's involvement, a significant measure of control.  To his own surprise, he really must have been an expert in science fictionat least, the box office thought so!

More than that, according to contemporary and later reports, he turned out to be an expert in 3D filmmaking, something no one could have rightly expected.  I've never had the fortune to see in their original form any of Arnold's deepiesI swear they called them thisbut I have it on good authority that It, one of Hollywood's first, as well as Creature From the Black Lagoon, one of their last before the 1980s resurgence, are paragons of the form.  I've also heard it from that same authority that The Glass Web is too, so take that with a huge grain of salt, since Web's 3D appears (in a 2D showing, at least) to be nothing but sullen gimmickry, its main value a thematic onenamely, the outright contempt it shows for the both viewers and authors of media sensationalism.

Much of It's 3D appears to be that of the nuanced dimensionality that nerds crave: seems everyone who's seen it swoons at the swing of its science hero's telescope.  However, the film opens with a 1,000,000-lumen magnesium flare flying into your eyes, and another early sequence involves a landslide sliding hundreds of tons of land directly at the camera.  Arnold was on hand at the premier to physically throw styrofoam rocks at his audience during the latter scene; Stanley Kubrick may have done many fine things, but he never did that.

And then he threw an axe at a theatergoer's face!  Wait, that was for the premier of Monster on the Campus.

I can't suppose that Arnold proved himself here a master of widescreen filmmaking, then sweeping Hollywood; and It was a bit more than just "protected" for the Academy ratio, as it began filming before widescreen became the standard.  I have been terribly frustrated trying to see what It looked like in its reported 1.85:1 theatrical presentation, or really much of anything about this part of its production, except the obviousthat it was composed for 1.37:1:

God alone knows what kind of injury widescreen presentations did to this perfect image.

The film begins with that aforementioned flare smashing the title card into our brains, though this is clearly a case of studio-mandated dumbassery.  Our story begins in earnest in a modest home in the western desert, land of the atom bomb and epicenter of science fictional happenstance.  There, John Putnamastronomer, SF writer, author stand-inis looking at the stars, or rather pretending to, since he's understandably and enviably distracted by Ellen Fieldsschoolteacher, girlfriend, author's idealized mate stand-in.  The former is Richard Carlson, who will become the science hero template, a Reed Richards for all seasons, at least until he became a raging alcoholic; the latter, the vivacious Barbara Rush, who was embarrassed by her participation in an SF film.

They discuss their romance in dialogue so mind-blowingly overscripted it's actually rather cute; but, fortunatelyas this was unlikely to sustain itself for very longthey are soon interrupted by a "gush of molten metal from the stars" streaming across the miniature set in a cutaway shot (yes, again).  A meteor?  Let's investigate!

It's not!

John sees the spaceship, but the crater collapses upon it.  Thus, John's reports are laughed off.  Newspapermen heckle him, a professor from the local Science University shakes his head sadly, and Sheriff Matt Warren, whose natural disbelief is intensified by a weird custodial interest in Ellen's choice of partners, can just barely call upon enough decency to restrain himself from making a circular motion around his temple with one index finger, and jabber-noises on his lips with the other.

Unknown to anyone else, however, the aliens have found an alternate way out of their trapped ship through a nearby mineshaft.  John must have inwardly vowed revenge for his humiliation, for once he encounters them, he essentially does their bidding with no questions asked, no matter how obvious those questions should be.  The aliens reveal themselves to be shapeshifters, you see, replacing all who encounter themexcept their ineffective spokesman.

The backbone of Bradbury's (and, perhaps, Essex') tale is the proposition that humans are an immature breed, who lash out at anything unlike themselves.  The actual film, however, presents a crew of stranded explorers whose ends are noble, but who are ruthless when it comes to obtaining the necessary materials to repair their vessel, and will do whatever it takes to protect themselves in the meantime.

John soon finds himself caught between his desire to prove to the aliens that all humans aren't unenlightened scum (only most of them) and the fact that they have now taken Ellen, too, as a hostage.  If the situation weren't tense enough, the Sheriff is starting to take John's crazy ideas seriously, and assembles a group of armed men that Bradbury desperately wants you to perceive as a lynch mob; but because the aliens refuse to prove in any fashion that they're not just eating all the bodies they've snatched, the humans come off as scared but rational, no matter how stereotypically the film presents them.

John, in the soul-straining aftermath of seeing the aliens' true form, tries to explain to Matt exactly why his lack of trust is wrong.  Defying cliche, he does not retrench into blind hatred, despite the threat to his lady human.  He deploys a speech about our false equation of aesthetics and moral value, using a desert spider as a convenient example.  The metaphor may be most fatuous, but Matt is too much of a Real American to forward the more compelling case that spiders have been confirmed to be dangerous, so instead he just squashes it.

Dear Mr. Bradbury: fuck spiders.

That brings us back to Harry Essex' contribution.  Whatever it amounted to, we have to at least credit him with editing a screenplay out of the detailedand unfilmabletreatment Bradbury produced.  For the death throes of the aliens, Bradbury called forin unfathomably baroque languageeffects work not merely so grotesque that it could never have passed censorship until the early 1970s, but so complex it could not even have been physically realized till the early 1980s.  It's also easy to point out when Essex translated, rather than replaced, Bradbury's dialogue; and Bradbury's least-trammeled lines are obvious, such as the eerie monologue of a telephone lineman about the sounds of wires and the inhuman strangeness of desert.  Some of Bradbury's lines verge on the hilariously over-the-top, using a half-dozen metaphors when none would do, rendering John a overwrought lunatic.  The unavoidable conclusion (if only from the admittedly fragmentary evidence available to me) is that history's judgment of poor, attention-whoring Essex may have been ever so slightly too harsh.

Indeed, despite Bradbury's ever-interesting yet sometimes-juvenile bent, embodied in John as his overoptimistic protagonist, It nonetheless provides a surprisingly mature portrayal of not one but two flawed species, each reacting as its own prejudices dictate.  This is in contrast to the alien invasion films to come, where the extraterrestrials are usually out-and-out commie monsters; the decidedly xenophobic renovation of It Came From Outer Space is that underbudgeted, overlooked Graves/Van Cleef talk opera, It Conquered the World.

Yet It also stands in counterpoint to 1950's The Man From Planet X, where the alien is a wholly misunderstood victim of cruel humanity; and it is especially different from 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still.  Though both Day and It are similar in their misanthropic tone, and both have aliens who blame every mistake they make themselves upon humanity's supposed barbarism, Arnold never fully embraces their reactionary judgment.  Arnold's not afraid to pique the audience's prejudices, shooting from the aliens' point-of-view.  Their gazes (and the demeanor of their humanoid stand-ins) always seem to simultaneously recoil from and stalk the humans they see, with a hypervigilance suggesting their own barely tamped-down terror and revulsion.  Fear of the unknown is likely not a human trait alone; it may, sadly, be quite universal.

"2/10.  Would not abduct."

If left up to Bradbury, though, those point-of-view shots would have been about all we ever saw of the aliens, and... well, I can hardly even.

Imagine Jaws without ever seeing the shark; Alien where all Ripley ever finds are a bunch of mutilated bodies; Ghostbusters, but all you witness are reactions to the form Ray's chosen for the Destructor.  I doubt you can imagine itthe mind revolts at the prospect.  That's what the ambitions of a guy who'd written cool books but never made a movie almost did to Universal's debut in a genre predominated by visualsEven Arnold deferred to this false wisdom.  But Universal didn't, forcing reshoots to put a creature in their feature, rather than relying upon whip pans to creepy trees.

Behold the primitive humans' savage yet effective fake jump scare!

Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, you really do have to thank God for studio interference; this is one of those times.  Without the moneymen, that unnerving tracking shot into the aliens' ship would have been left incomplete.

It's impossible to overstate what a shame this would have been!  The titular It (which is, of course, a They) is an icon of SF.  The balding cucumber of a skull, the uncanny movement, and above all that cyclopean, stalked eye define 1950s movie monstrosity.  They are not some guy in a papier-mache mask, or a handsome, totalitarian Space Jesus.  Though they have "minds and souls and are good," they are terrifying.

Pictured: actual horror.

The creatures are rush work, and though perhaps a tad cheesy by today's standards, they remain well-conceived, well-shot, well-lit (or well-shadowed), and they're effective.  Indeed, the tricks seen throughout It are effective, to the extent I didn't realize, least of all in the moment, that John and Ellen were driving through a soundstage.

But perhaps that's just Arnold at work, almost always able to capture his audience, and possessed of a capacity to deliver you into that warped world 1950s sci-fi lived in, full of horrors that might really be wonders, and wonders that might really be horrors.  There's a reason that the 1988 pastiche/homage/clipshow/gateway drug Invasion Earth: The Aliens Are Here, one of my greatest guilty pleasures, not only cribs elements of creature design for its multiplex conquerorsit begins with the scene of John and Ellen stargazing, and uses the crash as an excuse to throw its own title card upon the screen (yes, again!).  It is a classic: there's unmistakeable importance here, a seriousness and freshness, that time cannot dispel.

Score:  8/10

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • There's hardly any bad science in this one at all, befitting Bradbury's litSF credentialsthough it must be said the main reason for this is that the science fueling this science fiction is deliberately and extremely vague.
  • However, the idea that the aliens could, if they wanted, shatter the Earth with their drive system is a little out-there.  (That said, they were probably speaking poetically.)
  • Complex life forms with a cyclopean visage are unlikely.  The benefits of binocular vision, or at least ocular redundancy, are too greatgreat enough that they've evolved independently in at least three different phylogenetic branches on Earth: mollusks, arthropods, and chordates (i.e., us).
  • Further, shapeshifting is silly, but we wouldn't have it any other way, especially when they can shapeshift into Barbara Rush!
  • Finally, one is a mite doubtful that slamming a ship face-first into a planet caused so little damage that it could be plausibly repaired by raiding a telephone company truck and a small town's hardware store.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • For a 1950s film, this movie is progressive as hell.  Ellen is routinely told not to do things, and routinely disobeys.  She also has a job, and indeed the majority of the criticism she receives, as gendered as it inevitably is coming from Sheriff Matt, is that she's not at work.  Bradbury puts women where they belong... serving society and earning money?  Wait, that can't be right.
  • The plea for the tolerance and understanding of a patent alien menace, with its unavoidable reflection in the then-raging Cold War, is actually pretty well-taken.  In fact, one of Bradbury's cut lines involves direct references to white America's terrible treatment of minorities, which suggests to John exactly how well we'll treat something we can barely look at without vomiting.
  • There's a lot of talk about God in the treatment; this is translated in the screenplay as talk of souls.  It adds an interesting, even mystical touch to the film, and rather improves it, for it both evokes a sense of the aliens' own culture (without boggy exposition) and is honestly kind of creepy, the way they talk about the soul as if it were some scientifically-definable thing...
  • The important part, though, is that we all have souls, each thirsty for knowledge, each hungry for connection.  Can we see the beauty within, without reference to the flesh without?  We probably can't, but John Putnam can.  He's better than us.


  1. Lo and behold, I get distracted for a half hour and both you and Tim post new content that I've been waiting what feels like ages for. It's a Labor Day miracle!

    1. To the barricades!

      Despite my work/craziness-enforced inactivity, I've been following your first week back with interest. Man, I love that poster for The Initiation.

    2. Thank you so much! I'm really glad to hear that! It's been a lot of fun, although that kind of workload hit me hard by the end of the week.
      And isn't that image the most fascinatingly, indelibly phallic design you've ever seen in your entire life? I love that poster. It's like a Freudian wet dream, quite literally.
      I'm glad to see you back! I hope your work schedule knows to keep its distance. I'll see to it that it learns its lesson. The hard way.

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