January 20, 2010

These Immigrants Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Green Cards

When I saw the first version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Don Siegel, I was only a kid, but I knew it contained more truth than any movie I had ever seen before.

I don’t mean that I suddenly suspected the neighbors of having gone to high school in another galaxy or that I expected to find a giant pod tucked in the back of my closet. Well, okay, I did expect to find a giant pod in my closet, but the worst thing I ever turned up, after countless panicky searches, night after night, was an old sneaker with an aromatic touch of mildew in it. And that was just last week.

When I say the movie brims with truth, I am not saying that the story line is literally true. Rather, it expresses profound truths through a compelling metaphor. Some critics have suggested that the film plays on fears of communism and is perhaps the most effective of the red-scare movies, but that’s an inadequate interpretation.

In the 20th century, so many powerful forces have reshaped society so rapidly, compared to the more measured pace of change in previous centuries, that it’s no surprise when we feel besieged and in danger of losing our humanity. Communism and fascism are the obvious examples of ideologies that not merely devalued the individual but denied legitimacy to the very idea that the masses exist for any purposes other than to serve an elite and to die for the philosophies of that elite. Yet an honest evaluation of most political movements that have followed the collapse of fascism and communism will reveal utopian fantasies of one stripe or another, each of which would sacrifice individuals to some imagined greater good and would result in hive societies that allow no freedom and no joy except the psychotic joy of the true believer swept away by messianic rapture. Even many basically nonpolitical movements with admirable intentions have embraced the antihuman attitudes and methodology of totalitarian ideologies. For example, though it is imperative that the environmental movement function rationally and successfully if we are to have an ecologically healthy world to give to future generations, it seems as though half of the various organizations under the environmentalism umbrella have been coopted by fanatics who want to use ecological concerns to effect social engineering that was tried and failed under both fascist and communist regimes; many actually argue that human beings are “unnatural,” an infection that is destroying the planet, and that we have no right to be here.

The furious pace of technological change is another dehumanizing force, distancing us from our work. Labor-saving technology was supposed to give us more leisure time, but a greater percentage of our waking hours is spent in work or work-related tasks than ever before, as we spin like squirrels in exercise cages, desperate to keep current with change and therefore employable. This leaves less time for mothers and fathers to spend with their families and virtually no time at all to interact with their neighbors, to function as an integral part of their communities. A sense of isolation grows.

We were told that the information revolution would solve all the problems that previous technological change had wrought. The personal computer is indeed liberating, and the day may actually come when it saves us time rather than merely enabling us to do more work than ever before. Many claim to have found a sense of community through the internet; but this can be little more than an illusion if few of these long-distance friendships result in the communicants meeting face-to-face and meaningfully interacting with one another beyond cyberspace. Relationship-building at a distance, through the filter of a computer, is ultimately ineffective for the sincere friend-seeker, but it is ideally suited to the sociopath whose powers of manipulation are enhanced when he can operate not merely behind his usual masks but behind an electronic mask as well. Many of us spend the evening hours online, staring at a screen rather than at human faces, communicating without the profound nuances of human voices and facial expressions, seeking sympathy and tenderness without the need to touch.

All the while, through our bones creeps the persistent feeling that we are losing our humanity. No wonder we still respond to Don Siegel’s The Invasion of the Body Snatchers so powerfully even more than forty years after its initial release. Increasingly alienated from community, family, and friends, we feel an uneasiness that at times borders on paranoia.

When modern men and women lost religious faith, they lost the associated belief that human beings are special, that we were created with purpose to undertake a life with meaning. Science, technology, and politics have not yet filled that void and probably never will be able to do so, especially not if they continue to be powered by the ideologies that have thus far informed them. If we believe that we are just animals, without immortal souls, we are already but one step removed from pod people.

The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers has at its center this fundamental truth of modern life, which is why year by year its power as art grows rather than diminishes. Aware of how rarely the products of Hollywood contain any truth, I resisted seeing Philip Kaufman’s–and W.D. Richter’s–remake when it hit theaters. I assumed that it would not measure up to the original, that it would be packed with bogus and unnecessary special effects, that Hollywood once again would have succeeded in turning a silk purse into a sow’s ear. When I finally watched it on laser disc, I was astonished and delighted to discover that it was a superb piece of work. By moving the setting from a small town to a metropolis, the director and screenwriter brought new power to the dual themes of alienation and dehumanization. The scenes near the end, in which packs of shadowy pod people rush through city streets in pursuit of the unconverted, bring instantly to mind images of Nazis chasing down Jews and evoke the terrors of every genocide and pogrom and political repression that has made this such a century of shame.

I had thought that the inimitable Kevin McCarthy’s superb, understated performance in the original couldn’t be equalled.

Although there is no entirely parallel role in the remake, Donald Sutherland’s Matthew Bennell is as compelling as McCarthy’s small-town doctor. The performances of Veronica Cartwright, Brooke Adams, and Jeff Goldblum help this version of the story to achieve immediacy and poignancy.

No films would have existed, of course, without Jack Finney’s classic science-fiction novel, THE BODY SNATCHERS. I have a long list of writers whose work I admire, and the reasons for admiring them are varied. I find Ray Bradbury’s fiction exceptional because of his bold use of language, his willingness to take chances with wildly colorful metaphors and striking imagery, and his ebullience and contagious love of life. I can reread the best of James M. Cain, because his economical prose, his risky use of pulp conventions in a mainstream context, and his unblinking fascination with the dark side of the human heart are bracing. Few writers handle characterization, pace, and milieu a fraction as well as John D. MacDonald. I don’t read Jack Finney for his style, which is clean and engaging but not as strongly personal as that of Bradbury. I don’t read Finney for his narrative pace, which is compelling enough but which is certainly not marked by breathless suspense. To me, one of the greatest strengths of Jack Finney’s work is his ability to describe and explore complex emotions in an admirably low-key fashion that nevertheless leaves the reader saying, Yes, I know exactly how that feels. This is a considerable achievement. Dickens could do it. Comparatively few are good at it.

Even writers whose novels scintillate with ideas, atmosphere, and mood are often emotionally dead on the page. In some, this may result from inadequate empathy; others may produce emotionally barren work because they mistakenly equate genuine sentiment with sentimentality and fear being pilloried by sarcastic critics. Finney’s two most famous novels–THE BODY SNATCHERS and TIME AND AGAIN–make us feel, and that is why they have such lasting power, though each tale evokes a rather different set of emotions. This is also why Finney’s work is well suited to Film adaptation: Film is fundamentally an emotional rather than intellectual medium. Which is not to say that Finney’s books lack intellectual content; indeed, we feel what these characters feel precisely because they are people who think, people of some charm and wit. Fear, joy, loneliness, longing–Finney had a way with this material, and that was a gift of gold to Don Siegel, Daniel Mainwaring, Philip Kaufman, and W.D. Richter.

It’s a gift of gold to all of us, in fact, and tonight I’m going to treat myself to a double feature: the Siegel and Kaufman versions. First, of course, I’ll inspect the back of my closet. And look under the bed. And see if there’s anything odd in the garage cabinets. I ought to do a quick search of the attic, too, and make sure there’s nothing but a spare tire in the trunk of the car. And, hey, with all the companies dealing in house alarms and personal-security these days, why hasn’t someone invented a device that can warn you if the person to whom you’re talking is composed of a significant percentage of vegetable matter? We really need a gadget like that. We really, really do.

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