RAY BRADBURY WEEK: THE ELECTRIC GRANDMOTHER

"That's my job, to live forever!" - Josephine Hutchinson, Twilight Zone Episode 100: "I Sing the Body Electric"

 

Ray Bradbury died today, aged roughly 171 in Mars years, leaving behind 27 novels and enough short stories to fill six full lifetimes. Rather than let the news ruin my day, I took my daughter to the beach, keeping a lookout for the remains of mammoth beasts that may have swept up onto the sand and listening across the water for the lonely call of any anicent creatures that might still be out there. This is where Bradbury found inspiration, I thought: not from books or movies or TV shows that came before, but from his own unlimited mind as he wandered thoughtfully looking out over the sea. He was one of the last true originals, and his passing is as he described the end of everything in one of his best stories, "The Last Night of the World" - the closing of a book. He knew 59 years ago when he released Fahrenheit 451 that a writer can live forever, even when his work is suppressed and destroyed, that a closed book can always be reopened. That's why I didn't sweat it when the Smoke's articles on movies written by Bradbury and other movies adapted from his work went from being a week-long celebration of his 90th birthday to a year-long recurring series: there's never a bad time to bring up Bradbury. And when I found out there were even more adaptations to write about, I figured that "Ray Bradbury Week" could literally stretch on for decades...one day I might even make it through Peter Hyams' A Sound of Thunder, although I wouldn't recommend traveling to the future to find out if there's any truth in that. So today, a brief look at a story about immortality, from the mind of an immortal...

"The Electric Grandmother." Sounds like a dance move popularized by some elderly actress inexplicably thrust into the limelight of popular culture after years of obscurity like Cloris Leachman or Betty White (to date, both still alive.) In a way, that's not too far off from this adaptation's twist on Bradbury's story "I Sing the Body Electric." It may have been a few years too early for Maureen Stapleton to completely embody the 'hip granny' persona - we were still two years away from "Where's the beef?" and Estelle Getty had yet to re-define the term "sassy" for the geriatric set - but this short 1982 made-for-television movie (produced by NBC for something called Peacock Showcase, a movie-a-week series aimed at kids) has a definite feeling of "take a backseat, youngsters, it's time for your ol' granny to rock 'n roll!" (though to a lesser extent than Cocoon in '85, in which Stapleton was more actively in the face of indignant youngsters who couldn't stomach the sight of old people surfing or whatever it was they got up to in that movie.) The good news is, since the author was such a progressive thinker, a lot of the elements jettisoned from "Body Electric" for the famous Twilight Zone episode based on the same story, probably for being deemed too freaky for 1960's middle America, are featured here because they're a lot more tuned to 80's audiences (just a few sci fi films playing at the box office around the same time: Altered States, Road Warrior, Scanners, Heavy Metal.) The bad news is that, like many an 80's fantasy-adventure, its idea of what would win over a kid - in this case it's a granny flying a kite - are hopelessly cornball. It's easy to picture the NBC brass chriping enthusiastically, "What youngster wouldn't go ape to have his or her very own...electric grandmother!" It's a move indicative of the decade for the producers to have dropped the Whitman reference, especially since the Fame movie had popularized the song of the same name just a year or two before, and make it sound like a Short Circuit-type movie. She's an old lady. And she's electric. Boogie woogie woogie.

But there's nothing too distracting, granny's first words aren't "Surfs up, dudemeisters!" The eponymous voltaic senior is played by Maureen Stapleton, the year after winning her Oscar for Reds, and the movie's directed by Noel Black, the year before he made Quarterback Princess, Helen Hunt's breakthru role [citation needed.] Black directed one of my favorite movies, the looney bin lovers drama Pretty Poison, which is also about a girl losing her mother - the only difference is, she's the reason for it. The three bereaved adolescents in Grandmother (one of them the older brother from E.T.) are left to mourn with their grieving and unfit-to-single-parenthood father, played by Stapleton's Reds castmate Edward Herrmann. (Jesus, was Herrmann ever young? He's such the prototypical adult: tall, authoritive, foolish - even as a vampire in The Lost Boys he was the paternal figurehead to a gang of biker bloodsuckers. His most convincing role was as Hearst in Bogdanovich's The Cat's Meow, uppity and self-serious while the other partiers were prone to fun and games, yet he's the one to commit the most hasty and childish act of the evening, gunning down the wrong man in a fit of jealousy.) One day soon after the mother's death, three parts of a metal heart are parachuted in front of house; once attached, a very creepy voice emits from within and invites the family to a factory located at "warehouse 541" (a botched Fahrenheit reference?) There they meet Paul Benedict, in his best Willy Wonka/John Glover-as-mad-scientist mode, as Guido Fantoccini (Italian, a'la Gepetto) who entices them to create the specifics for their own ideal grandmother, who is then delivered to the house via helicopter inside an Egyptian sarcophagus. She instantly wows the two boys by doing crazy robot stuff like pouring orange juice and milk from her fingertips and producing a long string from inside her steel form to make a kite climb higher into the sky. The daughter, Agatha, is still angry about her mother's death and doubtful over this machine's declarations of eternal love and tenderness.

I sympathize with Agatha: it shows a remarkable level of maturity for her to not simply go nuts for the attractively packaged present everybody else thinks is great, delivered to their doorstep with such bizarre and extravagant flurish. Every kid rebels against their parental figures at some point, and Agatha gets the drop on granny by demanding to know why some corporate-made product with a big smile painted on its face should be made so immediately welcome and trusted within the family unit. After all, it's not like the granny-bot had to go through the mother's death with them, a tragedy that probably brought the children and even the father together in a strong emotional bound. Stapleton is all talk and fancy tricks, and even manages to very slyly lessen the fun. When she makes the kite fly much to the boys' delight, she then instructs them to hang the laundry on the kite cord so that it can be "washed by the clouds and dried by the wind!" The boys are enthused, but Agatha opines, "I don't think that's so great!" She's right...it might have made for a slightly magical moment, but granny turned playtime into a chore by adding the laundry! A few scenes later she's got the kite up again with yet more clothes attached to the tail - how many times can she do this in a week and still make it seem spontaneous and enchanting? The rest of the family drink the orange juice and milk from granny's fingers without hesitation, but Agatha is hesisitant. You just know she's thinking, 'Where did that OJ come from? Did she make it inside her own robot body?' ("Want some cream?" "Errrr...no.") And she must be dreading the discovery of where the chocolate milk comes out of.

I realize it's cynical of me, but I'm always suspicious of people, articifical or otherwise, who are inexhaustibly charitable and effortlessly good-natured. The grandmother describes herself in Bradbury's story as someone who "cannot sin...cannot be greedy or jealous or mean or small," but her christ-like goodness ends up turning the siblings against each other. Things really seem like they're about to turn dark when Stapleton cheerily informs Herrman that "a machine is what it does. A good machine does good things, a bad machine does bad things" without further elaboration. In the movie, when Stapleton announces she has to leave because she didn't "satisfy everybody," one of the boys accuses Agatha of being responsible, points a finger at his sister and shouts, "Send HER back! Send HER to the scrap heap! I mean it, daddy!" This is some serious Nazi shit right here: the one member of the group who's not certain about the charismatic authority figure is turned on and cast out. Despite constant assurances to the contrary, Agatha's reluctance to accept the electronic interloper is her fear that, like her mother, granny will end up abandoning her and the family. She's finally convinced of the grandmother's steadfast companionship in the somewhat famous climax when, out of anger, she accidentally runs in the path of a truck and the bionic old biddy pushes her out of the way, taking the brunt of the collision herself, her electric body singing the song of unforgiving fender against robot flesh. Agatha is natrually devastated and wails at the onset of this second tragic loss until, natch, granny gets up and brushes it off.

Now, let's just examine what the grandmother accomplishes by being hit by a truck and surviving without so much as a fracture. She...

1) Makes the mother look like an asshole for dying

2) Screws the kid's head up re: natural order and death etc. - is Agatha now going to expect everyone she cares about not to die? Or...

3) ...not to get any older? The kids in the movie insist they'll never age, and why should they think they would? Electric granny doesn't!

4) Guilts Agatha into loving her, i.e. "See - I took a bullet for you; you owe me one now, squirt!" even though...

5) ...she KNEW the truck wouldn't kill her! She's a robot! This act doesn't really prove granny loves her, just that it's her job to take care of her.

Also, how can the grandmother be 100% sure she'll be around forever, as she claims? Even excluding any unforeseen accident with a falling piano or standing too close to a microwave or something, how does she know her technology will never become outmoded? Will the 1982 model be compatible with 2012 technology, or will she be recalled by the factory? For that matter, what year is this supposed to be? How do we know Fantoccini isn't some Italian fascist with a grand scheme of replacing American grandmothers with killbots to corrupt and/or murder our children?

Maybe I'm missing the point of the story, but honestly "I Sing the Body Electric" (originally published under the title "The Beautiful One Is Here") is not my favorite Bradbury. Not that it isn't well written, but much of his writing manages to skewer the kind of sentimentality found in the story. I always thought that this was the kind of thing, the writer's fluffier material, that made Martin Prince scoff dismissively "I'm aware of his work!" when it was pointed out that he left Bradbury off his alphabetical list of essential science fiction writers. And the best parts of the story - like where one of the kids notice the features of their custom-made robot grandparent change ever so slightly to resemble whichever child is alone with her and prove it by having each take a photograph of her and comparing them - are practically impossible to convey on screen in general, let alone in an early 80's TV movie. Despite its inventive opening line ("Grandma! I remember her birth"), the premise itself isn't really a fantastic one - Bradbury's robot is basically just a stand-in for the things a real, traditional grandmother represents: offering indiscriminate love and understanding, selflessly giving her time and rapidly waning energy to a bunch of demanding crumbcrushers, appreciating (through her diminished and largely undemanding role as caretaker, subjugated yet honored) "all the things a family forgets it is." She's not a cool robot like a terminator or a robocop or bounty hunting droid IG-88, she's really just like a human with shit that comes out her fingers. "The only limit to what a machine can do is the limit of one's imagination," Fantoccini explains to the kids as they're "creating" the grandmother, but Bradbury seems to have shortchanged his imagination on this one, without saying much about the human condition through the machinery. Especially considering the the way he humanizes drones, still performing repetitive tasks to keep up an abandoned house after a nuclear fallout, in the classic "There Will Come Soft Rains," this mechanical caregiver is less endearing than entitled. Or consider the robot in "Electric"'s sinister companion story "Marionettes, Inc.," in which a company-manufactured surrogate A.I. ends up falling in love with the wife he was designed to stay at home with while his template is out partying. The robot ends up locking the protesting husband in the basement and replacing him as the man of the house - entitled yes, but also proved to be more feeling and alive than the man whose image it shares. The electric grandmother, despite being the lead character of a much longer story, isn't nearly as interesting or original, basically a Bradbury take on Mary Poppins, that connection solidified all the more by the elaborate bedtime song Stapleton sings to one of the kids in the movie. And why would a grandmother replace a mother, anyway?* Why not an electric stepmother, because of the weird sexual implications for dad? What if one or both grandmothers are still alive, wouldn't they be a little indignant at this superhuman usurping? Making it a grandmother just makes the movie seem overly sentimental and opens it up to the same kind of hokeyness found in Spielberg's segment of The Twilight Zone: The Movie, another remake of a TZ episode about old people.

Based on recent interviews, Bradbury held a grudge against Rod Serling for allegedly "borrowing" his ideas for episodes like "Where Is Everybody" (similiar to "The Silent Towns"), "Nothing in the Dark" (from "Death and the Maiden") and "Walking Distance" ("Dark Ferris") without asking permission. Serling tried to make it up by adapting "Body Electric" as the 100th TZ episode, but even though Bradbury is solely credited with the teleplay it's a botched job at best. At least Black's movie gave Agatha more of a reason to dislike the grandmother: the girl in the 'Zone episode (an 11-year-old Veronica Cartwright, long before her mental state was destroyed by various invading aliens of the late 70's) seems initially excited, then suddenly turns on the new granny just because she's "make believe." Before she arrives, the widowed father wanders aloud "How do you find guidance for your children?" even though the boys are self-sufficient enough to find the ad in Modern Science Magazine that leads them to the grandmother factory. For her part, Josephine Hutchinson, as granny, comes off even more puritanical than Stapleton, telling the dad, "She's got no place to go, except to me" after Agatha runs off in distress. After the culminating incident with the truck, Hutchinson literally throws the sobbing kid's own words - "You're just old junk!" - back in her face via a recording devise in her hands. Way to pile on the guilt, grandma! The ending isn't a classic Twilight Zone twist, and it couldn't be a cautionary tale about not looking before crossing the street: immediately following the accident, the whole family all turn around and tear back across it without checking traffic! What kind of a role model is this electric grandmother?

Although they dispense with the Egyptian sarcophagus delivery in the 'Zone episode, there is a creepy scene where the kids pick out the body parts for the new grandmother - arms, legs, etc. - right out of crates, although I think Black outdoes it by having vague shadow figures floating around the factory; Fantoccini insists they "pick one fast before they fly away!" I like that moment as a representation of fleeting biological destiny: the children are forced to choose quickly and somewhat randomly as if they were sperm charging an unfertilized egg. Serling's version (directed by James Sheldon and Sheba's William Claxton) is obviously a little more cheesy, although Black keeps the sound effects of ticking gears as a charming way to show he doesn't take the subject matter too seriously. Whereas the TZ episode only alludes to the "room of voices" the grandmother will eventually return to, the concept is literalized by Black in Electric Grandmother as a literal room where a bunch of robot grannies go back and forth in rocking chairs discussing their time with human children, like some weird combination storage closet/retirement home. Again, I know it's a difficult idea to convey in a visual medium, but I always liked the suggestion of a spiritual word for the cybernetic-geriatric set. In Black's film, as in the story, immorality is achieved by the grandmother when the three kids, now elderly and infirm (and, in the movie, still living together in the same house?) ask her to come back and take care of them in their own age. It affords them a return to childhood delight, and the grandmother a newfound purpose, even though all she's doing is going back to handling the laundry (apparently Herrman rejected her offer to stick around and be a grandmother to their children...after all how would they explain it, that she was his biogetic orange juice-producing wife?) The whole history of the family is locked inside the electric grandmother, as demonstrated in a weird moment where each of the three kids run to her, and when they reach her they're all growed up.

Bradbury is credited with writing the teleplay along with a guy named Jeffrey Kindley, so I was wrong to claim in an earlier article that Halloween Tree was his only adaptation of his own work for television, just as I was wrong in my Ice Cream Suit article when I claimed he hadn't adapted his own work for the big screen (he was credited with doing Disney's Something Wicked This Way Comes.) So that's pretty embarrassing - turns out R is for Retard in my case. I should hire fact-checkers in the future (hm...how about an organization of past fact-checkers who can retroactively edit your work in the past so you're never embarrassed in the future? That could make for a pretty boring sci fi gimmick.) This guy Kindley doesn't have many other credits listed on imdb: he mainly did afterschool specials. His most recent is writing some 2005 documentary called Kim Cattrall: Sexual Intelligence. So I'm sure he found this experience writing about an old woman helpful when it came time to work on that. Zing! The dark minds of the man behind Pretty Poison and author of "Let's Play Poison" couldn't come together to make this sappy story any more pleasingly dark or consciously funny. They could have tried again with Black's next effort and collaborated on Quarterback Princess of Mars, but it was not to be...still, hardly the worst (although far from the best) that both men produced in their lifetime.

 

- John Cribbs, 6/6/12

* Despite being a decade younger than Josephine Hutchinson was when they acted in their respective versions of Body Electric, Stapleton is much more the image of the tiny, rotund, doting grandma.

 

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