RAY BRADBURY WEEK: AUGUST 22, 2010

john cribbs

 

Ray Bradbury is 90 years old today, supporting my theory that to live a long life one should become a brilliant science fiction writer (or a Japanese film star). In a few days the Los Angeles City Council will convene to consider a resolution to declare August 22 - August 28 "Ray Bradbury Week." In the meantime, various events celebrating the life and work of this universally revered storyteller will be held all over the city. We on the East Coast (the better of the two coasts) can't lay claim to the author, who traveled to the past and future as well as different planets and alternate realities on the tip of his prolific pen while being content to call California his home for most of his life, but here at the 'smoke we thought we'd get in on the action anyway. Hence, a week of articles dealing with films inspired by the mind of Ray Bradbury - films which make clear that the writer's work is not as easily translatable to the screen as one might think. There's a reason bespectacled representatives of the "science fiction" category and virginal computer programmer followers of the "fantasy" subgenre have long fought over which group Bradbury belongs to. His work is allegorical but not satirical, it blends horror and speculative fiction without favoring one tone over the other. His stories have the feel of a creepy Twilight Zone episode, but the twists never feel hacky or unearned. He's an expert at crafting scenarios that reflect the real world yet adeptly incorporate the alluring fantastical and the dangerous otherwordly. Not everyone is quite as talented as Bradbury at juggling these contrasting ideas and creating new and exciting concepts from the pulpy vaults of genre fiction, one good example being 1969's The Illustrated Man.

On paper, it's a perfectly workable idea: an anthology film made up of three stories from the Bradbury collection of the same name using the title circus freak from its bookends as a literal human window to each segment, his tattoos representing the different stories. But there are two things to take into account: 1) 9 out of 10 anthology films are patently unwatchable, and even the tolerable ones (like, say, The Twilight Zone movie) are lucky to feature one or two decent sequences. 2) This was 1969, when only Stanley Kubrick had the ability to transcend the inherent hokum of the science fiction genre. Jack Smight was no Stanley Kubrick (or Fritz Lang or Chris Marker), but he had previously made the entertaining Ross Macdonald adaptation Harper starring Paul Newman, so there was a possibility he had a solid enough understanding of how to bring a popular genre author's work to the screen. That is, until you add pudgy scenary-eating grizzly bear Rod Steiger to the mix. 

Just in case I haven't made this clear in the past, the presence of Rod Steiger in a movie is enough to turn me instantly off of it. In fact over the years I've avoided the well-regarded previous collaboration of Smight and Steiger, No Way to Treat a Lady, merely because I didn't want to have to look at the actor's fleshy face for even a fraction of a feature length film. Sure, he had successes with movies like Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker, but mostly Steiger was on hand as a (literal) heavy to flash his "method" badge and ruin interesting movies like Robert Aldrich's The Big Knife. The further into his career, the paunchier and more unbearably hammy he became in performance as well as appearance. He's possibly the worst actor to ever have any kind of a reputation in Hollywood, an even more egregious protege of the Stella Adler school than Marlon Brando, and his queer acting "accent" insures that nobody could take him seriously without calling upon some seriously unabashed pretension in their own character. By the end of the '60s he had given new meaning to the phrase "meaty roles," his dumpy posture making it particularly excruciating to sit through Illustrated Man, during which he is constantly shirtless and, in one horrific scene, strolling around clothed only in his faded body art. Seriously, people who complained about Harvey Keitel taking it all off in his films of the early 90's need only sit through this unholy exhibition to demand that Keitel replace Emmanuelle Beart in a remake of La belle noiseuse. And Steiger doesn't let you forget his flabby frame for a second, bellowing lines like "I'm covered in pictures from the neck down to my toes, everywhere and I mean EVERYWHERE!" Yeeeeeck. The "skin illustration designer" gets his own opening credit, probably out of pity since the poor guy had to stick temporary tattoos on Steiger's bare ass and spend hours diligently painting them on the actor's distended "method" cheeks.

The movie opens with sweeping shots of a young guy (Robert Drivas of God Told Me To) skinny dipping in a lake, possibly out there investigating all those helicopter shadows flashing across the water. As he's drying off Drivas realizes that he's being observed by Steiger, who's introduced in a camera shot that goes up from his feet, freezes for a long second at the crotch, then continues to reveal his butterball face. The two hobos end up sharing a fire together, setting up camp while Drivas bravely glances over the illustrations decorating Steiger's sweaty mounds of skin, seemingly obsessed. All of this would be overtly homoerotic if one of the actors weren't the rotund Rod Steiger, who manages to trump the unsightliness of his physical features with the odiousness of his boorish behaviorisms. The first thing he does when he comes upon the camp is rudely go through the kid's belongings without asking, later he rather psychotically attacks and kills a harmless garden snake, then goes on a tirade about hating "little things," which include "bugs and frogs and spiders and creepy crawly things that ZING out at 'cha and bite 'cha when you're not lookin'!" Later on Steiger explains "After a while people start to HATE me." Really, after a while? You were actually pretty detestable from the start there, slim. From a campy perspective there are a few gems, including a hilarious moment with cricket sound effects playing; Steiger shouts "Shut up!" and they abruptly halt. Steiger commands ambient sound! He really does hate bugs I guess (it seems like his anti-insect rant must be setting up a story about bugs, but it goes nowhere).

Everything is off in these recurring scenes, not the least the hokey Depression era costuming and dialogue placed next to the dated acid-trip late 60's hippy groove of the three segments: it's like an uncomfortable meshing of John Steinbeck and Ken Kesey. The screenwriter* introduces some awkward structural segways, employing a framing devise AND flashbacks to go along with the three stories, while the director makes some bad decisions of his own. The multi-casting is the biggest distraction: if you're going to have Steiger and Drivas in the hobo scenes, Steiger (as the same character) and Claire Bloom - the actor's wife at the time - in a flashback at a tattoo parlor, and Steiger, Bloom and Drivas each playing different characters in the three segments, you're going to run into some fundamental narrative problems. Are these characters supposed to be related? Are the other sweaty Steigers somehow related to the sweaty Steiger at the lake? They couldn't have at least switched Steiger's terrible-looking toupee from one segment to the next? Even Drivas seems confused at the end, flipping out and accusing Hobo Steiger of things Future Steiger did in one of the supposedly unrelated installments. If he's been driven insane, I'm right there with him.

It takes almost half an hour to get out of the Depression and into the first of the three future settings, based on one of the author's best known stories, "The Veldt." A cautionary tale published in 1950, just as it was becoming increasingly convenient to foist parenting responsibilities on recent technological innovations like television, it's probably the most famous example of Bradbury writing about how adults' anxiety over being "destroyed" by their children manifests into tragic reality (his killer baby masterpiece "The Small Assassin" explores the same theme). Smight is less interested in exploring these ideas as he is in creating "futuristic" mod-ish architecture - turns out this is one of those movies from the late 60's/early 70's where "future" means "white." I guess a lot of directors from that period felt the quickest way to establish a dystopian society was with sterile surroundings, but that doesn't make the visual aesthetic any less offense to look at. Also were you aware that in the future people sit differently? Apparently they'll have all kinds of wonky designs for chairs: folks will be sitting vertically, horizontally, at an angle - you name it. Scientists probably view this kind of movie with a heavy heart - with all our advances we just haven't reached that level of incline technology! Not thoroughly relying on his white walls, curvy framework or - uh - slanty seats, Smight allows Steiger to saunter back and forth describing the bleak futuristic government they're supposed to be living in, decrying the unfair "labor laws" and "global business of economy," useless nuggets of exposition that have nothing to do with the story in its original or cinematic form. The director must have figured, Well - things are bad because it's the future and in science fiction the future is all messed up, right?, ignoring the contemporary concerns of Bradbury's tale.

The two parents of Bradbury's story find that their "smart house" has taken over raising their children, particularly the "nursery" (a holodeck-like virtual reality room that can create any environment) which has become a place for the kiddies to manifest their darker urges. The setting that most upsets the couple is the African veldt where they witness a pride of lions feasting on something they can't make out as lecherous vultures wait their turn in the branches of surrounding trees. The story is terrifying and full of unsettling imagery - even the movie can't mess up how creepy it is when the parents are trying to make out what the lions could possibly be munching on. The scheming son in the Bradbury story comes off as ominously strange and unhealthily reliant on the technology that's made human contact an unwanted inconvenience, but in the movie the kid's just a pampered brat who comes off even less appealing than his dumpy dad. Gee kid, you mean you might be forced to sit like normal people? Go to your white inverted space room!

The middle sequence, taken from the story "The Long Rain," is by far the film's most successful, possibly because the pounding torrential downpour that falls from the beginning of the segment to the end creates an ideal environment for toning down Steiger's beastly overacting. The actor spends the entire story trying to make himself heard over the storm; I for one was rooting for the rain machine. The tale is set up through a long stretch of dialogue that laboredly connects what the two hobos are talking about to a rocket ship, which happens to be illustrated just above Steiger's man-boob. This is handy since the production doesn't actually show the rocket that's crashed onto the unnamed planet (in the story it's Venus), only the four soaked survivors who try to make it to the shelter of a "sun room" as the constant bombardment of hard rain drives each of them insane. There's also no special effects to signify the great electric storm from the short story, although one thing that is successfully translated from Bradbury is an instance where one of the men is killed and the planet's vegetatian grows around him so quickly his body disappears in a matter of seconds. It doesn't really look like vegetation - it looks more like pudding that's had too much raising agent added to it - but the overall effect is as unsettling as the parents from the previous installment trying to see what the lions are feeding on. "Long Rain" lends itself more to cinematic interpretation than its sandwiching stories: it follows a group of people with one clear destination facing a more palpable conflict than characters from the other adaptations. The effect of the crashing rain is executed well enough that you understand the astronauts' growing agony, and it's visible enough to cover the unimpressive "alien" set. That doesn't mean the segment is safe from the kind of tacky dialogue that litters the rest of the movie. The funniest line comes when Drivas answers indignantly when Steiger tries to entice him to carry on through the merciless weather with the idea that women are waiting for them at the sun room. Drivas laughs mockingly and asks, "Tell me, are they whores? SPACE WHORES?"

"The Last Night of the World," the final adapted story, is one of the most simple and beautiful pieces Bradbury ever wrote. It's a story about coming to terms with the fact that things are going to end some day, on the grand scale of the entire planet dying, and is no more than the story of a husband and a wife who do the dishes, put the kids to bed and wait for the destruction of the world. Other than being a satisfying reversal of the cliche that has the earth's population reverting to mass hysteria and rioting following the disclosure of some terrible oncoming armageddon, Bradbury's story is pared down to basic narrative elements, focusing on two people who realize the fate of mankind is out of their hands and make the peaceful decision to be together when human life ceases to exist. The prose is touching yet unsentimental, with simple passages like "He kissed his wife for the last time," and really shows how gratifyingly straight forward and unpretentious Bradbury's work can be.

Like its presentation of "The Veldt," the movie forces that late 60's "futro" look on the set design despite the fact that the short story is actually set in the late 60's and, one line of dialogue aside, is ambiguous enough to take place in any given year. This is sensitive flower power sci fi, so we're talking a big tent with New Age interior decorating, candles 'n sandals (check out Steiger's toeless footwear!), a lacy dress for Bloom and later a sheet draped around her like a toga. It's like Smight and company thought they were making the counter culture version of The Hobbit or one of Vonnegut's novels that the baby boomers got a hold of and claimed as their own. Steiger is shockingly subdued in this environment but somehow he's worse than ever, delivering his lines like he's playing Desdemona. "The world has AGREED," he enunciates to Bloom. What the "world" has agreed to is that all the children will be poisoned overnight to save them the anguish of the unidentified cataclysm. In Bradbury's story it's enough to know that the world is going to die overnight and everyone has had the same dream prophesizing its destruction; here I think we're owed an explanation as to why the adults will die quickly but the children will suffer a more tortuous demise beyond Steiger insisting it to be the case. Is there going to be one big radioactive wave that will traverse the world from five feet off the ground so it won't kill the kids instantly? I mean what are we even talking about here?

Anyway the moral dilemma ends with Bloom refusing to off the rugrats but Steiger going through with the poisoning (Smight recasts the same two kids from "The Veldt" to play the loving children in this one, probably figuring that because the tykes murdered their dad in that segment and the dad kills them in this one it's somehow profound). The big obnoxious twist is that the world DOESN'T end the next day (the five foot radiation wave decided not to comb the earth or whatever) so he killed his kin for no reason, kind of like that hilarious part in Star Trek V where Bones remembers mercy killing his cancer-ridden dad then learning they found a cure two days later - d'oh! It seems to be this re-interpretation of the source material that led to Vincent Canby's benighted and mean-spirited comment that "at their worst, (Bradbury's stories) are hoked up O. Henry wearing space helmets" in his New York Times review of Smight's movie.

It was ambitious of Smight to try and adapt the largely plotless "Last Night on Earth," but he should have stuck to one of the stories from the book that lent itself to a more action-oriented translation ("The City" or "Zero Hour" would have been good picks). That way he wouldn't have had to completely throw Bradbury's story out the window and come up with his own lame 'Twilight Zone" knock off. The concept of "Last Night" is really brilliant but obviously presents challenges to stage cinematically, which is why we should all be glad that it appears to have inspired Don McKellar's exceptional Last Night from 1998. It's not listed in the credits and I've never read an interview where McKellar acknowledged Bradbury or the story specifically, but besides sharing the overall idea of characters trying to decide how to spend the final night of human life on earth, McKellar's movie captures the same feeling of acceptance in the face of oblivion. Some of the people try to have the night of their lives, some resort to senseless (not to mention unnecessary) murder, but the select few who choose to die with their families or make emotional connections to other people before the fateful moment of the unnamed total apocalypse are just as convincingly human as Bradbury's husband and wife.

The best thing that can be said about the three story adaptations is that at least Steiger keeps his shirt on while he's acting in them (the one exclusion from Bradbury's "The Long Rain" to be thankful for: the original story ends with the hero stripping all his clothes off inside the sanctuary of the sun room). Apparently Bradbury approved Steiger, offering Smight** a list of half a dozen potential actors to portray his illustrated "narrator" which included the big-boned thespian. So he's partly to blame for the film's failure, but even with one of his other, less chunky choices (Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman), the filmmakers had no idea how to handle the material. They took inventive science fiction stories that brought humanity and contemporary concerns into their fantastic worlds and made them as mindless as a Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers serial. Everything non-Bradbury in the film simply goes nowhere and is just embarrassing, like a confusing part at the end of the "flashback"/Steiger's exposed sausage scenes where Bloom beckons him to come meet her...in an outhouse? Still, the project was approached with good intentions and makes me wonder what an Illustrated Man story like "The Exiles," a surreal tale of literary characters living in a colony on another planet, would be like if it was brought to the screen by a talented director. The premise of "The Highway" seems like it would have been an interesting late-period Kurosawa. I guess that's the idea behind science fiction in a nutshell: "what if-?"

- john cribbs, 8/22/10

 

* First-time screenwriter Howard B Kreitsek, who would go on to co-write the Charles Bronson jailbreak actioneer Breakout and the two Walking Tall sequels with Bo Svenson replacing Joe Don Baker.

** After this he helmed an Airport sequel and the abysmal star-studded bomb Midway.

Related Articles

   

 

home    about   contact us    featured writings    years in review    film productions

All rights reserved The Pink Smoke   2010