The Incredible Shrinking Sex Life of the Incredible Shrinking Man

Last week I promised both sex and violence, so here they are together in one package.  A few weeks ago I picked up a copy of Richard Matheson’s novel “The Shrinking Man” which was later adapted into the reasonably well-regarded science fiction film, The Incredible Shrinking Man.  The changes wrought to any material from one format to another frequently fascinate me, but this particular transformation may take the cake.  Having seen the movie numerous times since childhood, I thought I had some idea what I might encounter in the novel, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.  With the book, Matheson (whose work has also formed the basis of such films as I Am Legend, What Dreams May Come and Somewhere in Time) gives us a novel more sex-obsessed than some outright pornography.

For those not familiar with the plot, the story involves an average man, Scott Carey, who is exposed to both radiation and an insecticide in just the right amounts to cause his body to begin shrinking unstoppably.  Over the course of both novel and film he grows continuously smaller, resulting (in both cases) in a philosophical epiphany to match his new circumstances.

The devil, of course, is in the details, and they could hardly differ more from medium to medium.  In the written version the reader is presented with an enormously unpleasant protagonist whose chief concerns are (a) himself and (b) his waning ability to have a normal sex life.  His sexual desires take the form of an awkward, final encounter with his wife, a voyeuristic obsession with the babysitter hired to watch his daughter, and a one-night stand with a circus midget.  None of this makes it to the film in anything like the original treatment, nor does his disturbing encounter with a pedophile.  Throughout all of this the character is a nasty individual who treats his wife, daughter and brother with utter contempt, and the squalidness of his urges entirely matches his personality.

The film elides all of these points, thematically (and practically) neutering both the character and an important central (if sordid) theme of the book.  Instead, the viewer is given a much more child (well, teenage boy) appropriate adventure tale of an increasingly tiny man fighting for his life against such common domestic threats as a housecat and a spider.

My point here is not that the film is inferior to the book, but that, as in all cases of adaptation, it effectively turns into a thing apart.  When adapting his own work for the screen, Matheson re-shaped the protagonist to make him much more sympathetic.  That positive view allowed for a more generous impression of his relationship with his wife, thus strengthening her characterization while eliminating any suggestion of improper sexuality.  The film goes even farther by eliminating the daughter completely, mitigating even the idea of sex within marriage and making the couple ideal, near-platonic companions.

At the same time, all of the requisite violence is left in the film, with a particularly graphic portrayal of the climactic duel with the deadly spider (changed from a more plausible black widow to a presumably more wrangle-able tarantula).  The bravura final sequence of the film shows Carey less as a desperate man anticipating his death than as a resourceful character trying simply to survive against suitably terrifying challenges.

Given the reputation of the film as philosophically provocative, it’s also interesting to compare the contrasting approaches to the final moments of the story.  In the novel, the character realizes that he will never shrink to nothing because “to nature there was no zero.”  Instead he will continually re-define his standard of measurement as he moves through ever smaller universes of existence, some of which might contain intelligent life.  God doesn’t really factor into this equation.  The film, on the other hand, pointedly invokes God several times in the concluding scene (specifically replacing the “nature” of the above quote with “God” in the closing narration), yet ends with the protagonist melting away as he merges into the union of the infinite and the infinitesimal.  Practically speaking this is a much messier philosophical conclusion, but the invocation of the divine was clearly presumed to make it more palatable to the movie-going audience of 1957.

Again, I’m not passing judgement in either case here, as both versions of the story have their virtues and failings.  The thing that struck me most on finishing my reading was how wildly different the two versions actually are, and how independently they actually function as narratives.  It’s a useful lesson to keep in mind when discussing any adaptation, even when the adapting is done by the original author.

That Time of Year

The semester starts next week, which means that it’s once again time to review my class syllabus.  I know that there are those who think that anyone who teaches just trots out the same material year after year, but I reconsider every film and reading assignment every time I teach a course (no matter how many times I may have done it before).  With an introductory course this is especially wrenching, since there are several issues which re-surface with every iteration.


ISSUE #1:  Does the material make the appropriate pedagogical point?

There are always people who think that I just pick things I “like” for inclusion on a syllabus.  As the previous post suggests, however, that’s not remotely how this works.  “Like” has (almost) nothing to do with it.  I once talked with a professor about his selections and he laughingly admitted that he included certain films because he thought they were terrible.  He just wanted to see his students squirm.  I emphatically don’t believe in that approach.  I try not to show anything that I outright dislike, and everything I show has to have a productive point.  In fact, many of the selections highlight multiple points since every screening covers material for an entire week of classes.  Take my word for it, though, that leads to ME repeatedly watching things that might not be my favorite, but that happen to make the most sense for classroom use.  After repeated viewings, I would desperately love to replace certain films, but they are such exemplars of particular issues that I have to grit my teeth and watch them for the hundredth time.


ISSUE #2:  Has something better become available since I did this last?

Even now, when dvd releases of “older” material (which generally means anything more than a couple of years old) have slowed to a trickle, there are still new possibilities every semester.  Of course, there are lots of things available illegally, but those are all eliminated out of the gate.  Plenty of legal releases emerge as well, though.  This semester I can consider The Artist, avant-garde films by Stan Brakhage and Hollis Frampton, Western material from the “Treasures from American Archives 5” set, and the recent set of UPA cartoons.  It doesn’t mean that any of that will be suitable, but there are always new things to take into consideration.


ISSUE #3: Do I want to editorialize?

This is actually a huge issue, and the emergence of “new media” such as this blog might have some influence on the answer to the question.  I have always diligently tried to remain objective about anything I show in class, since careless editorializing encourages students to just mimic opinions.  I’ve been in too many classes where the instructor will say something thoughtless (or simply uninformed) about “those old, badly acted silent movies” or “that crazy Japanese anime” (to cite only two examples).  Obviously, neither of these comments is critically incisive, and they simply encourage, reinforce and/or allow equally thoughtless assessments of vast swaths of material by students in a given class.  If an instructor can be so dismissive of something, why should the students take it seriously?  I try desperately to avoid such statements.  On the other hand, if I suggest that Humanoids from the Deep is the greatest film ever made, or Citizen Kane is the worst, I can guarantee that very few people will argue with either (eminently debatable) claim when it comes time to write a paper.  My policy has always been to offer my unvarnished opinion on the last day of class, should anyone ask for it (sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t).  The whole notion of a blog is antithetical to this, however, since any expression of opinion (which might make for more interesting reading) will now be available in perpetuity to bias future paper-writing.  It’s a conundrum which will definitely not be resolved on the first day of class, but we’ll see how it develops over the course of the semester.
I know this may not be the most mesmerizing subject for those of you NOT about to commence another round of teaching (or coursework), but it’s definitely what’s consuming me at the moment, so please indulge me as I grapple with these issues.  In the next week or two I promise to write about SEX! or VIOLENCE! or something else more spectacularly sensationalistic to make it up to anyone who’s reading!

Adventures in the LOC

As I have on an annual basis for years now, I spent several days last week doing research in the Motion Picture and Television Reading Room at the Library of Congress.  The use of the Library is shockingly easy, and I’m always fascinated by how few people are in the building generally, and in the Motion Picture division specifically.  I think the most patrons I’ve ever seen there were five, and that was on a trip where three of us went down together for dissertation research.  At any rate, basically all that’s required is that you send a list of titles a couple of weeks in advance, and when you arrive things are waiting for you on the shelves.  For someone like me, this is only a few steps shy of heaven.  The films I selected this time around included BIRTHRIGHT (directed by Oscar Micheaux in 1939), BACK PAY (Frank Borzage, 1922), YOU NEVER KNOW WOMEN (William Wellman, 1926), THE CAPTIVE (Cecil B. DeMille, 1915) and THE STOLEN RANCH (William Wyler, 1926).  There are a couple of important things which strike me about this list, so I thought it might be worth some brief rumination.

First of all, this selection conclusively demonstrates the ridiculous fallacy that “everything is available”.  None of these five titles is available any other way.  It always fascinates me when someone can’t comprehend that a huge proportion of our surviving film heritage is NOT at their fingertips, and likely never will be. Sometimes that’s because of rights issues, sometimes for lack of enough interest to make access financially possible, and frequently it’s for a combination of both.  In many cases, going to an archive or a specialized film festival is the only way you’ll get to see a particular title, and that’s just the way it is.  For a casual filmgoer the rule “out of sight, out of mind” may apply, but thank goodness that there are some options for those of us interested in further research.

I should also note that the Library is thrilled to be patronized.  I originally requested two titles (Henry King’s THE CLIMBER from 1917 and Clarence Brown’s THE ACQUITTAL from 1923) for which LOC holds prints, but has no access copies.  While that made those titles inaccessible for this particular visit, all I have to do is ask a couple of months in advance and they’ll create digital copies for future review.  It’s a branch of the federal government that wants to help, and is good at what they do.

The other interesting part of my annual visit is the whole notion of people’s expectations about what I see on these expeditions.   After any visit to an archive or film festival, people are apt to ask whether I “enjoyed” what I saw, or how “good” the films were.  That’s not an inappropriate question, but more often than not the answer is that nothing is especially earth-shaking.  In this instance, I chose five films by five major directors, and none of them remotely approached the best efforts of their creators.  But that’s not the point. Viewing these particular works provides a perspective which is hard to come by.  It’s all well and good to appreciate ubiquitous screenings of deMille’s TEN COMMANDMENTS or Wyler’s BEN-HUR, but seeing what those directors were doing at earlier points provides invaluable context for an entire career.  A sampling of less well-known work fleshes out notions of acting, editing, direction, etc. at a particular moment in the development of an individual filmmaker, and of the entire industry.  That’s why the most important question you can ever ask a film scholar is “What have you seen?”.   Every film is another piece in a very large puzzle, and watching as much as possible is the only way to see the bigger picture.

For the general record, here are a few comments on what I watched:

BIRTHRIGHT – Micheaux liked this T.S Stribling novel so much (as, supposedly, did Faulkner) that he made it twice.  The silent version is lost, as is the first reel of this sound remake.  In keeping with the director’s entire output, the film demonstrates a drive and ambition which is consistently undercut by a pervasive lack of skill in acting, editing and general filmmaking.  The book itself is much more rewarding, though the film probably ranks on the high end of Micheaux’s surviving work.

BACK PAY – Frank Borzage is underappreciated, largely because his best work was in the silent era and was mostly unavailable for years (much of what survives is still difficult to see).  This Fannie Hurst story was mostly silly, but the director included enough nice touches to make it worth watching.  The photography in the first half is breathtaking as it details life in a pastoral small town, but when the disembodied head of one character keeps appearing to goad the heroine to rectitude in the second half it’s downright creepy.

YOU NEVER KNOW WOMEN – Wellman hit his stride two pictures after this with WINGS (and had a really high batting average throughout the next decade), but he wasn’t there yet.  This is definitely a novice work, about a third of which is footage of a stage act which is the backdrop for a ridiculous love triangle.  It only comes to life for the first few minutes, and very briefly at the end.  Otherwise one of his weakest pictures.

THE CAPTIVE – I will always argue that DeMille’s early works are compulsively watchable (through THIS DAY AND AGE in 1933), but this one was about average.  Some nice exterior photography, and a skillful, slow buildup to the climax, all of which confirms his abilities without marking this as a work of genius.

THE STOLEN RANCH – Wyler apparently hated cranking out so many interchangeable westerns early in his career.  This film proves he was correct in that assessment.

So that’s five more down, and thousands more to go…

Film Studies and Fast Food

Anyone who’s interested in film as an academic exercise has to contend with the skepticism of people who think movies are simply for entertainment (and why aren’t you studying something useful like engineering?).  It always fascinates me, however, that those same people can so blithely ignore the fact that most of their impressions of the past hundred years are connected to film, as are their impressions of current events, and many of their daily consumerist appetites.  Neatly conflating all three of those categories is the current London Olympics.  We don’t see them in anything like the raw form we might experience if we were in the stands, but rather in neatly packaged little films which eliminate the boring bits and heighten the drama.  This is also true of the barrage of Olympic commercials, which have even less time to convince us of the earth-shaking-ness of a given product, while connecting it to the grandiosity of the Olympic tradition.

I try to draw frequent attention to the “toolbox” available to filmmakers as they construct their work, which includes such qualities as photography, lighting, casting, editing, music, sets, dialogue, story construction, etc.  I’ve listed the most obvious, but there are certainly others.  These things are all in evidence during Olympic coverage, especially in the “closing montage” which conflates hours worth of footage into skillfully edited highlights played against suitably stirring music.  For this post I don’t want to dwell on the broadcast itself, however (or the commissioned Olympic films such as OLYMPIA and TOKYO OLYMPIAD which do the same thing)  Instead I’d like to take a brief look at something even simpler – a one minute McDonald’s commercial.

My sister has always been a fan of a commercial from the 1988 Olympics titled “County Champ”.  You can watch it here:

The story itself is quite simple: An Olympic contender who doesn’t make the cut returns home to an enthusiastic welcome.  But why does it make an impression?  How does it actually work?  Within the first few seconds the story is set up in multiple ways.  The camera moves down to an image of the athlete on the ground.  We assume that he’s a runner from his outfit, and the sound of his panting indicates that he’s just run a race.  His expression tells us that he’s not happy, and that’s reinforced by the dialogue as a coach tells him that there’s “another Olympics in four years”.  The doleful piano also helps to set the tone, which is then reinforced by the lyrics which narrate the image.  In other words, the first shot (twelve seconds of filmmaking, and roughly a quarter of the entire film) has established a scenario and a tone, though the general unhappiness of the opening may prompt us to wonder where the rest of the commercial is heading.

Things only get worse for our protagonist in the next two shots (eight seconds), which show the athlete talking on the phone (“No.  I’m coming home.”), then dejectedly moving through an empty train station:

The pigeon is the kind of nice touch that you don’t want to overanalyze, but it gives the image an extra punch.  This is followed by the longest shot in the film (thirteen seconds) which slowly tracks in on the dejected figure as he looks out the window of a moving train.  The lighting might suggest that things are not entirely bleak, but it also reduces the actor to a near-abstraction:

But now’s when things get really interesting.  The music starts to swell and there’s a three second shot of the athlete looking forward with astonishment before we cut to what he sees – a tracking shot as the train pulls into the station, moving across a large crowd, ending on the figures of his parents:

As the music continues to swell, along with the sounds of applause, we cut through ten shots in the final seventeen seconds of the commercial.  This increases the rhythm, and drastically reduces the average shot length.  The filmmakers know that the increased pace will keep our eyes glued to the screen, and pack that little extra emotional wallop as we vicariously experience the athlete’s excitement at his welcome home.  It’s only now that we quietly get the corporate message as a narrator tells us that McDonald’s is paying tribute, “…to a human trait more powerful than the will to win…the courage to dream.”

Now, some people might argue that I’ve given this way too much thought – but I haven’t.  I just watched it through a few times and picked out the things I noticed.  The thing is, these are things we should ALL notice, because ANYTHING that’s presented visually uses or manipulates these same tools.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a film from 1917, a news report from 1968, a music video from 1984, a Ford commercial from last year, or an on-line recap of last night’s Olympics.  Filmmakers (including those who make commercials) KNOW that if they use all of the tools at their disposal they can manipulate our emotions and our responses.  Sometimes they use this knowledge to be artistic, sometimes to promote an agenda, and sometimes just to be crass, but often it’s a combination of all three.  That’s perfectly alright.  But as a film academic, or even a casual viewer of a moving image, it’s important to understand what those tools are and how they work.  It’s the only way to be appropriately critical of what’s put in front of us – and to understand why in the heck a slickly made McDonald’s commercial from years ago might still be stuck in my sister’s head.

Lists and Canons

I didn’t intend to create this blog on the same day that the vaunted “Sight and Sound” poll was released, but that’s what happened.  Since it worked out that way, and since I view this blog as a useful ancillary activity to teaching, I’ll commence with some comments on canons and lists.

Everyone likes to make lists, and everyone likes to look to them for validation.  As a child, I pored over my father’s copy of Michael and Harry Medved’s “Golden Turkey Awards” to see how many of the films I knew, and whether or not I thought they were as awful as implied.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  Lists give us a baseline.  It’s natural.  So when something comes along (especially something that only happens once a decade like the “Sight & Sound” list) that bills itself as a repository of greatness, it only makes sense that people froth at the mouth to compare, criticize, discuss and/or excoriate the results.  It seems to me, however, that lots of people tend to miss the point.  These lists NEVER encapsulate any sort of grand truth, and they are NEVER the final word.  The one and only use for such lists is that they engender conversation (comparison, criticism, discussion and excoriation).  Lists themselves are sort of silly, and I have trouble trusting anyone who is confident that they can pick a top ten (or one hundred) anything out of tens of thousands of options. Such thinking usually says more about the compiler than anything else, and what it says isn’t always confidence-inspiring.  Can you pick a favorite spice?  Animal?  Person?  Do you rank your friends in top ten order?  I just don’t think that way.

Depending on how you count, we are now in the 116th year of the age of film.  Huge swaths of material from the first third of that period are gone forever, and huge sections of what remains are ignored (even by people who should know better).  It’s fine to make a list, but the most important thing about the exercise should be that it leads you to wonder about what you haven’t seen.  If you haven’t seen TOKYO STORY, it’s a fine starting point for Ozu, but why is it on the list instead of LATE SPRING?  Or DRAGNET GIRL?  If you haven’t seen the first, you probably haven’t seen the second (which was unavailable longer), and it’s pretty much guaranteed that you haven’t seen the last (which remains unavailable in the U.S.).

Two final points.  First, it’s a little ironic that I’m knocking list-making when I’ve posted such a list here on my blog.  That list was created because people would ask me what they should watch before they graduated, so I came up with a cross-section of things that are generally considered important (or that I thought should be considered important).  It was never meant to be more than a starting point, but I think it serves that function reasonably well.  Some of the titles are canonical, and some of them aren’t, but you can make a case that they’re all worth watching for someone who wants a basic grounding.

This brings me to the final point.  Neither my list nor my course syllabi pay particular heed to the standard list of “classics” (a term I loathe).  There are plenty of things people should see on their own that show up on lists all the time (like CITIZEN KANE, TOKYO STORY, THE SEARCHERS and BICYCLE THIEVES), but I’m not interested in that.  If you’re remotely interested, you should take the time to watch them.  They’re all easy to find.  Without knocking the many merits of any of these, though, their simple ubiquity helps them to stay out in front of their rivals. Their regular appearance in discussions is dictated by the ignorance or unavailability of other choices.  I probably prefer THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, THAT NIGHT’S WIFE, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY and SHOESHINE (respectively matching directors), but three of the four of them have been difficult to see since their original releases (if then).  Only John Ford’s HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY has been readily available, and it’s always been unfairly punished for having won the Best Picture Oscar instead of CITIZEN KANE (which is absurd, and a whole other ball of wax).  When I talk about films (or teach classes) I hope that I find a way to redress that balance by putting forward work that may be just as good, but unfairly remains lesser known.  It’s my own way of suggesting that people shouldn’t take any list as an end point, but a beginning.  To my mind that’s what a really good list should do and that’s what makes them useful – despite their silliness.