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THE GREAT IRONY:

2001
   
     “Genre” films.  The “short-take” definition usually refers to those of the science fiction, fantasy and horror milieu (… but fans tend to toss larger than life action / adventure into the mix - thus including your Bond, Bourne, DIE HARD-type and comic book flicks as well).  The great irony in the industry is that while one would think Hollywood enjoys a hot’n heavy love affair with them (take a look at the list of the ten most expensive movies ever made - Genre films are eight of them), the reality is more akin to say … copping a squeeze and a feel in the backseat of your parent’s Volvo.  Of the ten most profitable films, Genre movies account for only three  - E.T., STAR WARS and LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING.  What!  You see, while AVATAR to date is closing in on a 3 billion dollar box office take, the fact that it costs approx. $250 million tempers things ROI (return on investment)-wise.  To date the most profitable ring belongs to Nia Vardalos’ MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, which with a payday around $370 mill has a 6,000 % profit margin on it’s $6 mill dollar budget.  Hey, don’t shoot the messenger!  I’m just sayin’.  If it makes you feel any better, in the mirco-budget category PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, which costs approx. $15,000 and took in $162 mill, has the #1 ROI with a 539,000 % profit margin.  THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and SAW also place highly on that list.  Happy? 



Sam Rockwell in Moon
     
     At any rate, I toss these figures into the arena to explain the “irony” of which we speak.  Annually studios pour promotional mega-dollars into San Diego’s Comic-Con, and stars and filmmakers show regularly for SpikeTV’s annual VGAs (Video Game Awards) promoting their newest product.  It’s also commonplace for every major online publication nowadays (The Hollywood Reporter, AOL, take your pick.) to have their own “fan boy” offshoot site (THR’s “HeatVision”, etc.).  But all evidence still points to the industry not yet truly understanding what Genre at it’s best actually is and what it can accomplish when executed properly.  For many the fate of Duncan Jones’ superlative 2009 film MOON brought this into focus.  One of the most critically acclaimed films of it’s year MOON won 18 international film awards and was nominated for 15 more but failed to score a single Academy Award nod.  Not one nomination, not even for Sam Rockwell’s astounding performance cited by most critics as being one of the year’s best.  Upon closer examination you find that no Genre film has ever won any major Oscar outside of technical categories (the makers of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS choose not to consider it a Genre film, so we‘ll oblige; we won‘t either).  Even bonafied cinema classics like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST have never made the cut.  Spinning off another SAW sequel and rebooting SUPERMAN is good business, and it gives long-time Genre fans a warm & fuzzy feeling inside to know they’ve been right about “this stuff” all along.  But that doesn’t mean the industry understands what they have any more than the “little ‘ol lady from Pasadena” understands what’s under the hood of her Maserati.
 


Guess Whos Coming To Dinner

      Stephen King once opined that “made up horrors allows us to cope more effectively with the real life ones”, Steven Spielberg once called good science fiction “Pilates for the brain”,  and the ever prolific Rod Serling said with THE TWILIGHT ZONE he knew he could “…have Martians saying things Republicans and Democrats couldn’t”.  How could a movie like the original PLANET OF THE APES introduce a Civil Rights message into the deep south while a more prestigious film like GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER got protested?  How do movies like SPIDER-MAN, CASINO ROYALE and SUPERMAN RETURNS help audiences cope with post 9/11 trauma while more “serious” and prestigious films like IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH, RENDITION, STOP GAP and THE HURT LOCKER can’t? Genre is a powerful medium. 


OLD SCHOOL:   


  Invasion of the Body Snatchers Photo


     To this day most agree the two biggest “GONE WITH THE WIND”s of the milieu are still Robert Wise’s 1951 THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL - a masterful (and masterfully well made) piece of populous entertainment which also packed one hell of an intentional “learn to live in peace with your neighbor before it’s too late” whallop of a message.  And the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956).  Helmed by a pre-DIRTY HARRY Don Siegel BODY SNATCHERS contains what some consider the most blatant of “1950’s McCarthy era / Communist scare” subtext - though whether
or not that subtext was intentional remains a topic of debate to this day.  Both BODY SNATCHERS and DAY THE EARTH came to be viewed as not only box office successes but as films indicative of their era, specifically dissected as two classics laying bare the internal national psychology during the Cold War.  This has always been the great strength of Genre material.  They tend to be more accurate and honest depictions of their era than their more “serious” minded cinematic counterparts.  Sometimes it’s subversive intent as with DAY THE EARTH.  Other times it’s the unintended coincidence of time and place as in the case of BODY SNATCHERS.  But it didn’t start there.  

     Genre as socio-political commentary is as old as literature.  Most famous for his novel THE SCARLETT LETTER (1850) and it’s indictment of Puritanical fanaticism, Nathaniel Hawthorne (who was born and raised in infamous Salem, Massachusetts and was also a descendant of John Hawthorne - a Salem Witch Trial judge) would earlier write the scathingly satirical short story “Young Goodman Brown” (1835).  In it the titular character is invited by the devil to practice witchcraft one night, then when he arrives at the gathering is surprised to find amongst the guest his own religious teachers and leaders.  Oops!  But the most famous “supernatural yarn” is still certainly Shakespeare’s HAMLET (circa 1600). 


Hamlet Speaks with His Fathers Ghost

 
    The most oft filmed story (behind CINDERELLA) features the spirit of the slain father of Danish Prince Hamlet appearing to his son to encourage him to seek vengeance upon his murderous mother Gertrude and uncle, the now current King Claudius - both of whom colluded in his father’s assassination.  At one point a traveling theatre troupe of Hamlet’s friends arrive and he convinces them to give a command performance for the current monarchs.  It is of a play detailing an assassination plot similar to that which took his father’s life.  Hamlet intends the fictitious plotline to cut close to the current King and Queen that their guilt will give them away.  “I'll have grounds”, Hamlet says, “More relative than this—the play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King“. (Act 2, scene 2, 603 - 605).  The descendants of “Hamlet’s friends” (writers, actors, directors, et al) have been attempting the same ever since. 

    THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL takes place at the height of the Cold War.  The planet is rocked one day by the arrival, in the middle of Washington, D.C. of an intergalactic craft.  It’s occupants are Klatuu (Michael Rennie) - soon known as “Mr. Carpenter” and his huge robotic protector “Gort”.  Carpenter is an emissary from the stars with a message for the occupants of our world to cease and desists our nuclear escalation, for it now threatens not only our world but others as well.  If we prove ourselves too childish to put our own house in order … more advanced intergalactic beings will do it for us.



       Eventually Mr. Carpenter is gunned down, “Gort” activates himself and freezes all electrical power on earth (creating the titular “Day the Earth Stood Still”) and this action scares the bejeesus out of us - enough for us to back down a little with our threats.  Mr. Carpenter rises from the dead, gives our world one final ultimatum and leaves.  What happens next is up to us.  In INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (based on a novel by Jack Finney which was originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post) the “alien onslaught” of the 1950s comes not by a battalion of INDEPENDENCE DAY-like battle cruisers but via the introduction into our atmosphere of pollen-like lifeforms which metamorphosize into large pods.  These pods then take over our minds and bodies as we sleep.  After dealing with a rash of patients claiming their mates are “imposters”, local doctor Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) discovers the truth of what’s happening, but no one will take him seriously … until it’s too late.  Well made films the both of them.  Especially BODY SNATCHERS.  While DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL was well produced by 20th Century Fox head Darryl Zanuck, Allied Artists had more of a challenge with BODY SNATCHERS.  Formally the “B” movie factory Monogram Pictures (who‘s specialty it was cranking out second-tier films for the bottom half of drive-in double bills - anyone say, ZOMBA: THE JUNGLE BOY?), the small studio was forced to upgrade to making “A” list films when the arrival of television forced the demise of the “second feature”.  Former assistant Walter Mirisch was now the head of the newly christened Allied Artists Co. (he’d eventually become the independent producer responsible for THE GREAT ESCAPE, MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, THE PINK PANTHER, SOME LIKE IT HOT and WEST SIDE STORY) and he had to produce a big budget looking film with small budget means.  Along with producer Walter Wanger he succeeded and BODY SNATCHERS became one of the biggest hits of the year. 

   
     The controversy over BODY SNATCHERS’ supposed subtext began almost immediately.  While still powerful, the underlying message of Fox’s DAY THE EARTH wasn’t as lightning-rod dangerous.  It’s general message of world peace was something most agreed was good to hear.  And from the get-go producer Julian Blaustein, screenwriter Edmund North and studio head Zanuck fully intended it to be loud and clear.  Which isn’t to say the film wasn’t a daring high-wire act of it’s own.  In an extremely bold move they even intended the film’s blatant Christ-story allegories.  Michael Rennie’s intergalactic visitor from above “Mr. Carpenter” (his name a nod to the profession of Jesus) comes to Earth with a message of peace.  He’s then executed and resurrected, gives a stirring message of hope then returns to the heavens.  This was during the heyday of the Legion of Decency - a film review office offshoot of the U.S. Catholic church, who’s boycotts and “C” (“Condemned”) rating of a film could greatly cripple it’s distribution and profitability.  Established in 1933, studios took a “C” rating seriously, very often instituting Legion approved cuts and censuring.  Somehow DAY THE EARTH managed to avoid the Legion’s scepter.  BODY SNATCHERS however managed to pop up on EVERYone’s radar … on both the left and right political sides of the spectrum.  According to most records however BODY SNATCHERS politically volatile message (the dangers of the loss of self to mass conformity either to the extreme political right or left) is wholly Unintended.  In his autobiography I THOUGHT WE WERE MAKING MOVIES, NOT HISTORY, producer Mirisch says he remembered
“… reading a magazine article arguing that the picture was intended as an allegory about the communist infiltration of America.  From personal knowledge, neither Walter Wanger nor Don Siegel, who directed it, nor Dan Mainwaring, who wrote the script nor the original author Jack Finney, nor myself saw it as anything other than a thriller, pure and simple."

pg. 1,2,3

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